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Monday, 9 March 2015

How dogs get the point: what enables canines to interpret human gestures?

Guest post by: Lucia Lazarowski, PhD candidate. Her research is available via free promotional access in the journal Behavioural Processes until February, 2016.

Hi Mia and Julie,

As a long-time fan of the blog, it is an honor to be a guest contributor! I am especially excited to tell DYBID readers about this research because it was somewhat of a pet project (pun intended). I am now a PhD student at Auburn University, but this study was done while I was working at North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. At NCSU, I worked with a team of veterinarians and animal behaviorists on a several projects aimed at improving selection and training of military working dogs, and I was primarily involved with studies related to explosives detection. 

Meanwhile in the canine cognition world, a hot topic was that of dogs’ ability to follow human gestures. Several studies have demonstrated that dogs are able to use human gestures, like pointing, to find hidden treats. An interesting finding that fueled a lot of the research in this area is that dogs perform better on these tasks than chimpanzees, our closest relatives, and wolves, dogs’ closest relatives. Is it possible that dogs are able to read and use human gestures because they co-evolved with humans, endowing them with a specialized human-like type of social cognition that their ancestors missed out on? Or, is it that dogs are such an integrated part of our lives that through our daily interactions they learn that paying attention to our body language pays off?

These two viewpoints have sparked a heated debate among canine scientists. In order to tease apart the roles of domestication and experience (or the nature/nurture debate, as your high school psychology teacher would call it), researchers have tested canines of different species (domesticated and wild-type) and different life histories (human-reared and feral). The domestication hypothesis, which suggests that point-following is an innate skill that dogs have acquired in a case of convergent evolution with humans, predicts that domestication alone is sufficient for point-following. The learning hypothesis, on the other hand, contends that dogs must learn through experience to follow human gestures, regardless of domestication status. 

The fact that chimps and wolves do not appear to utilize human pointing as dogs do seems to support domestication as an explanation. But, (plot twist!) if wolves are raised with humans from an early age and are tested in appropriate conditions, they can perform as well or even better than dogs.  To recap, groups that have succeeded at human pointing tasks include canines that are domesticated and socialized (pet dogs), non-domesticated and un-socialized (wolves), and non-domesticated and socialized (hand-reared wolves).  Hopefully at this point the missing piece of the puzzle is obvious: what about domestic dogs that have not been heavily exposed to humans? This vital yet untested sub-group of canines would help tip the scales in the domestication vs. experience debate.

At NCSU, we were gearing up to begin a new study investigating factors related to olfactory learning in canine explosives detection. The dogs acquired for this study were mixed-breed males around 1 year old, and unlike our previous studies which used trained military working dogs, these were laboratory-reared dogs. It occurred to me that this would be the perfect opportunity to test a group of dogs that met all of the proposed criteria for the “missing link”: laboratory dogs lack the same experiences that pet dogs living in human homes have (including the possibly critical opportunity to learn about human gestures), but they are socialized to humans at an early age and thus not fearful like feral dogs may be. Another bonus is that their life histories are known and documented, unlike dogs found in a shelter that at some point may have lived with people. If the opportunity to learn about human gestures is critical for point-following behavior to develop and not just domestication alone, these dogs would be expected to perform worse than pet dogs on point-following tasks. 

We tested 11 laboratory dogs and 9 pet dogs using methods established in previous studies in which dogs watched as humans performed two types of point (“easy” and “hard”, for simplicity’s sake).  What we found was that while pet dogs followed the harder point to the correct container significantly higher than chance, the laboratory dogs did not. Both groups of dogs were able to locate the correct container using the easier point, demonstrating that any failures were not due methodological flaws or to an inability to perform the demands of the task (note that success on these easier point trials can be explained by simpler mechanisms like physical proximity to the container).
Our results seem to suggest that exposure to humans and the opportunity to learn about the meanings of gestures plays an important role in dogs’ ability to follow pointing. 

Interestingly, a few dogs in the pet group performed just as poorly as the laboratory dogs, which would lend further support to the idea that individual experiences shape these abilities. Further, failures by the laboratory dogs are not likely caused by cognitive deficits due to an impoverished environment; the dogs received environmental enrichment including daily interactions with kennel and research staff, play-time with conspecifics, outdoor exercise, and a variety of toys (and after completing this experiment, participated in daily socialization and reward-based training sessions to facilitate future adoptions). Though domestication may likely contribute to dogs’ gesture-reading skills, specific life experiences may also be critical for their manifestation. 

P.S.: A happily-ever-after to this story: one of the subjects from this cohort, ‘Captain’, was adopted upon completion of the studies... by me! 

Lucia and Captain - all smiles!

Lucia Lazarowski is a PhD student at Auburn University in the Comparative Cognition Laboratory. They collaborate with the Canine Performance Sciences program at Auburn University (Facebook).

If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy our guest post by Dr Bradley Smith: Take a walk on the wild side: Dingo science, or see all of our guest contributors.

Images: Copyright Lucia Lazarowski. 

Lazarowski L. (2015). A comparison of pet and purpose-bred research dog (Canis familiaris) performance on human-guided object-choice tasks, Behavioural Processes, 110 60-67. DOI: [OPEN ACCESS until Feb 2016]

Kaminski, J., Nitzschner, M., 2013. Do dogs get the point? A review of dog-human communication ability. Learn Motiv. 44 (4), 294–302.

Udell, M.A.R., Dorey, N.R., Wynne, C.D.L., 2010. What did domestication do to dogs? A new account of dogs’ sensitivity to human actions. Biol Rev. 85 (2), 327–345.

Reid, P., 2009. Adapting to the human world: Dogs’ responsiveness to our social cues. Behav Process. 80 (3), 325–333. 

© 2015 Lucia Lazarowski | Do You Believe in Dog?

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: