(Field) Dogs on the Beach

Mike and I and our dogs just returned from a week in Florida at a beach community that prides itself on its dog-friendliness. We met our friends Bob and Karen from Virginia, who brought their two Labs, Gus and Sally.

It was an amazing week. We spent hours with the dogs walking the beach, watching shorebirds and dolphins, hiking local trails, and visiting a nearby island preserve that is home to a pair of endangered Red Wolves (no sighting of those, but Bob and Mike did see a Bobcat while out cycling one afternoon).  A perfect winter get-away for all of us.

linda-mike-karen-dogs-on-beach

WALKING THE BEACH WITH TWO GOLDENS, TWO LABS, A TOLLER AND A BRITTANY.

The Dogs: Our four dogs included Chippy (Toller), Vincent (Brittany), and Alice and Cooper (Golden Retrievers). Ally and Cooper are field-bred, from Jackie Mertens of Topbrass Retrievers. We have a 30-year history with Jackie’s dogs and love their athleticism, spirit, and boundless exuberance. They fit with our lifestyle and are a joy to live with and to train. Karen’s two Labs are also from field lines. Sally comes from Cresthill Kennels and Gus from Southland Kennels. Like us, Karen and Bob are active folks who spend a lot of time outdoors with their dogs. They have the added good fortune of living near the water and so they enjoy swimming, retrieving and boating regularly with their dogs.

Field-bred? As many readers know, the Golden Retriever and Labrador Retriever are closely related breeds that were originally created to aid hunters by retrieving game – most commonly water fowl. As a result, they are highly active dogs that love to swim and to retrieve. As the general story goes, both breeds experienced an increase in popularity as family pets during the 1970’s. Because the attributes of a family companion are not always in line with the behaviors one seeks in a hunting dog, the breeds began to experience a divergence in selection criteria, with some dogs bred for their hunting ability and others for conformation and a more easy-going temperament. Over several generations, this resulted in two distinct  types within each breed. Although there is certainly overlap and some purposeful outcrossing between the two types, the term field-bred refers to dogs born within pedigree lines that are selected specifically for hunting ability, while conformation/pet refers to those selected for conformation and suitability as family companions.

Do field-bred dogs behave similarly across breeds? Karen and I had many great dog training conversations during our time together. One topic that interested us was the similarities and differences that we observed between field-bred Labs (her dogs) and field-bred Goldens (my dogs). Similarities included a love of retrieving and apparently inexhaustible energy level. All four dogs are intensely focused on retrieving and will chase toys and bumpers until the sun goes down (and comes back up again). Similarly, all are highly active (an understatement). Alice is known for “orbiting” – circling around us  in wide arcs, veering off on each loop to splash through the surf.  A typical 5-mile hike for us meant at least 10 miles for Ally. Similarly, Gus only slowed down when he fell asleep in his crate at the end of the day and Sally clearly has no understanding of the statement “this is your final retrieve“.

What about differences? A major difference that we observed, and something that will not surprise Lab folks, is that Karen’s dogs were more physically robust than my Goldens. While my guys love to chase and wrestle as they play, the Lab version of this involves a lot more body-slamming and chest-bumping (a play style that Alice made abundantly clear to Gus that she had no interest in participating in).

These were just a few observations from our dog days on the beach.  And of course, they may simply reflect similarities and differences of our four individual dogs. This was an “n of 2” for each breed, after all. Hardly a representative sample.

beach-with-karen-bob-and-dogs

FINAL MORNING ON THE BEACH

So……upon returning home, my immediate Science Dog query was naturally:

Is there any research that compares the behavior of Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers?”

Well yes Virginia, as a matter of fact, there is.

In 2016, a team of behavioral geneticists led by Dr. Pers Jensen at Linköping University in Sweden compared Dog Mentality Assessment (DMA) test scores of Labrador and Golden Retrievers (1). The DMA is a standardized and validated behavior profile that is administered by the Swedish Working Dog Club. The researchers’ objectives were to examine behavioral differences between field and conformation/pet lines of Golden retrievers and Labrador Retrievers. They hypothesized that because selection criteria were the same, that the behaviors of field-bred dogs in each breed would be similar. They collected DMA scores and pedigrees for 902 Golden Retrievers (204 field dogs and 698 conformation/pet dogs) and for 1672 Labrador Retrievers (1023 and 649). A statistical test called Principal Component Analysis (PCA) was used to identify a set of six primary behavior categories: curiosity, play interest, chase proneness, social curiosity, social greeting and threat display. Results were compared between both breeds and breed types, and pedigrees were used to compute heritability estimates for the behavior categories.

Results: Although the hypothesis was that similar selection criteria (hunting ability) would result in similar behavior patterns in Labrador and Golden Retrievers (two closely related breeds), the researchers actually found several significant differences between field-bred Goldens and Labs:

  1. Labradors vs. Goldens: When compared overall (combining types), Labrador Retrievers scored higher in curiosity, play interest and threat display compared with Golden Retrievers. Golden Retrievers, on the other hand, scored higher in chase behavior, social curiosity and social greeting.
  2. Field-bred vs. Conformation/pet: Within-breed comparisons showed that field-bred dogs scored higher in playfulness than their non-field cohorts in both Goldens and Labs. Other than this similarity however, there were several breed-specific differences (statistically speaking, this is called an interaction effect of breed and type).
    • Field-bred Labrador Retrievers were less socially curious and less interested in social greeting than their conformation and pet-bred counterparts. These results are in agreement with a 2014 study of hunting Labs (2).
    • In contrast, field-bred Golden Retrievers were more curious and more likely to show social greeting behavior than their conformation/pet cohorts. Field-bred Goldens also had a stronger chase (retrieve) response than conformation/pet Goldens.
  3. Heritability estimates: Analysis reflected substantial (moderate to high) genetic influence on the behavioral traits that were measured, in both breeds. However, results suggest that the genetic influences (called genetic architecture) underlying hunting ability in Labs vs. Goldens may be different.

Despite similar genetic origins and intense selection for the same type of work (retrieving birds), field-bred Labradors and Goldens demonstrate distinct behavioral differences. Most notably, field Goldens seem to be more highly social and more socially curious than other types of Goldens, while field-bred Labradors do not demonstrate this enhanced sociability. Equally striking is the evidence that the set of genes in Goldens and Labs that influence hunting ability are not identical and suggested different selective pressures and underlying genetic influences in the two breeds.

Take Away for Dog Folks

These results provide some helpful information to trainers, veterinarians and other pet professionals who regularly advise their clients regarding breed selection. First (and I know this is a no-brainer for those of you who live with these breeds)……a Golden is not a Labrador (and vice versa)…….  Second, a field Golden/Lab is not a conformation Golden/Lab (also obvious)…… And finally, a field-bred Golden is also not a field-bred Lab (less obvious). Even though field-bred Golden retrievers and Labrador Retrievers have been intensely selected for the exact same job over many generations, they still turn out, well, different (ain’t nature something?).

Practically speaking, a field-bred Labrador Retriever should be expected to be highly focused (i.e. less socially curious) and intensely playful (remember – they are the rough-and-tumble guys), and may have a higher propensity to threat responses than a Golden Retriever. And, if you go for the field-bred Golden type, expect a social butterfly who zips around at 100-miles-an-hour (Ally would be happy to demonstrate).

ally-jumping-in

ALLY DOES EVERYTHING FAST. INCLUDING CANNON-BALLING HER BROTHERS.

Most importantly, if you are considering one of these breeds (or types), find and trust a breeder with experience who knows his/her lines. The current research suggests that the behavior traits that were measured in the Goldens and Labs were moderately to highly heritable. A reputable breeder who knows her pedigrees is also going to understand how the temperaments and behavior of her dogs carry from one generation to the next and will advise her puppy buyers accordingly. For me personally, I am thankful for having met Jackie and her co-breeder, Paige, who know their Topbrass Goldens inside and out and who over the years have allowed us to have so many amazing dogs share their lives with us.

Happy Training!

Cited Studies:

  1. Sundman AS, Johnsson M, Wright D, Jensen P. Similar recent selection criteria associated with different behavioural effects in two dog breeds. Genes, Brain and Behavior 2016; 15:750-756.
  2. Lofgren SE, Wiener P, Blott SC, Sanchez-Molano E, et al. Management and personality in Labrador Retriever dogs. Applied Animal Behavior Science 2014; 156:44-53.

 

 

Excitable You

There is a common cognitive bias, the Fundamental Attribution Error,  that is central to the way in which we view others and make judgements about their behavior. It is supported by a large body of research and is one of the most common errors that our brains make on a regular basis. The Fundamental Attribution Error refers to our tendency to explain the behavior of other people in terms of their internal disposition, such as personality traits, innate abilities, and motives, rather than to the external (situational) factors that may actually be exerting a much stronger influence on them. This lapse in judgement occurs (especially in Western cultures) because we tend to assign high value to what we assume to be an individual’s character and personality traits, while at the same time we underestimate the influence that situational factors and context can have.

Fundamental-Attribution-Error

THE FUNDAMENTAL ATTRIBUTION ERROR

We all are susceptible to committing this error and it is usually only through conscious control that we can keep it in check. A common example occurs when we are driving and someone cuts us off in traffic. We immediately label the offending driver as “a jerk” (or worse) rather than consider that he might be driving to the hospital (or with his dog to the veterinarian) on an emergency and would not normally behave so rudely towards other drivers. This is not to say that unpleasant people do not exist, but rather, that humans have a natural tendency to jump to depositional (personality) explanations for another’s behavior and are less inclined to consider situational explanations.

FAE Homer

The Fundamental Attribution Error came to mind recently when I was reading a paper that examined dog owners’ reports about their dogs’ behavior, specifically about excitable behavior. The study was conducted at the Animal Rescue League of Boston and the Center for Shelter Dogs and was published in the journal, Animals (1).

The Study: The authors note in the introduction that the term “excitable behavior” in dogs is both poorly defined and under-studied. They then provide a diverse list of undesirable behaviors that have been reported to  fall under the umbrella of excitable dog behavior. These include jumping up, mounting, destructiveness, mouthing, grabbing clothing, digging, some forms of barking, rough play, pulling on lead, and (my particular favorite) “dogs who respond poorly to commands and are difficult to control”.  Study objective: The purpose of the study was to use an on-line survey to collect information regarding owners’ experiences with their dog’s excitable behavior and to report the behaviors that are prevalent in excitable dogs. Methods: The study group was self-selecting. Participants checked a box in the survey that asked if their dog was “highly excitable or highly energetic”. Only those owners who answered “yes” were included in the study; owners who answered “no” were excluded. The remainder of the questionnaire included questions about the dog’s demographics and problematic behaviors, and the degree of frustration that the owner had with those behaviors. Results: The study group included 175 owners, the majority of whom said that they were very frustrated with their dog’s behavior and found it difficult to manage. Most of the dogs were spayed/neutered and were young adults (average age; ~ 3 years). Almost half of the dogs (44 %) were identified as either purebred Labrador Retrievers or Lab mixes. The two most frequently reported problematic behaviors were jumping up and mouthing (without discomfort to the person). Other commonly reported undesirable behaviors included general disobedience, unwanted barking, pulling on the leash, destructive behavior and “not listening to commands”. The scenarios in which excitable behaviors were most likely to occur included when the owner arrived home after an absence and when the owner was playing with the dog. Some owners also reported excessive excitement when the dog was meeting new people. Conclusions: The authors concluded that “The majority of owners in this self-selected sample were very frustrated with their excitable dog”, that “Many of the dogs in the sample had other behavior problems”, and that their results could be used to “…..provide better education to owners of excitable dogs(Emphasis mine).

Hmmm……..Yes, in case you were wondering, I do have an opinion about this.

soapbox

I THINK I’M GONNA NEED A BIGGER BOX

There are several problems with this study, in terms of both its methodology and the conclusions that were made. Let’s start with that pesky thing called the Scientific Method, which requires the use of both a representative sample and sufficient controls to prevent bias and capricious conclusions.

Sampling bias: In the authors’ words “The focus of this study is on owners’ experience with their excitable dogs.” Therefore, it must have seemed logical to them (i.e. it felt like a good idea at the time) to simply ask owners to tell them if their dog was one of those (poorly defined) excitable dogs. By this logic, an excitable dog is a dog who is excitable (according to their owner). Circular reasoning does not a representative sample make. And here’s a big surprise; the owners who identified their dog as “highly or extremely excitable” were also very frustrated with their dog’s behavior. Wow. Who knew?

Control Group

Absence of controls: At the start of the survey, owners were asked if they would describe their dog as “highly excitable or highly energetic”. Only those who answered in the affirmative were included in the study. Owners who answered “no” were not allowed to complete the survey (i.e. a possible control group of dogs was purposefully excluded). The authors went on to report that excitable dogs are likely to show problematic behaviors of jumping up and mouthing, along with a myriad of other associated problem behaviors. However, without a control group to compared the frequencies of these behaviors to, what do we actually learn from these data?

Absolutely nothing

ABSOLUTELY NOTHIN’

Here’s why: Let’s say that a control group was used (i.e. correct scientific methods were followed). So, hypothetically, let say that the control group included a similar number of age-, sex- and breed-matched dogs who were representative of the general population of dogs. Their owners completed the same survey and answered the same questions. The reported frequencies of problematic behaviors in the experimental group (dogs identified as excitable) were then compared with the frequencies of the same behaviors in the control group. Here are some possible outcomes of this hypothetical study:

  • Jumping up: In the actual study, 60 percent of owners of excitable dogs said that their dog jumped up to greet when they returned home after an absence. If (hypothetically) a similar proportion of owners in the control group, let’s say 62 % for reason of argument, stated that their dog jumped on them when they returned home, then the proportion of jumping up in excitable dogs did not differ from the proportion of that problem in the general population of dogs. And, if jumping up was not over-represented in the excitable dog group, then jumping up is NOT a problem associated with excitable dogs. (Rather, it is just something that dogs do).
  • Pulling on leash, destructive behaviors, not listening to commands: You see where this is going. The plethora of unwanted dog behaviors that the study participants vented about in their surveys cannot viewed as indicative of an excitable dog because the frequencies of these behaviors were never compared to their frequencies in other dogs. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that the owners placed their dogs into the self-described category of excitable dog in the first place. Lots of dogs pull on lead, bark and do not listen. All that we learned here is that owners like to complain about these behaviors and welcome the opportunity to label their dog as “excitable”.

no control group

Wait, there’s more.

The Fundamental Attribution Error: The authors state: “In general, disobedient, destructive, chasing and barking behavior problems were the most commonly reported behaviors by owners of excitable dogs“.  Excluding the occasional dog who cheats on his income taxes or robs the town bank, I think that this list of unwanted behaviors pretty much covers everything that owners complain about in young, untrained dogs. (What are the “non-excitable dogs’ doing to annoy their owners, one might ask)? While this sounds facetious, I actually am serious. If the purpose of this study was to allow a group of self-identifying owners of excitable dogs to air their (numerous) complaints about their dogs and to give their perceptions a voice, then by definition, the authors are assuming that excitable dogs differ in some fundamental way from other dogs. I would argue that they have no evidence of such a thing and moreover that classifying certain dogs as excitable is ill-founded and not in the best interest of any dogs, regardless of the researchers’ noble intentions.

Encouraging dog owners (and dog professionals) to commit a fundamental attribution error by labeling dogs as inherently “excitable” provides tacit permission to blame the dog’s personality or intrinsic nature for undesirable behaviors, rather than looking carefully at situational factors that may be influencing the dog. The outcome of such perceptual differences could be devastating:

FUNDAMENTAL ATTRIBUTION EXPLANATIONS (THE EXCITABLE DOG):

  • My dog must have been born this way. (Solution: none)
  • He was abused/abandoned/neglected by his previous owner and it made him hyperactive. (Solution: none)
  • He’s a Lab, Lab-mix, Pittie (*Insert any breed stereotype here) (Solution: none)
  • She’s a hyper-active dog. (Solution: none)
  • He’s an excitable dog. (Solution: none)
  • She’s a bad dog. (Solution: Get rid of the dog).

This mindset leads an owner to the conclusion that their dog’s behavior is immutable and that their own degree of responsibility is minimal or nonexistent. Alternatively, where do situational explanations lead us?

SITUATIONAL EXPLANATIONS (UNWANTED EXCITED BEHAVIORS):

  • He is rarely exposed to new people, places, and dogs. (Solution: I need to socialize him and take him with me more often).
  • She does not receive regular exercise. (Solution: I need to incorporate several types of daily exercise into our routines).
  • He has not had consistent training (Solution: I will enroll him in a training class).
  • She is crated and left alone for many hours of the day. (Solution: I will hire a dog-walker or use a reputable doggy day care).
  • I may have unrealistic expectations for my young dog’s behavior. (Solution: I will ratchet down my expectations so that they are more in line with what is reasonable to expect of a young, happy and exuberant dog. I will love my dog).

Let’s avoid making the fundamental attribution error with our dogs. Because we have complete control over what happens to them, the outcome can be much worse than simply calling someone a jerk.

Nuff said. Off box.

Cited Study: Shabelansky A, Dowling-Guyer S. Characteristics of excitable dog behavior based on owners’ report from a self-selected study. Animals 2016; 6, 22; doi10.3390/ani6030022.

Excerpted from: “Only Have Eyes for Your: Exploring Canine Research with the Science Dog” (2016).

coversnip

 

 

 

The Perfect Dog

Well, not perfect actually, the word that is being thrown around is ideal. In three separate studies, people in the UK, Australia and Italy were polled and asked to describe what they believe to be their ideal dog; the dog with whom they would like to share their love and their life. Kinda like being asked about the ideal man, I guess.

Ideal man 2

The first survey, conducted in the UK, was not scientific, but rather an informal poll conducted by a popular Sunday paper. The Express asked 2000 dog owners about what they considered to be the most desirable physical characteristics in a dog. After collecting the surveys, the editors combined the most popular answers to create this:

Ideal Dog UK

GREAT BRITAIN’S “IDEAL” DOG

Pretty adorable, even if he is mythical. The ideal British dog, a chimera of breed types, is purportedly of medium size with the coat of an English bulldog, the ears of a King Charles spaniel and the happy, wagging tail of an Irish Setter.  Other attributes were borrowed from Border Collies, Labrador Retrievers, and Beagles. They even specified the type of bark that the perfect pooch should have – must be “mid-range, not high-pitched”. (I guess that rules out Tollers).

Admittedly, this boy is pretty cute.  However, the newspaper survey did not ask about behavior or temperament, which are really the most important features to think about in one’s ideal canine companion. Lucky for us, researchers in Australia and Italy asked exactly these questions (1,2).

What Australians Like: A group of almost 900 Australian citizens were surveyed regarding both the physical and the behavioral characteristics of their perceived ideal dog, using an on-line survey tool. The majority of respondents were current dog owners (72.3 %) and female (79.8 %). The researchers used a statistical technique called principal component analysis (PCA) to identify consistent clusters of responses among available answers. Results: The ideal dog for Australians, as measured by this survey, is medium-sized, short-haired, and “de-sexed” (i.e. neutered/spayed).  Behaviorally, he is house-trained, friendly, good with children, obedient and healthy. Also of importance were reliably responding to “come” (and its corollary, not running away), and showing affection to one’s owner. Oh yeah, and a majority of the respondents said that their perfect dog was not a poop eater.

We Eat Poop

YOU TWO ARE SURE CUTE…..BUT SORRY,  NOT IDEAL

Italians are Going For:  Recently, one of the researchers in the Australian study (PC Bennett) collaborated with scientists in Italy and administered the same survey to a group of 770 Italian citizens. Results: Participant demographics were similar to those of the Australian study and behavior traits of the perceived ideal dog were almost identical. The Italian perfect pooch is house-trained, safe with children, friendly, obedient, healthy, and long-lived. There were a few differences between men and women in the two studies, however.

The Gender Gaps: Australian women valued dogs who are calm, obedient, sociable and non-aggressive, while men in that culture went for dogs who are more energetic, protective and faithful. Italian men were significantly more likely than women to prefer an intact (non-neutered) dog, and Italian women were willing to spend more time with their dog than were men.

Conclusions: The researchers placed emphasis on the fact that most dogs who live as companions today are of breeds or breed-types that were originally developed for a specific purpose and work, such as herding, hunting or protecting. However, very few dogs continue to be used for those functions which may contribute to a disconnect between what people perceive the ideal dog to be and  the reality of how dogs behave and respond to modern-day lifestyles. The results of both studies reported that participants valued a dog’s behavior and health more than they do physical appearance. However, the specific behaviors that were strongly valued suggested unrealistic expectations regarding a dog’s needs, behavior and training.

Unrealistic Expectations

OR AS A DOG OWNER?

The study’s authors make two recommendations regarding how this information should be used:

  1. Education: The study results show that the general public continues to require education regarding normal and expected behavior of dogs, along with dogs’ needs for training. This education can help to reduce the obvious gap that exists between what is perceived to be an ideal dog and real dogs living as companions.
  2. Selective breeding: Because dogs live primarily as companions in homes today, the authors state that breeders should be focusing their efforts on producing dogs that meet owner expectations regarding behavior as opposed to breeding for physical appearance.

My opinion on this research and on the authors’ recommendations? Yeah, I got one. Big surprise, I know.

soapbox

UP ON THE OL’ BOX

The fact that people identified their ideal dog to be one who is house-trained, friendly, obedient and good with kids should hardly come as a surprise. The last time I checked, there are not many people who are seeking a house-soiling, anti-social, disobedient baby killer as their next canine companion. I think we can all agree that most people (probably not just Australians and Italians) value, at least to some degree, the traits that these studies reported.

Where things get a little weird (for me) is in the disconnect between what people identified as their ideal dog and the degree to which (if at all) they perceived their own responsibility in trying to achieve that ideal. For example, in both studies, the majority of respondents stated that their ideal dog was acquired as a puppy. Okey Dokey then…….do the math. How exactly does house-trained, coming called, not running away, good with children, friendly and healthy come about if not through consistent training, exercise, socialization, veterinary visits and care, on the part of the owner? There was more evidence that the participants were not thinking this all the way through:

  • In the Australian study, although the majority of  participants stated that the ideal dog was “obedient”, when asked about the trainability of the ideal dog only 3.6 % (or virtually no one) stated that this was important and approximately one-third believed that “some dogs cannot be trained“. So, I guess the obedient dog who comes when called, does not run away, and oh yeah, abstains from poop-eating just popped out of the womb like that.
  • While the Italian respondents did not share the Australians’ views regarding trainability, they made up for it when asked about exercise and grooming needs.  Owners who self-reported spending little time exercising and grooming their actual dog reported much higher frequencies of these activities with their ideal dog. (Perhaps he is more active and has a denser coat?). About 1 in 10 Italians stated that they never walk their dog at all and slightly less reported that they never groomed their (actual) dog.

Who’s responsible? These discrepancies between ideal and actual dogs prompted the researchers to make their two recommendations, listed above.  I wholeheartedly agree with Number 1. Number 2? Not so much. In fact, I would argue that the two recommendations are at odds with each other. Here is what I mean:

  • Change expectations: If one agrees that the studies’ results reflect unrealistic expectations by owners about dogs and that these need to be corrected via education (and perhaps the occasional slap upside the head), it is illogical to follow this by suggesting that breeders attempt to create dogs who meet these unrealistic expectations.
  • Change breeding focus: Certainly breeders should be selecting for stable and appropriate temperaments within the standard of their breed. And, I think most would agree that certain breeds (or breed-types) are better suited for families with children or elderly couples or an urban-dwelling professional than others. However, this recommendation appears to suggest that breeders stop selecting for behavior traits that tilt away from the (mythical) ideal dog. For example, should Border Collie breeders stop selecting for herding instinct so that little Johnny’s heels don’t get nipped at as he races around the living room? Should Golden Retriever breeders stop selecting for active dogs so that their owners have no obligation to take the dog for walks? Must Beagle breeders stop breeding sniff-focused dogs because we all know that excessive sniffiness promotes wandering off? And, perhaps breeders of long–haired dogs with double coats should cut that nonsense out right now and begin selecting for bald dogs who require no grooming (because picking up that brush a few times a week is just too much work for the busy dog owner).

Sarcasm aside, I would argue that not only are “unrealistic expectations” a problem here, but the term “ideal” itself also needs to go. Just as the ideal man does not exist (yes, sad I know, but true), neither does the ideal dog. Border Collies herd, Golden Retrievers chase things and bring them back, hairy dogs shed (and need to be brushed), some dogs are aloof with strangers, some dogs don’t like kids all that much, some bark a lot, and yes, Virginia, some dogs like to eat poop. Rather than catering to people’s unrealistic beliefs about a mythical dog, let’s instead focus on promoting caring for, respecting, and loving the dogs that we have, non-ideal traits and all.

Chippy Wet and Happy

I’M CHIP, A TOLLER. I BARK (A LOT). MY MOM LOVES ME (A LOT) ANYWAY.

Cited Studies:

  1. King T, Marston LC, Bennett PC. Describing the ideal Australian companion dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2009; 120:84-93.
  2. Diverio S, Boccini B, Menchetti L, Bennett PC. The Italian perception of the “ideal companion dog”. Journal of Veterinary Behavior 2016; (in press).

Excerpted from: “Only Have Eyes for Your: Exploring Canine Research with the Science Dog” (2016).

coversnip

 

 

Go Ask Alice

We have a new puppy in the house. Alice is her name. She’s cute. Really cute.

Alice 3 Day 1

THIS IS ALLY (WHEN SHE WAS JUST SMALL)

Of course, it is possible that I am a bit biased…….(nah…..she really is adorable, even now at 4 months….).

Ally 15 weeks

STILL CUTE

During the first few weeks that Ally was with our family, we could not go walking at our local park without being waylaid by other walkers who would swoop in (often without asking….sigh….) to meet the little puppy, hug the little puppy, and play with the little puppy. These interactions were replete with the high squeaky voice, nonsense words, and scrunched up kissy face that we all know (and sorta don’t love). Ally absorbs all of this attention like the little canine diva she is (though, she says that sometimes she would rather go chasing rabbits).

During these interludes, our three adult boys, Cooper, Chippy and Vinny, quietly offer sit-stays and hope to catch a bit of the fall-out. However, while handsome, friendly, and oh-so-smart, their obvious adult status just does not pull the same emotional heartstrings as Ally’s little puppy face seems to do.

Vinny, Cooper and Chip

HEY, SHARE A BIT OF THAT LOVIN’ HERE PLEASE.

Go ask Alice: So, I asked Alice if she knew why people on the trail swoon over her whilst ignoring her equally wonderful brothers. I thought she would know. She said without hesitation that it is because of her unbearable puppy cuteness (she added that all of the attention does tend to make her feel 10 feet tall).

Puppy narcissism aside, she is quite right. Research tells us so.

We like baby animals: Konrad Lorenz first explained this phenomenon using a concept that he termed “Kindchenschema”. This refers to a set of universal physical attributes of baby mammals that trigger unconscious affiliative (loving) and care-taking responses in adults.  These features include large eyes, a proportionately large and domed skull, shortened limbs and overall “pudgy features”. Following Lorenz, the theory that adult humans are naturally drawn to baby mammals has been studied in multiple variants, including with our favorite animal companion, the dog. For example, there is evidence that the infantilism that we see in toy breeds and in dogs with a brachycephalic (smushed nose) facial structure naturally mimic the appearance of puppies and so are highly attractive to many people (1,2). Other baby animal features that we see in some dogs such as floppy ears, pudgy bodies (natural or ahem, acquired), and short legs may be at work creating a canine Kindchenschema as well.

However, despite what Alice thinks, we know that our attraction to dogs is not all about puppies. People are also drawn to adult dogs for a variety of reasons. Two recent research studies have identified a few additional canine attributes that seem to attract us.

We pay attention to color and ears: A study published in 2008 reported that, similar to our tendencies with other people, humans readily assign personality traits to dogs based simply on their appearance (3). However, the study did not attempt to identify specific traits that might influence these perceptions. Recently, Jamie Fratkin and Suzanne Baker at James Madison University in Texas attempted to tease out some of these traits (4).  They selected two obvious features that differ among dogs; coat color (yellow vs. black) and ear type (floppy vs. prick). They manipulated the photographs of two dogs to show either a black or yellow coat color on one dog and floppy or prick (pointy) ears in the second dog. Study participants completed a questionnaire that rated each dog in terms of the Big Five personality traits; openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness and emotional stability. Results: Both the color of a dog’s coat and the set of a dog’s ears influenced perceptions of personality. Participants perceived dogs with a yellow coat or floppy ears to be more agreeable and emotionally stable when compared to dogs with a black coat or prick ears, respectively. In addition, a dog with a yellow coat was rated higher in conscientiousness than a dog with a black coat and a dog with prick ears was rated as more extraverted than a dog with floppy ears. (Note: the questions that were used to score conscientiousness reflect dependability and self-discipline, which could be interpreted as signifying a dog who is well-behaved and obedient). At its most basic, this set of results tell us that perceptions of a dog’s personality are influenced by coat color and ear type in the absence of other information. More specifically, there is a tendency to perceive yellow dogs who have floppy ears more favorably than black dogs with pointy ears.

It really is (mostly) about us: Julie Hecht and Alexandra Horowitz at City University and Barnard College in New York expanded upon this theme and examined the potential influence that a wide range of physical features in dogs may have upon human perceptions (5). They altered 15 different physical features in each of a series of photographs of  28 adult, mix-breed dogs. Each altered photo was then paired with its original. The targeted features fell into one of four categories: juvenile traits (increased size or spacing of eyes and size of the head), human-like traits (presence of a smile, colored irises), size/symmetry attributes, and a single feature related to domestication (piebald coloring). The changes that they made were subtle enough that people were generally unaware of the difference between the two photographs. Study participants were presented with 80 paired images and were asked to simply select which dog they “liked the best”. Results: The physical traits that most strongly influenced “liking” preferences were the presence of a smile (open mouth, relaxed and retracted commissures) and having colored eye irises. Both of these features occur in human faces and are associated with positive (friendly) emotions. In other words, we tilt towards features that dogs and humans share and that mean similar things. Several, but not all, infantile traits also enhanced a dog’s attractiveness. These included having large eyes, increased spacing between the eyes, and smaller jowls. Conversely, the study found no influencing effects of any other facial features, nor for a dog’s size, symmetry, or presence of piebald coloring.

not-all-about-me-just-mostly-ecard

MY SMILE AND MY DARK EYES, AT LEAST

Take Away for Dog Folks: Taken together, these studies suggest that dog features that naturally attract us include the infantile (puppy) traits of large eyes, domed skulls and floppy ears, as well as yellow coats (when compared with black, anyway). Oh yeah, and we are also attracted to dogs who look similar to friendly people – they smile a lot and their eyes appear friendly and warm.  Clearly, years before this research was conducted, Disney knew all of this stuff. One needs only to take a look at Lady from the movie “Lady and the Tramp”, with her large, blue eyes, luxurious yellow coat, pert little (pushed in) puppy nose, and that lovely smile……

Lady and Tramp

NO WONDER TRAMP FELL FOR HER

Why is this information important?  Despite often knowing (or at least being informed of) the much greater importance of a dog’s personality and behavior as the criterion for selecting a pet, many people continue to choose a dog based upon physical appearance. (Ask any experienced shelter worker if you doubt this). People like what they like, and will choose accordingly. And, given the ubiquitous use of web sites and internet services to promote dog adoptions, the first thing that most people see of a dog or puppy who they are considering adopting is a photograph. These studies provide evidence that regardless of trying to convince adopters of the importance of meeting a dog in person, these photographs are an important influencer of adopters’ perceptions (correct or not) of canine personality. Thus shelters, rescue groups, and breeders can use this information not only when determining how to best photograph and present a dog on their websites, but also as they educate potential adopters regarding how a dog’s appearance may be subconsciously influencing them.

Black Dog Prick Ears

COME AND MEET ME IN PERSON. I AM A FRIENDLY AND LOVING BOY!

As for Alice, she says that white knights and red queens got nothin’ on her being a yellow dog with floppy ears and dark eyes. Seems she is set for life. Gotta go – Time to feed Ally…….

Ally Cooper Vinny Dinner

REMEMBER WHAT THE DOORMOUSE SAID…….

Cited Studies:

  1. Waller BM, Peirce K, Caeiro C, Scheider L, Burrows AM, McCune S, Kaminski J. Paedomorphic facial expressions give dogs a selective advantage. 2013; PLoS ONE 8(12):e826986.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0092686.
  2. Golle J, Lisibach S, Mast FW, Lobmaier JS. Sweet puppies and cute babies: Perceptual adaptation to babyfacedness transfers across species. PLoS ONE 2013;8(3):e58248. doi:10:1371/journal.pone.0058248.
  3. Kwan VSY, Gosling Sd, John OP. Anthropomorphism as a special case of social perception: A cross-species social relations model analysis of humans and dogs. Social Cognition 2008; 26:129-142.
  4. Fratkin JL, Baker SC. The role of coat color and ear shape on the perception of personality in dogs. Anthrozoos 2013; 26:125-133.
  5. Hecht J, Horowitz A. Seeing dogs: Human preferences for dog physical attributes. Anthrozoos 2015; 28:153-163.

P.S. How many of the references to Alice’s namesake song did you catch? Find out here: Jefferson Airplane; White Rabbit

 

Love me, love my dog……New twist on an old belief

Everyone is familiar with that old saw about dogs looking like their owners……certainly, there are plenty of photos in this genre floating around the internet………

Look like 3  Look Like 2 dogs-and-their-owners06

However, appearances aside, this common belief leads one to ask  – Do dogs often behave similarly to their owners? Or more precisely, do dogs and their owners share personality traits? Recently, a group of collaborating scientists from Eotvos University’s Family Dog Project in Hungary and from the “Clever Dog Lab” in Vienna, Austria asked exactly this question (1).

Acting like dogSHARED PERSONALITIES? 

Background information: Studies of human relationships provide quite a bit of scientific support for a hypothesis entitled the “similarity-attraction hypothesis“. Rather than the “opposites attract” theory that prevails on TV sit-coms and in romance novels, it seems that friends and romantic partners who share personality traits, communication patterns, and yes, even degree of attractiveness have reduced conflict and disagreements and are generally happier in their relationships than are folks who tend to be more dissimilar from each other. Although not completely understood, it is presumed that hanging out with someone who mirrors our own values and self-perceptions  supports our world view and enhances our feelings of security. (Hmmm…..so it really IS “all about me” in relationships, after all……).

Similarity Attraction HypothesisSIMILARITY-ATTRACTION HYPOTHESIS IN ACTION

Which of course begs the question…..Given that many people have strong and enduring relationships with their dogs, does the similarity-attraction hypothesis operate when we choose our canine friends?  

The Study: The researchers studied a group of 389 owner and dog pairs who had lived together for at least 10 months. Pairs were approximately evenly distributed between the Clever Dog Lab (Austria) and the Family Dog Project (Hungary). The researchers presented a set of 4 hypotheses for their study that captured factors such as dogs’ perceived versus actual personality traits, the number and age of dogs living in the home, and cultural differences between owners living in Austria and those living in Hungary. The owners completed a personality questionnaire about themselves that was designed to measure the “Big Five” personality traits of neuroticism, extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, and openness. They also completed a modified Big Five questionnaire to describe their dog’s personality, a measuring tool that had been previously validated in dogs by another group of researchers (2). Last, both the owner’ and their dog’s personalities were assessed independently by a peer and by a family member.

Results: Overall, the researchers found statistically significant correlations between the personalities of owners and the personality traits of their dogs, both when self-reported by the owners and as reported independently by another person. Here are a few specific results that may be of interest to dog folks:

  • Strongest association: While all five personality traits had significant correlations between owner and dog, the strongest association was found for neuroticism (ease of becoming upset, degree of emotional stability). In other words, anxious owners tended to live with anxious dogs (and vice versa). The authors suggest that owners who are by nature more anxious may cause their dogs to become more nervous by behaving inconsistently, by being overly protective, or by failing to socialize their dogs adequately.  Alternatively, the relationship may work in the opposite direction; a dog who is by nature more nervous may cause the owner to be distressed and anxious about the dog’s behavior. (It is important to remember that correlations do not imply causation – these results cannot provide evidence of the direction of these associations or even if there is a causative relationship).

nervous dogsHOW DO NERVOUS OWNERS PREPARE?

  • Projection? The study’s results also showed that, contrary to popular belief (usually of non-dog folks), the similarities between owner and dog personalities were not the result of simple projection of the owner’s self-perception onto his or her dog (for example, “I think of myself as an open and outgoing extrovert; therefore, my dog is also the life of the party!”). Both family member and peer ratings supported the significant correlations that were found between owner and dog personality traits.
  • Differences between single and multiple-dog homes: Perhaps one of the most interesting results of this study had to do with comparisons between single and multiple dog homes and the order in which dogs were acquired. When an owner lived with two or more dogs, the similarity patterns between owners and the dogs  complemented one another. For example, one dog might share a similar extraversion score with his owner, while the second dog’s openness score positively correlated with her owner’s score. The researchers speculated that these differences may reflect specific roles that each dog plays in the home,  different reasons for obtaining the second or third dog, or even acquired differences as the dogs each develop their place in the family structure.

Take Away for Dog Folks: This study suggests that owners may often share one or more personality traits with their dogs, and that such observations reflect actual similarities rather than wishful thinking or the manifestation of  popular folklore.  The study could not tell us however, how these similarities come about. The most obvious explanation is that people consciously or subconsciously select a breed or an individual dog who matches their own personality in one or more ways. (Indeed, there is some evidence in the literature to support this). Alternatively, a dog’s personality may converge with the traits of his owner over time as owner and dog learn from each other and develop a compatible lifestyle. However, the data from this study found no correlation between the length of ownership and degree of personality similarities, which suggests that this was not the case.  Regardless of the underlying cause, trainers, behaviorists and other dog professionals who work with dog-owner pairs can use this information as we encourage our clients to recognize and capitalize upon all of the positive traits in their dogs.  Emphasizing those traits that the owner and the dog share is likely to lead to appreciation rather than disdain, seeing that we humans have a tendency to recognize many of our own personality traits in a favorable light.

For me personally, this study certainly brings new meaning to the phrase “Love me, Love my dog“. So, if you profess to care about me, then caring about my dogs should come quite easily for you as well, since chances are, we are a lot alike! 🙂  

References:

  1. Turesdan B, Range F, Viranyi Z, et al. Birds of a feather flock together? Perceived personality matching in owner-dog dyads. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2012; 140:154-160.
  2. Gosling SD, Kwan VSY, John OP, et al. A dog’s got personality: A cross-species comparative approach to personality judgments in dogs and humans. Journal of Perspectives in Social Psychology 2003; 85:1161-1169