Friday, September 23, 2011

Do Dogs Display Guilt? Does the Smell of Lavender Relax Them? Curious Findings from a Recent Ethology Conference

Ethology was once the attempt to study an animal's behavior free of human coordinates. At Berkeley, and then at Tower Island in the Galapagos, I tested the ability of intertidal crabs to navigate by the sun and the moon. It was considered important at the time to eliminate human measures and even human terms from a study of an animal's behavior. "Begin with the fact that the animal has survived. It is here. It is successful. Saying it was intelligent is meaningless. All animals are intelligent enough if they are here." Such were the words, or how I remember them, of my senior thesis adviser, a visiting postdoctoral fellow from Oxford who was a student of Niko Tinbergen and is now one of the preeminent evolutionary biologists in the world.

In those days the great lights of ethology were Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen, and Karl von Frisch, all of whom focused primarily on the behavior of wild animals (though Lorenz, in Man Meets Dog, had considered the behavior of domestic canines). These three shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1973.

The study of domesticated animals was not held in high esteem by many biologists then. It was difficult enough to remove human measures from the study of an animal in the wild, but even more difficult when an animal had accepted a relationship with humans, had in a sense accepted human measures into its very being. Yet domestic animals have also survived. In fact they are generally more successful than their wild cousins. Cattle are abundant, but bison are preserved in only a few spaces and most herds have interbred to one degree or another with domestic cattle. Dogs live in the tens of millions, while wolves only exist in many areas because of human protection, or even because humans have reintroduced them into an environment.

"What can you learn from studying an animal in a cage?" I remember an ichthyologist with an ethological bent asking rhetorically. (This from a scientist who did not hesitate to include observations on fish in tanks in his papers.) This reluctance to study domestic animal behavior did not continue as a ban, but rather spawned a new branch of ethology, applied ethology or applied animal behavior. The complexity of removing human coordinates from the study of an animal adapted to some of those coordinates may remain a philosophical issue, but a recent conference convinces me that some things can indeed be learned from studying animals in cages.

The Proceedings of the 45th Congress of the International Society for Applied Ethology (ISAE) have been posted on the website of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The conference took place this year in Indianapolis from July 31 to August 4. The title of the gathering was Scientific Evaluation of Behavior, Welfare and Enrichment, and a number of the abstracts reproduced in the publication concern dogs. Among issues considered by scientists were whether female dogs prefer to pee on Astroturf as opposed to concrete; whether owners can really tell if their dogs display guilt when greeting them because the dogs know they have done something wrong in the owners’ absence; behavioral differences in shelters between dogs relinquished for the first time and those transferred from other shelters; physiological effects of owner visits to dogs in intensive care units; euthanasia practices in Canada; whether programs where senior citizens walk shelter dogs reduce euthanasia rates of participating dogs; and differences in forepaw preferences in foxes by sex (which turn out to be the opposite of what is found in dogs). Some of the abstracts are described briefly below, but the full research papers will be appearing in scientific journals throughout the year.

To wee or not to wee: hospitalized female canines (Canis familiaris) preferred Astroturf to concrete in a two-way simultaneous presentation choice test. Sally Teer and Louise Buckley. “It is concluded that Astroturf shows promise as an alternative substrate for urination. However, this preference needs additional investigation before fake grass is recommended as an environmental modification.”

Do you think I ate it? Behavioral assessment and owner perceptions of ‘guilty’ behavior in dogs. Julie Hecht and Marta Gacsi. “The experiment used pet dogs … and established the social rule that food on a table was for humans. Dogs had the opportunity to eat after the humans left the room. Owners returned, were unable to see the table and therefore observed dog greeting behavior to decide if the dog ate. Behavior analysis revealed no difference in display of ABs [associated behaviors] during greeting between obedient and disobedient dogs….” The report said that some owners knew their dogs well enough to guess whether they had eaten the food, but owners who only looked at the dog’s behavior on greeting were no better than chance in determining whether the dog had eaten the food on the table.

Assessing quality of life in kenneled dogs. Jenna Kiddie, Daniel Mills, William Hayes, Rachel Neville, David Morton, Dirk Pfeiffer, and Lisa Collins. “Dogs that were transferred from another kennel were easier to handle; those relinquished for the first time avoided handling…. Transferred dogs tended to eat all of their food; dogs relinquished for the first time varied in the amount they ate…. There was a trend for first time relinquished dogs to spend longer walking than transferred or returned dogs. There was a trend for transferred dogs to have higher oxidative stress than first time relinquished dogs…..”

The development of a behavior assessment to identify ‘amicable’ dogs. Tammie King, Linda Marston, and Pauleen Bennett. “The Monash Canine Amicability Assessment (MCAA) was developed using a modified version of the Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Test, during which the dog is explosed to an unfamiliar environment and person in the presence and then absence of the dog’s owner. The protocol was applied to 200 pet dogs…. High amicability ratings … were associated with the dog spending less time near the owner’s chair in the presence of the stranger..., more time near the stranger… and more time in contact with the stranger when the owner was absent…. Stranger Fear was associated with less contact … and less tail wagging … with the stranger when interaction with the dog was attempted, as well as low body posture … throughout the assessment.”

Owner visitation: clinical effects on dogs hospitalized in an intensive care unit. Rebecca A. Johnson, F. Anthony Mann, Charlotte A. McKenney, and Sandra McCune. “The owners were allowed to visit as long as they wished with their dog. The observed visits lasted from 10-99 minutes…. The dogs’ HR [heart rate] increased from baseline (Mean = 100 beats per minute) to 5 minutes after the visit began (Mean = 110…), and increased again at 5 minutes before the owner left….” It seems the dogs knew when their owners were getting ready to leave (my observation). “Dogs’ pain scores decreased from baseline to 5 minutes into the visit….”

Euthanasia practice in Canadian animal shelters. Niamh Caffrey, Aboubakar Mounchili, Sandra Mcconkey, and Michael Cockram. Nineteen percent of dogs and 40% of cats that entered a shelter were euthanized…. Sodium pentobarbital injection (a controlled drug) was the only method of euthanasia used by 61 and 53% of establishments euthanizing dogs and cats, respectively. Pre-medication was used by 58% and 48% of establishments that used sodium pentobarbital to euthanize dogs and cats, respectively.”

Shelter dog behavior improvement: dog walking as enrichment. Charlotte a. McKenney, Rebecca A. Johnson, and Sandra A. McCune. “We hypothesized that shelter dogs participating in a daily dog walking program involving elderly citizens, would have better behavior, higher adoption rates, and decreased euthanasia rates than dogs in a control group not in the walking program.” The results confirmed this hypothesis.

Relaxing effect of four types of aromatic odors in dogs. Yukari Kuwahara, Takayuki Horii, Katsuji Uetake, Yutaka Iida, and Toshio Tanaka. “This study explored the effect of four types of aromatic odors (chamomile, peppermint, rosemary and lavender) on behavior and physiology of 12 na├»ve dogs caged in two experiment institutions…. These results indicate that four types of aromatic odors used in this study have some positive effects, and particularly rosemary and lavender appear beneficial in their relaxing effect on dogs.”

Behavioral assessment in dogs during animal-assisted interventions (MTI). Lisa Maria Glenk, Birgit Ursula Stetina, Berthold Kepplinger, and Halina Baran. “Seven healthy dogs of different sex, age and breed were video-taped during 10-12 consecutive sessions that were carried out weekly in different institutions (inpatient drug withdrawal, prison, school).” The results were not summarized but apparently presented at the conference.

Behavioral and physiological evaluation of welfare in shelter dogs in two different forms of confinement. Paolo Dalla Villa, Shanis Barnard, Elisa Di Fede, Michele Podaliri, Carlo Siracusa, and James A. Serpell. “In Italy, the National Law (281/1991) forbids the euthanasia of shelter dogs if not dangerous or seriously suffering; this leads inevitably to overcrowded facilities where welfare becomes a major issue.” The study compared keeping 5 to 8 dogs in outdoor enclosures against keeping dogs in pairs in smaller enclosures, but results were not included in the abstract.

Difference in pawedness between male and female blue foxes (Vulpes lagopus). Jaakko Mononen, Sanna Tikka, and Hannu T. Korhonen. “Several studies have shown bias to the right in the female and to the left in the male dogs’ (Canis familiaris) forepaw use, but in V. lagopus, ie. another canid species, the situation seems to be rather the opposite. This finding suggests a need for wariness in making any generalizations on the effects of sex on behavioral laterality.”

Do these studies attempt to look at animals free of human coordinates? The Astroturf study is really about dogs in confinement, as is the study about dogs relinquished to shelters and that about visiting dogs in intensive care, as well as the research on seniors walking dogs. The Canadian euthanasia statistics are not behavioral at all. The research finding that owners cannot really see guilt in dogs is more a study of human perceptions than of canine behavior. The use of aroma therapy on dogs involves studying their reactions to stimuli more artificial than dogs often encounter. Only the study of forepaw preferences would have been acceptable as ethology at one time, in my opinion.

On the other hand, perhaps empathy is needed here. The horrors of pounds are made more vivid by the study of the physiological reactions of dogs on being relinquished into a system that will end in death for many of them. It is as if our guilt about mass euthanasia is breaking through the unconscious in applied ethology. I realize that the emphasis on "welfare and enrichment" in this particular conference might have created a bias in the presentations selected, but it seems to me that the field, when it comes to dogs, has almost become an extended study of human guilt.

Scientists may not be able to resolve the existence of god, but they know that sodium pentobarbital is used in more places than Canada.

Thanks to Barfbagger, English Wikipedia, and Wikimedia Commons for the picture of Grapsus grapsus, an intertidal crab found in the Galapagos and along the central Pacific coast of the Americas.

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