Missing the Point

Dogs are talented observers of human body language. Dog folks attest to this via boatloads of anecdotal stories and home videos that we are happy to share (and over-share) with others. But more importantly for the purposes of The Science Dog, it is the results of an additional boatload of controlled research studies that support our belief that dogs are paying attention to us.

Getting the Point: Human pointing gestures have emerged as a research litmus test for measuring the dog’s ability to understand human communication signals. To date, there are more than 50 published papers that report about this talent in dogs. Researchers have compared pointing comprehension between dogs and socialized and unsocialized wolves, between dogs living as pets and those living in shelters, among puppies and dogs of different ages, using various types of pointing (hand, eyes, body position) and when the pointing person is either familiar or unfamiliar to the dog. Though results vary and there are a number of nuanced points (literally) to be made, there is no longer any doubt.

Dogs are good at this pointing stuff. We point to something, they will look there.

Which of course, begs the question, how do dogs attain this very special talent in the first place? Are they born with it or is it primarily a learned phenomenon? Two general hypotheses have been put forward. The first emphasizes the importance of genetic preparedness and domestication while the second leans more heavily upon the influence of an individual dog’s life experiences:

  • Domestication Hypothesis: This explanation focuses on the genetic basis of social cognition and posits that the processes of domestication plus natural and artificial selection have resulted in a species that is genetically predisposed to attend to and comprehend human behavior and communication cues. Studies showing that dogs out-performed socialized wolves in  cue-following tasks and unsolvable problem paradigms provide support for this theory.
  • Two-Stage Hypothesis: This hypothesis posits that a dog’s relationship with his or her human companions and opportunities to learn about human communication signals are essential for cue-following success. While followers of this theory agree that dogs have a genetic predisposition for bonding with humans, they maintain that the ability to understand and respond to our communication signals is gained primarily through living with and learning from human caretakers. Studies showing that some highly socialized wolves actually outperform some dogs in their ability to understand our signals support this view.

One of the biggest challenges in parsing the influences of domestication/selection and ontogeny/learning on the dog’s social cognition skills is finding truly representative samples (groups of dogs). For example, studies that have compared shelter dogs with dogs living in homes have been used to examine the influences of socialization and learning. The supposition is that shelter dogs are less socialized and have had few opportunities to learn from humans and so represent a group in which genetic influences would prevail. However, the background of shelter dogs is often unknown and a substantial number may have lived in homes and have had previous training. Similarly, a dog who lives in a home may receive widely varying degrees of human interaction and opportunities to learn social cues. These difficulties are probably responsible, at least in part, for the inconsistent results that studies comparing social cognition in shelter dogs and pet dogs have produced.

Representative samples: A newly published study by Biagio D’Aniello’s team at the University of Naples controlled for this particular problem by studying a group of dogs who were exclusively kennel-raised and who had experienced very limited opportunity to learn from human caretakers. (For more information about the importance of representative samples see “Your Face is Gonna Freeze Like That“).

The Study: Two groups of dogs were studied. The first included 11 Labrador and Golden Retrievers living at the FOOF kennel in Naples, Italy (kennel dogs). Although well cared for and socialized with other dogs, the dogs had very limited social interactions with people, no training and no daily opportunities to learn from humans. Each of these dogs was age-, sex- and breed-matched with a dog who had lived with a family in a home from puppyhood (pet dogs). During the pre-test period, all of the dogs learned to anticipate the presence of a food morsel in a small bowl. During the test phase, an experimenter pointed to one of two possible bowls while either kneeling close to the bowl (proximal test) or standing approximately 2 feet away from the bowls (distal test). The study used dynamic pointing, which means that the experimenter continued to hold the pointing gesture after the dog was released and allowed to make a choice of one of the two bowls. Trials were repeated 16 times with an additional 8 control trials. Dogs were scored as either correct (choosing the bowl that the experimenter was pointing to), incorrect (choosing the other bowl), or no-choice (not approaching either bowl).

Results: The pet dog group greatly outperformed the kennel dog group in their ability to understand both types of pointing gesture:

  • 10 of 11 (91 %) of the pet dogs performed at greater than chance levels (i.e. chose correctly more than chance would predict) when the experimenter was in either position (kneeling and close or standing and further away).
  • In contrast, only 1 kennel dog (9 %) performed greater than chance when the experimenter was close to the bowls and none of the kennel dogs were successful when the pointer was standing further away.
  • A relatively high number of “no-choice” responses were observed, with these occurring at a much higher rate in kennel dogs than in pet dogs.  When a separate analysis was conducted that removed “no choice” responses from the data, the success differences between the two groups of dogs were maintained, although a smaller number of trials were analyzed.
  • Comparisons between the two groups of dogs in overall success at understanding human pointing gestures showed that the pet dogs were significantly more successful at understanding both types of pointing (proximal and distal) than the kennel dogs.

Conclusions: These results support the hypothesis that human socialization and learning are necessary for dogs to comprehend human pointing gestures. Very low degrees of human  socialization, even in dogs who are well-cared for and socialized to other dogs, results in dogs who do not understand or respond to pointing gestures. The authors conclude that while the influence of domestication on the dog’s ability to understand our communication cues is not insignificant, socialization and having opportunities to learn from human caretakers is essential.

PET DOGS PAY BETTER ATTENTION TO HUMAN POINTING GESTURES THAN KENNEL DOGS

Take Away for Dog Folks

It is the dogs who missed the point that I want to talk about.

Here’s why: Consider how frequently during a given day that you communicate with your dog via gestures and pointing signals that are not formally trained cues. These body language cues function in daily life to provide your dog with information (“Look Ally, you missed that piece of muffin on the floor“), communicate direction (“Chippy, we are going to the car, not out to the pool”) or about current plans (“Com’on Vinny, time to cuddle on the couch”). These cues are informal and often times completely unconscious on our part, but our dogs pay attention to them, understand what they mean and respond appropriately. These are our dogs – the dogs who “get the point”. We all co-develop a common language with our dogs that is made up of pointing gestures, body cues, facial expressions and key phrases. Take a moment to think about these and identify a few that you know that you use often in your home and that your dog readily responds to. There are bunches.

Now, consider dogs living in shelters: Some shelter dogs will definitely “get the point” if they had prior opportunities to bond with people and learn about the significance of human body language. Others, however, may lack this background and will miss the point. I would venture that the previous group are going to fare better in adoptive homes than the latter group.  A shelter dog who has learned that human communication signals are worth paying attention to is likely to be perceived positively by his or her new owner because the dog will be aware of the significance of human body language, gestures and non-verbal communication cues. Subsequently, the new owner is likely to perceive such behaviors as a dog who is being sensitive to the family dynamics, is bonding well, and is trainable. End result – a good match and dog stays in home.

Conversely, the shelter dog who has not had an opportunity to learn about human communication cues will be at real disadvantage when he enters his new home. He will be less likely to attend to his new human’s gestures and body language cues simply because he has never learned that such gestures are worth paying attention to. While the new dog owner may not think of this in terms of his dog “attending” to his body language or communication cues per se, he will most likely notice that his dog is not paying much attention to him or responding to him. Subsequently, the new owner may perceive this as his new dog being too independent, not loving enough, aloof, or even untrainable. End result – the dog may not stay long.

If the direction that these data are pointing is correct and dogs need opportunities to learn about human communication skills (i.e. they are not purely a by-product of domestication), then it is quite possible that the benefits of shelter socialization and training programs go well beyond producing better mannered dogs who sit or lie down on command (not that there is anything wrong with those things, of course). I would expect that these less tangible benefits of shelter training and socialization programs, specifically dogs learning the significance of paying attention to human communication cues, may be more important for dogs in the long run than the more obvious benefits of teaching dogs manners and responses to cues.

So, to those of you who are working with shelter dogs to improve their lives and their chances of adoption, Keep on Keepin’ on – Science is behind you.

SHELTER DOG TRAINING – BENEFITS TO SOCIAL COGNITION SKILLS? (Photo courtesy of the Center for Shelter Dogs, Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University)

Cited Study: D’Aniello B, Alterisio A, Scandurra A, Petremolo E, Iommelli MR, Aria M. What’s the point? Golden and Labrador retrievers living in kennels do not understand human pointing gestures. Animal Cognition 2017; May 15. doi: 10.1007/s10071-017-1098-2.

 

 

 

Ailurophile? (Or not)

All four of our dogs like cats and are especially smitten with our current cat, Pete. They play with Pete, go for walks with him and sleep with him.

CHIPPY AND PETE ENJOY AN AFTERNOON NAP

Lucky for us, (and for Pete), our dogs would definitely fall within the category of ailurophile (cat lover).

COOPER CASE,  CARD-CARRYING AILUROPHILE

But, of course, this is not true of all dogs. Many are not fans of the feline race.

Some dogs are afraid of cats.

Others hate cats.

And some are conflicted.

Where a particular dog falls on the cat-loving to cat-hating scale is an important consideration for shelter staff and rescue folks who are attempting to place dogs into suitable homes. In many cases, they have no way to know whether or not a particular dog is safe with cats. While there are several behavior assessment protocols available, none include a validated test that predicts how a dog behaves towards cats.  Since this can vary dramatically and because aggressive or predatory behavior towards cats can have fatal consequences, this is important information to know.  Recently, Dr. Christy Hoffman and the Canine Research Team at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York, studied cat-loving and cat-hating dogs to determine what behavioral cues might be helpful in developing a reliable test for ailurophilia (or its opposite) in dogs.

The Study: They hypothesized that dogs who had a history of having either harmed or killed cats or other small animals would be more attentive to visual, auditory and visual cat cues than would dogs who had no such history. They also speculated that, given the dog’s highly refined senses of smell and hearing, dogs would generally be highly sensitive to cat sounds and cat smells. They examined the reactions of 69 adult dogs of varying breeds and breed-mixes to a visual cue (animated white kitty toy), an auditory cue (recordings of cat meows and growls), and an olfactory/visual cue (a tube of cat urine placed inside the cat toy). Each of these experimental conditions was paired with a control  (white pillow case containing a motorized ball, recording of coins falling, and urine tube placed inside pillow case, respectively). The study design involved exposing dogs to each stimulus and its paired control (for example, the animated cat toy and the animate pillow case) and recording responses.

Results: The dogs reacted differently to the various types of cat stimuli, and dogs who were not fond of cats behaved somewhat differently than those who liked (and lived with) cats:

  • Altogether, dogs were more sensitive to cat vocalizations than they were to the sight of a cat (or at least to the sight of a mobile toy that looks like a cat).
  • Reactions to smell were a bit more complicated. Interestingly, dogs did not spend more time investigating and sniffing the cat toy when it was baited with the smell of cat urine than they did when investigating the pee-free kitty. (Makes one wonder if the dogs were thinking……”Huh. Why did this kitty wet himself?”). Rather, the dogs spent more time sniffing the visual control (pillow case) when it was laced with cat pee than when it was pee-free. The authors suggest that there may have been a “surprise” effect occurring. Because dogs do not normally expect to smell cat pee on a pillow case (well, not in most homes, anyway), they may have spent more time investigating something that they found to be incongruent with their past experiences. There is evidence for this type of response in other circumstances with dogs in previous studies.
  • Last, dogs with a history of killing or injuring cats or other small animals spent significantly more time orienting to the sound of a cat meowing or growling that did dogs without such a history. These dogs did not show enhanced interest in the sight or smell of a cat, however. Although not statistically significant, dogs with a history of predation tended to orient more strongly to the control sounds also, suggesting that dogs who are not safe with cats may be hypersensitive to auditory stimuli in general.

Take Away for Dog Folks

There are several interesting things that we can learn from this study. The first is that dogs attend to cat vocalizations and may be more sensitive to cat sounds than to the sight or smell of a cat.  The results with dogs who had a history of predation (either towards cats or other small animals) support the inclusion of various types of cat vocalizations when developing shelter tests that assess a dog’s reactivity to cats. While such tests require refinement and validation, it appears that including vocalizations may be helpful for differentiating between dogs who are safe with cats and dogs who may not be.

And last, dogs are interested in cat pee, especially when it shows up places where one least expects it.

This study also brings another question to mind of course – Do we need a study that distinguishes between cats who are cynophiles (dog lovers) and those who are misocynists (dog haters)?

PETE – CONFIRMED CYNOPHILE

ALFRED – SUSPECTED MISOCYNIST

Cited Reference: Hoffman CL, Workman MK, Roberts N, Handley S. Dogs’ responses to visual, auditory, and olfactory cat-related cues. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 2017; 188:50-58.

If Sit Doesn’t Matter, What Does?

My last Science Dog blog. “When Sit Doesn’t Mean S*it” reviewed a series of studies showing that training shelter dogs to sit on command is not as predictive of future adoption as was once assumed. Those results should not be interpreted as an argument against the benefits of training programs, but rather as evidence that there may be other factors involving shelter dogs, potential adopters and the shelter environment that may be more important to consider when looking at adoption rates and how to increase them.

Following the “sit” studies, Alexandra Protopopova and her research team set out to discover what, if anything, about dog-human visits might consistently predict adoption outcomes for dogs. They asked the question: “If sit doesn’t matter, what does?”.

What Matters: The researchers first studied 250 out-of-kennel visits between adoptable dogs and potential adopters at a municipal shelter in Florida (1). After selecting a dog to meet, shelter visitors interacted with dogs in either a small outdoor area, a larger, grassy outdoor area or a small indoor room. Multiple factors were examined during the interactions, including the dog’s appearance/breed/age, the dog’s behavior, and the visiting environment.  Results: Overall, three factors stood out as significant predictors of an individual dog’s likelihood of adoption following these visits. These were:

  1. Willingness to play: A negative relationship was found between not playing and adoption. Those dogs who ignored play initiation by visitors were less likely to be adopted than those who did not ignore the adopter’s invitation to play. The converse of this is that dogs who wanted to play with the potential adopters were more likely to be adopted after the interaction.
  2. Lying close: Dogs who voluntarily laid down close to the human visitor were much more likely to be adopted than those who did not. (14 times as likely, in fact!)
  3. Visiting space: Visits that took place in the small, outdoor area were more likely to lead to successful adoptions than were those that occurred in the large, enclosed grass area or in the indoor room.

lying-at-feet tug-of-war-with-person  LYING AT FEET AND ENGAGING IN PLAY ARE SIGNIFICANT PREDICTORS OF ADOPTION

What to do with this information? Here is where things get really cool. The researchers used the results from this study to design a simple program that could be used by shelters to improve adoption rates (2). And then, they tested the program to see if it  actually worked.  Science at its best.

Here is what they did:

Structured Interactions: The study included two experiments. In the first experiment, the researchers developed a play/toy preference assessment test and then used it to test the play preferences of 20 dogs. The dogs were retested several times over a period of three weeks to validate the accuracy of the tool. The second  experiment used a modified version of the play preferences assessment to identify the toy preferences of a larger group of dogs at the shelter. Following their play preference testing, the dogs were assigned to two groups: (1) A structured interaction group in which potential adopters interacted with the dog with his/her preferred toy and then engaged in petting while an experimenter encouraged (lured) the dog to lie quietly at the visitors feet or (2) A control group in which the dog’s play preferences were not revealed and whose interactions with the potential adopter were unstructured. (Details of the play preference test and the structure interactions format are included in the paper).  Data were collected on a total of 160 dog-adopter interactions.

Results: In the first experiment, play preference as measured by toy selection (tennis ball, nylon squeaky toy, cotton plush toy or flannel rope toy) was validated. This means that dogs who showed a preferred toy during the initial, short assessment continued to show the same preference when retested multiple times. However, it is significant to note that about one-third of the dogs (35 %) were not interested in playing with toys at all. (This is a point that the experimenters return to and address later). The import of this test lies more in the observation that simply asking dogs what type of toy that they preferred was helpful during future interactions, as found in the results of the second experiment. When the Structured Interaction group was compared with the Control group, striking differences emerged:

  1. Dogs in the structured interactions group (offered their preferred toy, encouraged to lie down at the visitor’s feet) spent less time ignoring the visitor’s invitations to play and more time in close proximity to the visitor.
  2. Dogs  in the structured interactions group were also significantly more likely (2.5 times more likely, in fact!) to be adopted than were the control dogs.
  3. The duration of the interactions did not differ between the two groups, suggesting that using structured interactions did not take additional staff or volunteer time than traditional visits. In addition, results of a post-interaction questionnaire revealed that the visitors did not find the format of the structured interaction to be intrusive or to interfere with their ability to visit with the dog.

good-science2

Take Away for Dog Folks

There are numerous ways in which this new information may be used to help shelter dogs. The initial set of studies showed that contrary to popular belief, teaching a dog to sit does not increase his or her chance for adoption (though it very well may have other benefits). Additionally, while multiple studies have shown that a dog’s appearance is one of the strongest factors that people use when initially selecting a dog (even though people tend to deny this when asked), appearance was not found to be important during subsequent out-of-kennel visits. Rather, during the actual visit with the dog, potential adopters react more to the dog’s play behavior and tendency to stay in close proximity (lying at feet) when making their adoption decision.

Let’s first look at play behavior: The use of the play preference test in this study is in-line with our increasing understanding of the welfare and emotional health benefits seen when we allow dogs to demonstrate their preferences and even better, to have a choice. This has become a bit of a buzz-word among trainers, but hyperbole and anecdotes aside, there is really nothing not to love about a shelter dog being allowed to choose his or her favorite toy and then carrying that toy into meet-and-greet areas for play with a new visitor.

Of course, nothing will be 100 percent effective or helpful. One of the caveats of the toy preference work was the finding that not all of the dogs in the shelter were interested in playing with toys. (I am sure this is not news to shelter staff). Of the dogs tested in the 2016 study,  only about 2/3 could be easily enticed to play with a toy, regardless of the toy type. This finding is consistent with previous shelter dog studies that reported that only a minority of dogs played with toys and that object-play is often of very short duration. This may occur because of the stress of the shelter environment, an individual dog’s previous history (i.e. never having had toys or opportunities to learn to play) or a combination of factors.

For those of us who live with toy (and play) maniacs, this might be surprising to learn.

chip-with-toys

LIKE ALL OF MY DOGS, CHIPPY LOVES HIS TOYS

Still, it is very helpful information. Knowing that dogs who willingly play with visitors are more often adopted and that a substantial number of shelter dogs may be reluctant to play with toys can lead shelters to develop their own innovative programs to encourage play behaviors in dogs. This may include different types of toys such as food puzzles or encouraging more “people-oriented” types of play (more about this in the next blog piece).

Second, lying in proximity:  In the structured interactions group, the researchers placed the dog on lead and then used a food lure to encourage the dog to stay close and/or to lie down near the visitor. While one could argue that this behavior was not voluntary and might not reflect a truly calm dog, helping a dog to focus on relaxing and to enjoy petting would allow the visitor to experience the dog while he or she is calm and quiet in a setting that is often not conducive to calm behavior in shelter dogs. In addition, this type of relaxation training is common in many dog training programs (including my own) and can be used as a way to classically condition dogs to remain calm and enjoy handling and petting. For shelters with training programs, this information suggests that training dogs to “lie at feet in a natural environment” might be an especially important exercise to emphasize.

Last, what I personally love best about this research is that it shows science working in the very best way that it can work – first to discover new knowledge, second to create a new approach or program from that knowledge, and third to test (and in this case confirm) the validity of the new program. In my view, a win-win for everyone involved – dogs, adopters and shelter professionals.

Cited References:

  1. Protopopova A, Wynne CDL. Adopter-dog interactions at the shelter: Behavioral and contextual predictors of adoption. Applied Animal Behaviour Science , 2014; 157:109 – 116.
  2. Protopopova A, Brandifino M, Wynne CDL. Preference assessments and structured potential adopter-dog interactions increase adoptions. Applied Animal Behaviour Science , 2016;176:87-95.

 

 

When Sit Doesn’t Mean S*it.

Science killed another myth today.

This one has been around for a while and is almost universally accepted by shelter staff, rescue folks and dog trainers alike (including me). This is the belief that I am talking about:

Shelter dogs who have been trained to sit on command are viewed more positively by potential adopters and are more likely to be adopted into homes.” 

Makes perfect sense, of course. The “sit” command is usually one of the first things that owners teach to their new dog and is used by many trainers as the alternate behavior to reinforce not jumping up. As such, “sit” appears to have become the universal barometer for good dog behavior.

Sit Ubu

It has also become an informal litmus test for measuring shelter dog adoptability. The assumption that responding to a sit command enhances a dog’s prospects for adoption has become so commonplace that it has led to the development of shelter programs that train adoptable dogs to sit (among other commands). The goals of these programs are to increase adoption rates for the dogs who are so trained.

While there is absolutely nothing not to like about shelter programs that increase dogs’ interactions with people and introduce (positive) training, the assumption that they rest upon, that obedience training increases adoptability, has not been clearly demonstrated. Intuitively, I think most dog professionals (including myself) have believed that it does.

However, what does the science say?

Going to try science

Recently Alexandra Protopopova of Texas Tech University (and formerly of the University of Florida) and Clive Wynne of the University of Arizona teamed up to study the relationship between dogs’ morphology (appearance), their in-kennel behavior, and their length of stay in the shelter prior to adoption. Here is what they found:

It’s more about misbehaving: A group of 289 dogs living at a county animal shelter in Florida were videotaped for one minute daily throughout their stay (1). The one-minute time frame was selected because prior research has shown that potential adopters view a dog for only 20 to 70 seconds before moving on to the next dog. Videotaping took place as one or two visitors, behaving either passively (not interacting with the dog) or actively (interacting with the dog) visited the front of the kennel. Behaviors were classified using a validated ethogram composed of 41 standardized actions. The number of days that the dog remained at the shelter prior to adoption was used as a measure of adoptability. Results: Independently of appearance, several behaviors were significantly correlated with longer shelter stays (decreased adoptability). These included leaning passively on the kennel wall without interacting with the observer (+ 30 days), facing away from the observer  (+ 15 days), and frequent movement of shifting back and forth (pacing/stereotypies) (+ 24 days). Conversely, neither sitting for greeting nor showing eye contact influenced how long a dog was at the shelter prior to adoption.

These results suggest that kennel behaviors that reflect fear or a lack of sociability are more predictive of a dog’s likelihood for adoption than are trained behaviors such as sitting to greet or offering eye contact. 

science to the rescue

Protopopova and Wynne then did what all good dog researchers do. They ran a follow-up pair of experiments to find out how best to reduce the behaviors in kenneled dogs that were shown to contribute to increased shelter stays (2).

Experiment 1: The first experiment was a pilot study to determine the effectiveness of response-dependent and response-independent treat delivery as methods to reduce the undesirable kennel behaviors identified previously. Twenty-four shelter dogs were randomly assigned to one of three experimental groups, (1) Response-independent group; the appearance of a person was paired with a treat, regardless of the dog’s behavior; (2) Response-dependent group; the experimenter Differentially Reinforced “Other” [DRO] behaviors that were incompatible with the unwanted behaviors; (3) Control; no treat delivery. Exp. 1 Results: Interestingly, they found that both treat delivery methods reduced undesirable behaviors in the kenneled dogs, with no statistical difference found between the two methods. (The control dogs continued to show undesirable behaviors).

Experiment 2:  Their second experiment tested the effectiveness of the response-independent method on the entire kennel of shelter dogs. Different sections of the kennel area were used as the treatment group (visitor to kennel predicts treat) and control group (visitor does not predict treat). Between 56 and 70 dogs were enrolled each day of the 14-day experiment period. Exp. 2 Results: More than 40 percent of the shelter population regularly engaged in undesirable kennel behaviors at the start of the study. Within a few days, simply pairing the appearance of a visitor with treat delivery led to…..wait for it……a 68 % reduction in undesirable behaviors in the group of dogs as a whole.

Trainers and shelter staff everywhere should be excited about these results. While DRO is a technique that many trainers regularly use (a common example is teaching a dog to offer “sit” for greeting as an alternate behavior to jumping up), its use in a shelter environment is labor-intensive and not always feasible. However, simply pairing the appearance of a staff person with treat delivery, without requiring the treat to be contingent on the dog’s behavior is a rapid and simple technique that can be easily incorporated into daily shelter routines.

Does Sit Matter? Recently, a graduate student at Emporia State University in Kansas tested potential adopters’ inclination to adopt a dog based upon whether or not the dog sat on command (3). Her study asked a group of 79 college students to interact with a dog who they believed to be available for adoption at a local shelter. Participants were randomly assigned to a dog and then either visited with the dog as he/she sat in response to a handler’s command or interacted with the dog naturally, with no commands given to the dog. Participants then completed a questionnaire regarding their interest in adopting the dog. Results: A person’s willingness to adopt the dog that they visited with was not influenced by whether or not the dog sat on command. Similar to Protopopova’s study, sitting on command was not related to potential adoption success.

Bottom line, while responding to a sit command is a great behavior to have in our dogs, sit may not mean (much) in terms of helping shelter dogs who are looking for their forever homes.

Chip Cooper Vinny Ally Aunt Betty Pond

SITS ARE GREAT, BUT EVIDENCE SUGGESTS THEY DO NOT ENHANCE ADOPTION RATES

Take Away for Dog Folks

Sad as it may seem, when it comes to a dog’s behavior, potential adopters appear to be more concerned with avoiding dogs who demonstrate behaviors that they don’t like rather than seeking dogs who show behaviors that they do like (such as responding to sit). The good news in this story is that the behaviors that people generally avoid (and which may signal a lack of sociability on the dog’s part), were demonstrated to be reduced in a substantial number of dogs without the need for a detailed and labor-intensive training program. This is classical conditioning at its best folks. Pair the approach of a visitor with yummy treats (visitor predicts treat) and over time, the appearance of a person flips the dog’s emotional response from apathy/distraction/fear to happiness, joy and interaction. The fact that the researchers improved in-kennel behaviors that were related to poor adoption rates in almost 70 percent of dogs using a simple, non-contingent procedure of food delivery is an enormously important bit of evidence. And it is evidence that can and should be used to encourage shelters everywhere to invest in treat pouches, arm their workers with a pouchful of yummy goodness and get going.

Don’t get me wrong. I personally think that training shelter dogs is a great thing. Shelter programs that teach dogs to sit, down, and walk nicely on lead are to be commended for their work and certainly should continue. However, the current science suggests that this type of training may not be as essential as we once believed and that it may not influence adoption rates. Paying more attention to reducing unwanted kennel behaviors is not only simpler, but it may be more effective as an approach to reducing shelter stays and helping dogs to be adopted into forever homes.

Cited Studies:

  1. Protopopova A, Mehrkam LR, Boggess MM, Wynne CDL. In-kennel behavior predicts length of stay in shelter dogs. PLOS One; 2014; DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0114319.
  2. Protopopova A, Wynne CDL. Improving in-kennel presentation of shelter dogs through response-dependent and response-independent treat delivery. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 2015; 48:1-12.
  3. Hajek V. The Effect of Watching a Large or Small Pseudo Shelter Dog Sit on Command on College Students’ Self-rated Willingness to Adopt. Master’s Thesis, Emporium University, 53 pp. 2016.

Pretty in Pink

Our youngest dog, Ally, has a ‘bestie”. Her name is Colbie and she belongs to our friend Amanda, a trainer who also works as an instructor at AutumnGold. Ally is a Golden Retriever. Colbie is a Pit Bull Terrier, adopted from our local shelter while Amanda was on staff there.

Ally and Colbie Chasing

ALLY AND HER BEST FRIEND, COLBIE HAVE A PLAY DATE

Being young girls, both Ally and Colbie wear pink collars, Gentle Leaders and harnesses. For Ally, this is simply a fashion statement. For Colbie, given her breed and the breed-stereotypes that she may encounter, it means a bit more. Amanda purposefully dresses Colbie in pink hoping that such feminine attire will present Colbie as the sweetheart that she is. (Being color-blind, Colbie has no opinion).

Ally and Colbie in Pink

PRETTY IN PINK

Although Ally does not care about Colbie’s genetic heritage (or that she wears pink), many people do. Breed stereotypes are pervasive and impact local and state breed-specific legislation (BSL), rental property regulations, and shelter decisions regarding adoption and euthanasia. BSLs in the US and UK specifically target Pit Bull Terriers and other bully-type breeds, and either ban ownership of these breeds outright or impose strict restrictions upon ownership. These laws are based upon the assumption that targeted breeds are inherently dangerous and that individuals of the breeds can be reliably identified. There is much controversy (and no consensus) regarding the first assumption and is a topic for another time. In this article, we look at the second assumption regarding reliable breed identification. Is there supporting evidence? It turns out that there is quite a bit of science on this topic – and the results are quite illuminating.

Pit Bull or something else? Prior to the development of reliable DNA testing, the only method available for identifying the breed of a dog whose heritage was unknown was visual assessment. A shelter worker, veterinarian or animal control officer would examine the dog and assign a breed designation based upon physical appearance and conformation. Even with widespread availability of reliable DNA tests, most shelters and rescue groups continue to rely upon visual identification to assign breed labels to the dogs in their care. Given the life or death import of these decisions for some dogs, it is odd that the question of the reliability of these evaluations has not been questioned.

Until recently.

Experts don’t agree: In 2013, Victoria Voith and her co-researchers asked over 900 pet professionals to assign a breed (or mix of breeds) to 20 dogs that they viewed on one-minute video clips. Each of the dogs underwent DNA testing prior to the study, which allowed the researchers to test both the accuracy of visual breed-identification and the degree of agreement among the dog experts. Results: Poor agreement was found between visual breed assignments and DNA results in  14 of the 20 dogs (70 %). Moreover, there was low inter-rater reliability, meaning that the dog experts did not show a high level of agreement regarding breed assignments to the 20 dogs. More than half of the evaluators agreed on the predominant breed in only 7 of the 20 dogs (35 %). Although Pit Bull Terriers were not specifically examined in this study, these results provide evidence that physical appearance is not a reliable method for breed identification.

You say Pit Bull, I say Boxer: The following year, researchers in the US and the UK collaborated and examined the consistency with which shelter workers assigned breed labels to the dogs in their care (2). A group of 416 shelter workers in the US and 54 in the UK were asked to assign a breed or mix of breeds to photographs of 20 dogs. They also completed a questionnaire that asked them to list the specific features that they used in their determination. Of the 20 dogs that were used in this study, more than 3/4 had a bully-breed appearance. (Note: An important difference between  the UK and the US is that all UK shelters are subject to the country’s Dangerous Dog Act, a law that bans the ownership of Pit Bulls. While such bans exist in the US, there is no universal law. Rather, select municipalities or states have various forms of BSL). Results: Perhaps not surprisingly, UK shelter workers were much less likely to identify a dog with a “bully appearance” as a Pit Bull Terrier than were US shelter workers. Instead, the UK shelter workers tended to label these dogs as Staffordshire Bull Terriers, a breed that is allowed in the UK, rather than as a Pit Bull, a breed that is universally banned. Despite this difference, results corroborated Voith’s study in that the researchers found a great deal of variation among shelter workers in their assignments of breed and there was a lack of consensus regarding which of the 20 dogs were identifiable as Pit Bull Terriers.

DNA vs. shelter staff: A 2015 study surveyed experienced shelter staff members at several Florida animal shelters (3). At each of four sites, four staff members were asked to assign breed designations to 30 adoptable dogs who were housed at their shelter. Collectively, 120 dogs were evaluated by 16 staff members. DNA testing was conducted on all of the dogs. A primary objective of this study was to examine the reliability of shelter staff’s ability to identify Pit Bull Terriers and dogs with Pit Bull heritage and to compare their assessments with DNA results. (Note: The DNA signatures that are used to identify Pit Bull Terriers are those of the American Staffordshire Terrier and the Staffordshire Bull Terriers, two breeds that are considered to be genetically identical to the Pit Bull Terrier). Results: Approximately one-third of the dogs who were identified as a pit bull-type breed by one or more shelter staff lacked any DNA evidence of bully breeds in his/her heritage. When inter-rater reliability was examined, agreement among shelter staff was moderate, but still included a relatively large number of disagreements. What this means in practical terms is that a substantial number of dogs in this study were labeled as pit bulls or pit bull types and yet had no such genetic background. Even if the shelter staff agreed on a particular dog’s identification, this would be rather a moot point (for the dog) if they both happened to be wrong.

But she doesn’t look like a Chow Chow: How can this be? How is it possible that a dog who appears to have the characteristic “pittie-type” head shape,  muscular body and other distinctive features tests negative for Pit Bull heritage? The conclusion that many people make from these discrepancies is that DNA testing must be unreliable, inaccurate, or just plain wrong. However, the fact is that it is not uncommon for the results of DNA tests of dogs who have mixed heritage to identify a set of primary ancestor breeds that look nothing like the dog in question.  This occurs because purebred crosses, particularly after the first generation, can result in unique combinations of genes that produce a wide range of features. When several different breeds are involved, some of these features may not be apparent in any of the ancestral breeds.

This occurs for two reasons. First, many of the breeds that we know today were originally created by crossing two or more existing breeds and then selecting for a small set of physically unique traits in subsequent generations. However, the dogs of these breeds still carry genes for a much wider variety of traits, even though the genes are not being “expressed” in the dog’s appearance. When these dogs are then bred to dogs of other breeds the hidden traits may become evident in their puppies. A second reason is that less than 1 percent of the canine genome encodes for breed-specific traits such ear shape, coat type and color, and head shape. So, a dog could be a large part (genetically) of a certain breed, while not showing all of the breeds physical traits, which may have been rapidly lost during cross-breeding with other breeds.

What this means for dogs: These three studies provide valuable evidence that the use of visual assessments to assign breed or breed-mixes to dogs is inaccurate and unreliable. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this information is of more than just casual interest for dogs like Colbie because Pit Bull Terriers and other “bully breeds” are most frequently stigmatized by breed stereotypes and impacted by BSL and shelter policies that require automatic euthanasia. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that identifying an individual dog as a Pit Bull may be a matter of life or death for that dog.

It is not an exaggeration because we now have evidence.

Researchers ask, “What’ in a Name”? A recent paper published by researchers in Clive Wynne’s dog lab at the University of Arizona describes an ambitious series of experiments in which they examined the impact of breed labels on the perceptions of potential adopters and on the eventual outcome for the dog (4). The studies were carried out online and at animal shelters in Florida and Arizona. Participants were asked to rate photographs, videotapes, or live dogs in their kennels. In some conditions the dogs were provided with a breed label and in others they were not. Results: Two major findings came out of these studies. The first showed that stereotypes about Pit Bulls are alive and well and the second showed how this stigmatization ultimately affects dogs:

  1. People rated an image of a “pit-bull-type” dog as less approachable, friendly and intelligent and as more aggressive when compared to an image of either a Labrador Retriever and a Border Collie. In another experiment, labeling a dog as a Pit Bull negatively influenced the perceptions that people had about the dog. When visitors rated a dog who was labeled as a Pit Bull, the dogs were found to be less attractive in terms of perceived approachability, friendliness, intelligence, aggressiveness and adoptability compared with when the same dog was not so labeled.
  2. Dogs who had been labeled as Pit Bulls had  length of stays in the Florida shelter prior to adoption that were over three times as long as the stays of dogs who were matched in appearance, but had been labeled as another breed or breed-mix. When breed labels were removed from the profile cards of dogs offered for adoption, adoption rates for Pit Bulls increased significantly, length of stays prior to adoption in the shelter decreased, as did euthanasia rates. Interestingly, not only pit-bull-type dogs benefited from removing breed labels from the kennel cards. Dogs from working breeds who were available for adoption, in particular Boxers, Dobermans and Mastiffs also showed an increase in adoption rate.

Take Away for Dog Folks

There is a lot to ponder here. We have learned that breed identification using a dog’s physical appearance, even when conducted by experienced dog experts, is flawed in two distinctive ways. First, experts cannot agree consistently about how to label an individual dog. One person’s Boxer-mix is another’s Pit Bull and is yet another’s Bulldog/Lab mix. Second, DNA tests do not consistently confirm breed assignments that were based upon physical appearance. Labeling breeds for purposes of shelter retention, adoption and euthanasia is a highly dubious process, and one that is most critical for Pit Bull Terriers and other bully breeds.

We have also learned that potential adopters react to a Pit Bull label in ways that may adversely affect the outcome for the dog.  Labeling a dog as Pit Bull may increase her length of stay in the shelter, reduce her chances of adoption and increase her risk of being killed – simply because she was assigned a (possibly incorrect) label that changed the perceptions of potential adopters. And last, we have evidence that removing breed labels from the cage cards of adoptable pit-bull-type dogs (and many other dogs) increases their chance of adoption, reduces the length of their stay in the shelter, and increases their chance of simply staying alive.

Pretty in Pink for sure. But, I say, it is time that wearing pink becomes a simple fashion statement for Colbie, just as it is for her pal Ally.

Colbie Play Bow

Cited Studies:

  1. Voith VL, Trevejo R, Dowling-Guyer S, Chadik C, Marder A, Johnson V, Irizarry K. Comparison of visual and DNA breed identification of dogs and inter-observer reliability. American Journal of Sociological Research 2013; 3:17-29.
  2. Hoffman CL, Harrison N, Wolff L, Westgarty C. Is that dog a Pit Bull? A cross-country comparison of perceptions of shelter works regarding breed identification. Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science 2014; 17:322-339.
  3. Olson KR, Levy JK, Borby B, Crandall MM, Broadhurst JE, Jacks S, Barton RC, Zimmerman MS. Inconsistent identification of pit bull-type dogs by shelter staff. The Veterinary Journal 2015; 206:197-202.
  4. Gunter LM, Barber RT, Wynne CDL. What’s in a name? Effect of breed perceptions & labeling on attractiveness, adoptions & length of stay for pit-bull-type dogs. PLoS ONE  2016; 11:e0146857.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0146857.

NEW BOOK! This essay is excerpted from my newest Science Dog book, “Only Have Eyes for You: Exploring Canine Research with The Science Dog“.

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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).

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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