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It started when two canine scientists decide to become pen pals in an era of digital media...

Monday, 9 February 2015

How do dogs and people respond to a crying baby?

Guest post by: Min Hooi Yong, PhD

Does your dog know when you are sad? Puzzling question, perhaps? 

We get a range of answers from dog owners, from the confident Yes!to Maaaaybe?, and the hopeful I like to think so.... Many dogs are considered to be part of the family, and we expect our family members to empathize with us when we are sad.

A recent study found that dogs showed submissive behavior (licking and nuzzling) when an adult person pretended to cry but not when she is humming1. Does the licking and nuzzling behavior mean that the dog understand that we are feeling sad? (I hear YES-es). Or can it be that because we are crying, we ignore everyone including our dog, and so, our dog will nuzzle us seeking attention and/or comfort?

There have been many studies showing that animals (e.g. rodents, birds, chimps) experience distress or concern (empathic response) when observing either kin or non-kin in distress. For example, giving electric shocks to rats and pigeons. The observer experienced a change both behaviourally and physiologically, and these responses are often considered as an experience of emotional contagion, an elementary form of empathy. Emotional contagion is essentially the spreading of all forms of emotion from one person (or animal) to another (like the spreading of joy or distress through a crowd - think of a flash mob dance effect filtering through a crowd)2.

Hearing a baby cry can be quite distressing. What happens to us when we, the observers, hear the cry? We respond by getting up and checking on the crying baby, increased attention. Our body also releases the stress hormone cortisol when we hear the cry, regardless of age or parenting experience3,4. Also, we can tell if the crying is urgent or not. We do, sometimes find crying aversive (imagine a baby crying non-stop throughout your long-distance flight).
In our study, we wanted to know if dogs and humans show a similar physiological response to a baby crying. We had three questions: 
  1. We know that dogs are attached to humans, so would dogs show increased attention to a baby crying and babbling? 
  2. Exposure to uncontrollable white noise is considered aversive and elicits submissive behavior. If dogs find crying aversive, would dogs show submissive behavior towards crying as well as white noise? 
  3. Do dogs show an increased stress response (measured in their salivary cortisol levels) to a baby crying compared to white noise and a baby babbling, similar to humans?
We had 75 dogs and 74 humans listen to one of three sounds. A human baby crying:

A human baby babbling: 

Or white noise:

Each sound was played at an average volume of 82 decibels similar to chamber music in a small auditorium (not loud enough to cause hearing damage, but it is loud). We collected saliva before and after listening to one sound from both dogs and humans for their cortisol levels. We also analyzed dogsbehavior while the sound was played, and collected sound ratings about how aversive people found the sounds.

What did our three questions reveal? First, we found that both dogs and humans showed an increase in cortisol levels only after listening to crying, but no changes to baby babbling and white noise. Second, dogs showed increased attention to both the crying and babbling sounds, but not to white noise. Third, dogs displayed increased submissive behavior (e.g. the dog’s body and head were lowered, the ears were held flat and back, the tail was lowered and sometimes slightly between their legs or wagging rapidly side-to-side, the tongue pro-truded slightly, or the dog raised one leg in a hesitant or placating manner) to the crying and white noise, but not to babbling. Additionally, human participants rated the white noise as more aversive than crying (see table below for a summary). We also analyzed other possible aspects that might have influenced the dogsresponses such as time of testing, demographic data e.g. neutered status and sex, acoustic features in the sounds (pitch and melody), and even dog ownersunintentional cuing. We found that the responses shown were a result of distress, evident from crying.

You might ask why submissive behavior was shown during crying and white noise. Let’s start with white noise. Our human participants perceived white noise as more unpleasant compared to crying. Humans tend to cover their ears and animals also show similar avoidance, and what better way than to lower your head? On the other hand, with crying sounds, one is generally more subdued (sympathetic concern) especially when you can hear the distress meaning in the sound. The combined behavioral indicators during these sounds (e.g. lowered posture, shaking, stimulus avoidance) points toward submissive behavior.

In humans, an increase in cortisol and attention is interpreted as a demonstration of
emotional contagion3,4. This unique pattern of physiological and behavioral responding to crying in our study is most consistent with (a) emotional contagion in dogs, providing first evidence that dogs, like humans, experience a physiological response to human infant crying, and (b) suggests the first clear evidence of cross-species empathy (i.e. canine emotional contagion to human distress). 

Min Hooi Yong has recently completed her PhD under the supervision of Professor Ted Ruffman in the Department of Psychology, University of Otago, New Zealand. You can follow her research, or Prof Ted Ruffman. This study has been published in the journal Behavioural Processes”:

Min Hooi Yong
We would like to thank all the dog owners and their dogs who participated in our study, and to Stephanie McConnon, Mary Saxton, and Barbara Lowen for allowing us to use their dog videos. Mia is a female English Setter aged 3, Annie is a female Border Collie aged 9, and Flack is a male mixed breed (Collie/Husky/Heading) aged 4.

1. Custance, D. & Mayer, J. Empathic-like responding by domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) to distress in humans: An exploratory study. Anim. Cogn. 15, 851–859 (2012).
2. De Waal, F. B. M. Putting the altruism back into altruism: The evolution of empathy. Annu. Rev. Psychol. 59, 279–300 (2008).
3. Fleming, A. S., Corter, C., Stallings, J. & Steiner, M. Testosterone and prolactin are associated with emotional responses to infant cries in new fathers. Horm. Behav. 42, 399–413 (2002).
4. Giardino, J., Gonzalez, A., Steiner, M. & Fleming, A. S. Effects of motherhood on physiological and subjective responses to infant cries in teenage mothers: A comparison with non-mothers and adult mothers. Horm. Behav. 53, 149–158 (2008).

Thank you, Min, for discussing your research on Do You Believe in Dog? View other guest contributors here ~ Julie & Mia 

©  Do You Believe in Dog? 2015 

Thursday, 15 January 2015

2015: Puppy New Year! Get some science into your dog

2015 is a bright and shiny new year for canine science! 

But first, this face:

After being a dog-less household for eight months (you might remember we sadly farewelled Elke in 2013 and gut-wrenchingly, also old man Caleb, in the first half of 2014) we welcomed a new member to the family at the end of 2014. 

Those paws. Not photoshopped.
If I'm honest with you, I'd been stalking PetRescue quietly for a month or so, not really sure if the time was right, but also open to being inspired to make it the right time to welcome a new dog into our lives. I eventually made a call to a shelter a long, long way away about a dog I'd seen who looked like the kind of dog I thought would be a good fit for our family over the next fifteen years. His profile had been up for a few weeks and I was concerned he might be nearly out of time to be adopted. The lovely shelter staff let me know he'd actually just been adopted that morning - I was thrilled for him and his new family. Probably a good thing anyway, that shelter was 5 hours' drive away - no small distance. 

The following day I received a message from the shelter staff - there was another dog - a younger pup, similar type, would I be interested? "Send me some photos and a video clip of him" I said... and they did. I told Julie about the pup and how far away he was. "Love this story!! Keep it coming ;)" she said via email. Huh, I thought - what an adventure this could be to meet a new family member - and luckily, my partner agreed!

So a week later, coincidentally on my birthday, we headed off after lunch on a 400km (that's 250miles to those of you who prefer miles) drive to a faraway coastal town south west of Melbourne to meet this four month old pup. He had come into the regional shelter as a stray. Whether he was deliberately dumped, wandered off through an open gate, or actively strayed by jumping a fence - we'll never know. That's part of the shelter dog story - not necessarily knowing what came before. 

What we do know is this: 
  • He was not identified by microchip, had no collar with ID and was not desexed
  • No one came looking for him during his two weeks in the shelter
  • On meeting us, he was excitable, mouthy and jumpy, but calmed down fairly quickly
  • We have named him Rudy (roo-dee), inspired by Rudolph as it was Christmas week

What is he?
We've been asked that a lot! Rudy is a Staghound. Staghounds in Australia are similar to Lurchers and Longdogs in the UK - a 'type' of dog, rather than a breed. Staghounds are generally greyhound x deerhound with maybe a bit of whatever else was around the area in them too. They can vary widely in looks as they are bred with an emphasis on health, performance and longevity, rather than to a physical standard. They are generally bred to help with hunting in rural areas, but like greyhounds, can make excellent companions as well. As you'd expect, they are highly distracted by moving things.

A diet of science
Inevitably, we're feeding Rudy a daily dose of science. If you want to keep up with how he's going, you can follow the #RaisingRudy hashtag on Twitter, keep up with our Do you Believe in Dog? Facebook posts, or check in here at the blog for regular updates. I've never claimed to be a dog trainer, but I'm certainly aware of the importance of putting the wide array of scientific findings into practice with our dogs to help them have a great life and help us enjoy our time with them.

So far, over the first couple of weeks Rudy's been with us, this has looked a bit like this:
In these early days, we're focusing on socialisation (new experiences, places, people, surfaces, sounds, smells), basic training (toilet training, recall, sit, leash walking, house behaviour, independent time outside) and getting to know Rudy (learning how he responds to new places, loud noises, other dogs and people, etc.). We're marvelling at those ears. 

We're remembering what having a puppy in the house means (e.g. encouraging the puppy to splash its feet in a toddler pool is super funny and cute, until it starts repeating that behaviour in the indoor water bowl and floods your laundry!). We're a tidier household for it (Shoes go in cupboards! Pre-schooler's toys get put away! Remote controls go up high!).

If, like us, it's been a while since you raised a puppy, you might enjoy the back seat experience (sometimes hilarious, sometimes frustrating!) offered by the new BBC documentary series 'Six Puppies and Us' - Episode 1 linked here:
What science have you fed your dog recently? 
What should I be sure to feed mine? 

Let us know your thoughts by commenting on the blog, Facebook or Twitter - and join in #RaisingRudy.

Til next time, 


p.s. No, this hasn't turned into just a puppy blog! The Do You Believe in Dog? team will still be bringing you regular guest posts from fellow canine scientists, monthly updates on the science that's caught our attention and news on major events we attend in 2015.

Further reading:
Kidd A.H. & Kidd, R.M. (1989). Factors in Adults' Attitudes Toward Pets, Psychological Reports, 65 (3) 903-910. DOI: 

Hiby E.F., Rooney N.J. & Bradshaw J.W.S. (2004). Dog training methods: their use, effectiveness and interaction with behaviour and welfare. , Animal Welfare, 13 (1) 63-70. 

© Mia Cobb | Do You Believe in Dog? 2015

Monday, 15 December 2014

Top 4 of 2014: Your Favourite Canine Science Posts

As December rolls into its second half, and the days warm up - or cool down - depending on where you are situated on the globe, we wanted to say thank you for joining us in 2014 - we are continually blown away with the popular and supportive community we have around us at Do You Believe in Dog? here on the blog, on Facebook and also on Twitter

Taking our lead from Companion Animal Psychology, we decided to jump into some statistics (because hey, we are scientists!) to see what you made our most popular posts of 2014.

You voted with your clicks all year long and so, without further ado, here are the Top 4 Do You Believe in Dog posts of 2014:

# 4

What the pug is going on?

After seeing popular opinion of pugs framed as 'cute', Mia put together this review of the health issues facing brachycephalic breeds such as pugs, why it's a welfare concern and what can be done to raise awareness and improve the quality of life in future generations of these dogs. 

Read: What the pug is going on?

This piece was cross-posted to The Dodo
# 3

Dogs Are Like Porn: All Over the Internet and Waiting For You

Outlining all the ways you can actively participate in canine research, even without leaving the comfort of your couch, Julie compile this fantastic list of scientific studies seeking participants. You can be a citizen scientist!   

Read: Dogs Are Like Porn: All Over the Internet and Waiting For You

# 2

Dog Loses Ear at Dog Park and There Was Nothing We Could Do About It

"Dogs are confusing. People are confusing. Put them together in a public space, and it’s like all the circuses came to town on the same day." Julie outlines the issues of dogs and people combining in public spaces and offers many easily accessed resources and opportunities to educate ourselves so we can be proactive in preventing bad experiences for all.

Read: Dog Loses Ear at Dog Park and There Was Nothing We Could Do About It

# 1

Why do dogs lick people?

It started with a question on twitter, and turned out to be our most popular post of 2014.
With the photo by Chris Sembrot that can not be unseen, this post from Mia looked at what we have learned about why dog lick us - there's no one quick answer and some people were quite surprised at the depth of background, in evolutionary, social and environmental terms, behind what we consider an everyday behaviour. A big part of why we love canine science!

Read: Why do dogs lick people?

This piece was cross-posted to The Dodo

We're looking forward to sharing more great canine science with you in 2015. Have a safe and fun holiday season.

Further reading:
All the above!

Milkman K. & Berger J. (2014). The science of sharing and the sharing of science, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1317511111

Scanlon E. (2013). Scholarship in the digital age: Open educational resources, publication and public engagement, British Journal of Educational Technology, 45 (1) 12-23. DOI:

Stilgoe J. & J. Wilsdon (2014). Why should we promote public engagement with science?, Public Understanding of Science, 23 (1) 4-15. DOI:

Wong-Parodi G. & Strauss B.H. (2014). Team science for science communication., Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, PMID:

© Do You Believe in Dog? 2014

Monday, 8 December 2014

Don't miss out! Dogs + Science from November

Catch up! Participate! Plan your conferences for 2015! Check out all the latest in canine science from November here, thanks to the magic of Storify (if you don't see a beautiful array of handy snippets below, please click this link to view)

Further reading:

Cobb M., Paul McGreevy, Alan Lill & Pauleen Bennett (2014). The advent of canine performance science: Offering a sustainable future for working dogs, Behavioural Processes, DOI:

Hecht J. (2014). Citizen science: A new direction in canine behavior research, Behavioural Processes, DOI:

Bradshaw J.W.S. & Rachel A. Casey (2009). Dominance in domestic dogs—useful construct or bad habit?, Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 4 (3) 135-144. DOI:

Gosling S.D. & Oliver P. John (2003). A Dog's Got Personality: A Cross-Species Comparative Approach to Personality Judgments in Dogs and Humans., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85 (6) 1161-1169. DOI:

Friday, 21 November 2014

Dogtober = Canine science in October

What a BOOMING month for dogs and science October was! We've captured the links to all the latest blogs, research and news that caught out attention throughout Dog-tober.

Thanks to Storify (click here if the you can't see the collection of links below) you can make sure you didn't miss out too.

Further reading:

Bradshaw J.W.S. & Nicola J. Rooney (2014). Why do adult dogs ‘play’?,
Behavioural Processes, DOI:

Bozkurt A., Barbara Sherman, Rita Brugarolas, Sean Mealin, John Majikes, Pu Yang & Robert Loftin (2014). Towards Cyber-Enhanced Working Dogs for Search and Rescue, IEEE Intelligent Systems, 1-1. DOI:

Sunday, 16 November 2014

Canine science catch up: 16-30 September 2014

Gosh, it's been a busy ride since posting the excellent guest post by research, Cat Reeve, about her interesting detector dog research

So now it's time to play catch up, starting with the canine science related things that we noticed in the second half of September, captured with the help of Storify - did you miss any of these?

Further reading (some of the abstracts from Canine Science Forum 2014 now available):

Westgarth C. & Hayley E. Christian (2014). How can we motivate owners to walk their dogs more?, Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (6) e6-e7. DOI:

Fehringer A. (2014). Stress in shelter dogs and the use of foster care to improve animal welfare, Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (6) e11. DOI:

Horowitz A. & Hecht J. (2014). Categories and consequences of dog-human play: A citizen science approach, Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (6) e15. DOI:

Browne C.M., T. Mary Foster & James S. McEwan (2014). Dog training: Reinforcement timing and owner body language, Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 9 (6) e17. DOI:

Friday, 26 September 2014

Cat and Dogs: seeking solutions with sniffing canines and science

Hi Mia and Julie, 

First of all, I LOVE your blog! 

After meeting at SPARCS this past summer (summer for us in North America.. I take it summer is just beginning in Australia!), I’ve followed it closely. 

You do amazing things for the promotion of  canine science. Serious love.

A bit of background for the readers: I’m currently doing my PhD at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada, under the supervision of Dr. Simon Gadbois

Dr. Gadbois has an amazing amount of knowledge and experience in the science of sniffing (just check out Gadbois & Reeve, 2014 link below!). 

He’s trained sniffer dogs for the conservation of ribbon snakes and wood turtles, to track coyotes, and to detect invasive pests in lumber. He and I have taken on a different type of project and are studying the intricacies of biomedical detection dogs, specifically, the very interesting phenomenon of Diabetic Alert Dogs

Cat Reeve at #SPARCS2014 where she won the 'Best Emerging Researcher' prize

I say interesting because there’s anecdotal evidence suggesting that some dogs alert their owners to hypoglycemic events (low blood sugar). In 2008, Deborah Wells published a series of case studies where dogs were reported as signalling (barking, licking, pawing etc. the individual) while their owners were awake, while they were sleeping, and even when their owners were in a different room with the door closed! And this is with no previous training! 

Isn’t this fantastic! Severe hypoglycemic events can be extremely dangerous for individuals with diabetes. If not treated, they can lead to seizures, comas, and even death. The fact that dogs may be able to alert an individual before a serious hypoglycemic event means less worry about hypoglycaemia unawareness, and blood sugar dropping over night when individuals are unconscious.

Given that dogs are signalling through closed doors, it is assumed that the dogs smell something that alerts them to a change in the physiology of their owner (as opposed to behavioural cues, as is believed to be the case with seizure alert dogs). There are many companies that have taken advantage of this supposed ability, and have trained Diabetic Alert Dogs (DADs) to sell to individuals with diabetes. 

In my own searches, I have found no company that publicly provides information as to how they train their dogs. However, according to recent studies (see Gonder-Frederick et al., 2013 and Rooney et al., 2011 below) these trained DADs dogs contribute greatly to the families of individuals’ with diabetes; they signal consistently and, consequently, significantly reduce the number of hypoglycemic events an individual experiences. 

Now, if it is in fact an olfactory cue that dogs use to identify a drop in blood sugar in their owners, one would expect that if you presented one of these trained DADs with the “scent” of hypoglycemia without the individual present (just like having the owner with diabetes on the other side of a door), the dog would still signal. 

Dehlinger and colleagues recently tested three DADs in a lab setting, presenting the dogs with human biological samples that were obtained identically to the way the samples used to train the dogs were obtained. In this study, none of the three dogs could pick out a hypoglycemic sample from a normoglycemic sample! DARN!

So what is it that these dogs smell? How is it that some DADs are accurate at signalling hypoglycaemia but evidently cannot signal in the lab? 

Enter ME! This is what I’m trying to figure out!

One possibility is that, at least in the study outlined above, the use of sweat samples was misguided. Maybe the volatiles are more strongly present in an individual’s breath. I am currently in the process of testing whether there is one channel more likely than others to expel the volatiles needed to detect a change in blood sugar, i.e. breath, sweat, or saliva. 

So far we’ve found that, after being trained to detect extremely low saliency scents, our dogs can detect and discriminate between human breath samples with incredible ease and accuracy (see the video of Koda discriminating between breath samples). 

Little Koda discriminating between breath samples. The jar that has the check mark on it is the target sample. The jar with the x+ is a different breath sample. When Koda first enters the room, he smells a jar that is the “sample” (it matches the target sample)... This is the smell we want him to find amongst the three jars that are closer to the camera. He chooses the right one!

Preliminary tests with patient samples suggest that our dogs can also tell the difference between breath samples taken from the same individual when their blood sugar was low, when it was normal, and when it was high (unpublished). 

Also, it’s possible that in the Dehlinger et al. (2013) study, the sample collection procedure was simply not sufficient enough to contain the volatiles produced during a hypoglycemic event. With the help of a fantastic chemist at Dalhousie (Dr. Peter Wentzell), we have perfected a procedure that coats cotton balls in silicone oil. This is believed to help contain the volatiles through the *magic of chemistry.  

*may actually be science, not magic - check with the chemists

Another potential is that these DADs are simply responding to a general stress response in the body. It’s possible that DADs (and untrained dogs who signal to their owners) are picking up on the physiological change associated with stress (changes in cortisol, adrenaline etc.). Kind of how people say animals can smell when you’re scared. 

If this is truly what’s happening, you would expect to see DADs giving a lot of false alarms. 

And in fact, personal communication with friends of friends who own DADs tell me that their DADs alert to not only hypoglycemic events, but to asthma attacks, anxiety attacks, etc. If you read carefully, few studies ask owners of DADs if their dog gives a lot of false alarm signals (dog signals to their owner and after the owner checks their blood sugar, they discover that they are not low). 

Isn’t this fascinating? 

The dogs I work with are incredible (shout out to the amazing owners that let me work with their dogs every week), and have incredible work ethic and sniffers. 

Our dogs are extremely motivated to work (because we make it super fun!). This is Nutella on her “break”. She doesn’t want a break. She wants to keep working! She’s whining and pawing at the door of the work room.

With the assistance of these amazing dogs, hopefully Dr. Gadbois and myself will be able to shed light on how exactly DADs do their job in the near future - I'll let you know how we go!

Cat Reeve
PhD Candidate
Dalhousie University

Follow Cat on Twitter

Follow the Dalhousie Canid Behaviour Research Team on Facebook

Check out #DogsOfDal on Instagram

Further reading:

Brown S.W. & Strong V. (2001). The use of seizure-alert dogs, Seizure, 10 (1) 39-41. DOI: 

Dehlinger, K., Tarnowski, K., House, J.L., Los, E., Hanavan, K., Bustamante, B., Ahmann, A.J., & Ward, W.K. (2013). Can trained dogs detect a hypoglycemic scent in patients with Type 1 Diabetes? Diabetes Care (Observations), 36, 98-99. 

Fier, B.M. (2004). Morbidity of hypoglycaemia in type 1 diabetes. Diabetes Research and Clinical Practice, 65, 47-52. 

Gadbois, S., & Reeve, C. (2014). Canine Olfaction: Scent, Sign and Situation. In A.  Horowitz (ed.). Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior. New York: Springer. 

Gonder-Frederick L., D. Warren, K. Vajda & J. Shepard (2013). Diabetic Alert Dogs: A Preliminary Survey of Current Users, Diabetes Care, 36 (4) e47-e47. DOI:  

Rooney N.J., Morant, S. & Guest, C. (2013). Investigation into the Value of Trained Glycaemia Alert Dogs to Clients with Type I Diabetes, PLoS ONE, 8 (8) e69921. DOI:

Matyka K.A. (2002). Sweet dreams? - nocturnal hypoglycemia in children with type 1 diabetes, Pediatric Diabetes, 3 (2) 74-81. DOI:   

Wells D.L., Lawson S.W. & Siriwardena A.N. Canine responses to hypoglycemia in patients with type 1 diabetes., Journal of alternative and complementary medicine (New York, N.Y.), PMID:

© Cat Reeve | Do You Believe in Dog? 2014