It’s Genetic

Cali relaxes on her dog bed.

People love to speculate on when, how, and why dogs and people became friends. A study published on July 19 shows that it might just be genetic.

Here’s the story. A condition in humans, Williams-Beuren Syndrome, is the result of a missing section of genetic material, a section of DNA that contains about 27 genes, according to an article in Inside Science. The syndrome affects about 1 in 10,000 people, the article says; these individuals are “hypersocial,” with bubbly, extroverted personalities, as well as some other traits.

It seems that someone else’s bubbly, extroverted personality (I’m looking at you, Cali) might be related to a similar genetic hiccup.

In the course of studies of domestication and how it has caused doggy genetics to differ from wolf genetics, Bridgett vonHoldt, the lead author of the study, tested the friendliness of dogs and 10 hand-raised, tamed wolves. They measured how much time the dogs and wolves chose to spend in close proximity to humans and whether they worked at a challenge or sought human assistance. Predictably, the dogs both spent more time with the people and sought their help in solving the puzzle. Dogs do enjoy having staff.

However, the results had some variation, and in looking for reasons that some wolves were more sociable than others, the researchers found a clue: The genetic area that showed differences in the more- and less-social wolves corresponded to the genetic area that is missing in people with Williams-Beuren Syndrome. Friendly dogs and wolves had similar genetic variants; unfriendly wolves had genetic variants similar to each other and different from the dogs and the friendly wolves.

The researchers looked deeper. They examined the corresponding genes in dogs from 13 breeds. Breeds known to be friendly had profiles similar to the friendly members of the initial research group, while breeds known to be more standoffish had profiles that looked more like the unfriendly wolves. The study says that this genetic region is “known to be under positive selection in the domestic dog genome” — over generations of breeding, people have selected for the “friendly” genetic variation; these mutations are rare in wolves and even rarer in coyotes, which tend to be far less social than dogs and wolves. The same genes had been linked to friendliness in mice in earlier research.

Of course, a small segment of genetic material is not the only thing that influences social behavior. And theories about the domestication of wolves abound. But evidence is accumulating for a theory that basically says that that wolves chose to hang out with early humans. The friendlier, or less timid, wolves started scavenging near human camps and trash heaps. Over time, young pups and friendly adults inched closer to actual contact, until a great partnership was formed.

I have always been skeptical of the various human-centered narratives that had humans capturing and holding captive and bending to their will fierce wolves, all thousands of years before humans had metalworking abilities and tools that would make it possible to hold onto a wolf who didn’t want to stick around. I doubt that those unfriendly wolves, even the hand-reared ones, would stay put if tied to a tree with a leather strap. There had to be something else going on.

That the roots of friendship could center on food makes sense (again, looking at you, Cali). But even that explanation is not enough. While dogs and wolves are opportunistic — which means they will eagerly take advantage of opportunities to help themselves to a snack — early  humans were unlikely to have huge quantities of extra food available to just hand out to large-toothed scavengers skulking on the periphery of camp. On the other hand, if the scavengers were friendly and potentially useful …

An explanation that includes a choice on the part of the wolves, or at least some wolves makes more sense than the whole deal being human-instigated and controlled. And, as more people study the human-canine connection, more bits of information point to dogs playing an active role in establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with people, like this suggestion that some wolves were genetically inclined to be friendly and seek human company.

An additional reason that this study could be important is that researchers have long sought genetic explanations for complex behavior; this could be an important first step.

None of that really makes a genetic mutation a truly satisfying explanation for that waggy tail, wriggly, “let me show you my toy” greeting I get at the door … but the bottom line is, the dog-human friendship is pretty wonderful. If that’s where it started, well, I’ll take it.

 

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Too Hot for Dogs!

Graphic image showing how quickly a car can heat up on a hot day from heatkills.org
Downloaded from Heatkills.org

It has been in the 90s pretty much every day since we got to Missoula, Montana, our new home. If it’s this hot here … well. Dogs everywhere are suffering.

I know I don’t have to remind readers not to leave a dog in the car for even a minute in this heat. No way, no how, it is too hot for that.

But what about walking them?

Hot pavement can burn pads and paws. Sand, dry stiff grass, seeds, etc. can poke and scratch. Hazards are everywhere.

When the temperatures are in the upper-80s and above, the sidewalk can get very hot. You might not notice it through your shoe soles, but think carefully about where you ask your dog to walk. This is a huge concern for service dogs, since they are more likely to be out an about in any weather than pets. What to do?

First, avoid blacktop. Let the dog walk on grass or dirt wherever possible. Gravel gets hot, too. Light-colored sidewalks are better than asphalt, but in this heat, they will be hot too. If it feels hot to your feet or the palm of you hand, it’s uncomfortable for the dog. Let the dog stay home if possible. Or walk early in the day, before the sidewalk gets hot.

A recent discussion on a service dog email list settled on two possible solutions for dogs who must go out on hot days: booties and paw-protecting cream.

The best booties, the consensus is, are these: Ruff-Wear Grip Trex. Guiding Eyes for the Blind recommends them, too. These are more suitable than regular dog boots because they have a breathable mesh top. Even so, booties are not an ideal solution. They can be hard to put on and take off, which is an issue for many service dog partners. In addition, and possibly more critical in this heat, is that dogs need to sweat through their paw pads to cool off. These booties let some sweat evaporate, because they have that mesh top, but I still worry that the rubber sole will interfere with the dog’s ability to cool off. If you use them for short outdoor walks and remove them as soon as you get indoors, they are probably a great solution. If your dog tolerates them … and that is the final objection: Most dogs hate booties. Some people begin conditioning very young puppies to wear socks or booties, and they might have some success. Some dogs are just OK with stuff on their feet. But most dogs? Not happening.

So option two, which is also an option for winter, might be a better choice: Musher’s Secret. I just got some. It’s easy to apply, and seemed to absorb very quickly. Cali didn’t object at all, and she really isn’t crazy about having her feet handled. One review I saw online said Musher’s Secret helps dry, cracked noses heal, too. I have noticed that Cali’s nose and feet are dry and rough; I hope this helps get them back to a healthier state. Many online reviewers love Musher’s Secret; a small minority hate it. Stay tuned for a report on the state of Cali’s nose and toes.

Other ways we’ve dealt with the heat? I got out the wading pool for Cali, Mack, and Alberta the other day … and they all ignore the cool water and wondered why I had dunked their favorite toys. Silly girls. Yesterday, Cali finally got to explore Jacob’s Island, a dog park in the middle of the Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula! How great is that? A sandy-legged, smiling Cali was led reluctantly from the park after a spirited splash in the river with a young Lab mix. We’ll need to do that more often!

Lessons from the Original Thinking Dog

A happy Jana rolls in leaves on a lush lawnI had hoped to be celebrating Jana’s 14th birthday today, July 2. Instead, Cali and I have moved to Montana without her; we marked her birthday with a walk to a place she loved, Mormon Creek. We were with Koala, Storm, Ki, and Django. Quite a few dogs are missing from this group.

Rather than dwelling on the sadness of missing Jana, Ory, Weizer, Gus, Cedar … I am thinking about some of the most important things I learned from Jana during our years together.

Before I met Jana, I knew that dogs were smart and could start learning just about as soon as they opened their eyes. Even so, Jana astonished me.

A very young Jana studies her Kong toy.
Jana was a young Kong addict

I met Jana when she was only about 4 weeks old — not long after she opened her eyes. She came home at 7 weeks and started learning things immediately. First, of course, she learned about treats; that took about 2 seconds. She never met a treat toy that could keep her from her food for more than a few minutes.

As a puppy, and even an adolescent, Jana was an easy dog to live with. For instance, though she was the first puppy I housetrained, Jana learned to toilet outside almost immediately — she was a very clean dog in that way — and she quickly developed a strong preference for grass. She was never destructive as a puppy, though she was always vocal when displeased, starting with my initial (failed) attempt to crate train her.

Very quickly, Jana learned about stairs — mastering them when I left her downstairs and ran up to grab something. Not 2 minutes later, I walked down the stairs to find my tiny puppy hoisting herself up the huge staircase. Though she ultimately learned to accept boundaries and would respect even so flimsy a barrier as a partially closed door, she also wanted to be with me. As a young puppy, this manifested first with the stairs and later, with her flying leaps over the baby gate that was meant to keep her safely enclosed.

And Jana quickly learned to respond to verbal cues — so many that I can’t list them here. She picked up new skills so fast that I had to work hard to come up with new challenges. She would do anything, figure out anything, solve any problem for the chance to earn a cookie. Watching her was amazing. I could see the gears turning as she tackled problems and figured out the names of items she was asked to retrieve, what the laser pointer was indicating for her to do, how to brace herself on a door jamb to pull open a door, how to extract treats from the very small hole on her treat toy …

Jana lies on her back to squeeze treats from a toy into her mouth
Jana lies on her back to squeeze treats from a toy into her mouth

Jana’s intelligence accompanied her fierce independence. Thus, I also learned from Jana that her agenda and priorities might often be misaligned with mine, and having opposable thumbs did not mean that I always got my way. We learned to negotiate, compromise, and respect each other’s differing perspectives. For instance, I was forced to accept her definition of cuddling: Sharing space, perhaps on the same bed, more likely in the same room. Limited physical contact on her terms only. Jana was not like the typical golden; she needed few friends, but if you were a person she’d decided she liked, you had a friend for life. Her chosen people got very warm greetings, and Jana actually chose to spend time with them, even seeking them out. The best compliment was being invited to play a game of tug.

The truth is, Jana and I shared a lot, and I could fill books with what I learned from her. I know that she had a great life, and I am grateful that she had a dignified, relatively quick and pain-free death, but I still miss my princess every day. Happy birthday, Jana.

Jana had a knack for finding large heart-shaped rocks; here is one from her collection
Jana had a knack for finding large heart-shaped rocks; here is one from her collection

 

In Her Own Time

Koala, a black Labrador, relaxes on a hammock-style dog bed

I wrote last week’s post on Koala and her reluctance to move to a big-girl bed a few weeks before it was published. Since then, she went on a long visit (with Deni of course) to Deni’s mom’s house. There, she did not have a crate. And, she decided, upon returning home, that she was ready for her grown-up bed. She wouldn’t even look at the crate. Crates are for babies, she said. Why would I want one?

The crate is gone.

I think it is more about choice than about where Koala sleeps. She wants to — and should be able to — make choices about things that affect her quality of life (to a reasonable extent, of course … Cali does not get to do the grocery shopping, for example, and neither does Koala).

I’ve had an interesting email conversation over the last couple of weeks with a reader who has taken her dogs’ communication and ability to make choices to an unusual level. She uses an approach similar to what I have seen a few other people do, which is to present two options and have the dog choose a hand. Left for yes, right for no, or left for “go for a walk” and right for “play ball.” Things like that.

I have not taught this to very many dogs, but Jana and Cali picked up the idea pretty quickly. Cali’s favorite daily choice is between two tennis balls (yes, she’s a bit obsessed). Our morning routine goes like this: Walk to the park. She skips and dances ahead and has to be reminded not to pull. As we get close to the gate she literally wriggles with joy and excitement. She gets to the gate first and stands at attention, touching the gate with her nose. I open the gate and reach down to unhook her leash. She bounds into the park, turns and sits, looking eager and expectant. I pull the Chuckit and two tennis balls out of the bag. I offer her both balls. She sniffs each one deeply, sometimes wavering, then makes a choice. She watches carefully to make sure I don’t pull a fast one, swapping the balls. I put the rejected ball away, slip the chosen ball into the Chuckit, and throw.

Occasionally we have a variation: She somehow gets hold of a ball at home and carries it to the park. I throw that one.

She always carries her ball home from the park.

The point is that, along with getting to play her favorite game, (which is not what you think) she gets some control over that game. The game, by the way, is not fetch or catch. It’s: Run after the ball, grab it, then keep it away from everyone else, human, canine, avian, or whatever, in the vicinity. Occasionally let a human get it and throw it again. Repeat for as long as you can get the humans to cooperate.

Anyhow, in addition to that, Cali gets to choose. She takes her choice very seriously. There are other choices in her day. She occasionally gets to choose between two treats or two games; she might get to choose whether to go for a walk or have a play session; she often gets to choose which direction we go on a walk. But really, she doesn’t have that many choices in her life. The few areas where she gets to exercise some control are important to her. I think that’s true for Koala as well. And for every other intelligent creature, canine or otherwise.

 

Mind Your Manners

Wylie, a polite dog?Wylie hates peanut butter. It literally makes him gag. That’s why this story, from several years ago, is still one of my favorites: It tells me something really cool about dogs.

When Wylie was about to retire as a guide dog, his best friend t work brought him cookies. Very special gourmet dog cookies. One problem: They were peanut-butter cookies. Deni graciously thanked her colleague and said gently that she wasn’t sure Wylie would like them; he was fussy. The friend said, let’s see. He offered Wylie a cookie. Wylie accepted the cookie with appropriate doggy gratitude and ate it. The friend went happily on his way, feeling good that his gift had been accepted and enjoyed.

Surprised, Deni offered Wylie another cookie. He gave her what she can only describe as a disgusted “Are you nuts? I don’t eat that garbage” look, turned, and walked away. He never ate another one of those cookies.

Was Wylie “just being polite,” telling one of those little “white” lies we all tell when we want to avoid hurting someone’s feelings? Can a dog do that?

Here’s a different way to think about it, though, really, we’ll arrive at the same conclusion: Dogs are very empathetic. They excel at reading and responding to our emotions. Many dog people have stories of dogs offering comfort when they were sad; getting excited when were excited; responding in a way that many people regard as “guilty” when we are angry. In truth, the dogs are more likely to be trying to appease a person they perceive as angry, but they are accurately reading the person’s emotion.

If Wylie got excited about the cookies, he could be said to be mirroring the friend’s emotion: The guy was presenting a gift that he had selected with Wylie in mind, and he was happy to see Wylie get the gift and enjoy it. Or the friend was sad to be saying good-bye. But Wylie didn’t get excited or offer comfort. He offered a gracious and appropriate, but not overly happy, response. (I don’t think Wylie is capable of phoniness.) And he clearly rejected the gift as soon as his buddy left the room.

My explanation is that Wylie was reading the situation clearly and accurately. He’d been around lots of people in lots of social situations, and he knew these two people really well. He behaved as he’d learned was appropriate. He wasn’t, I don’t think, consciously deciding to lie — any more than we consciously decide to lie each and every time we say something that will make someone feel good — or, to more clearly match this situation, every time we say or do something that is nice and socially expected rather than blurt out our first or most honest thought.

Jana, who really has no use for children of any species, is perfectly gracious and polite when being “enthusiastically petted” (she’d say “mauled”) by a child, but she gives me that look that says loud and clear: “Get me out of here, now, please.” And Alberta would dutifully “say hello” to people she and Deni met, but she really didn’t want to; and she expected a cookie as a reward afterward.

So, I would argue, that dogs read social situations and respond appropriately. What is “appropriate” in a given situation varies widely, and it is learned, not instinctive. Some dogs, and some humans, learn better than others. Some dogs do this well with dogs and poorly with humans, or the reverse. Wylie’s social instincts with other dogs were often less astute than his social instincts in this particular human instance.

So, while I’m not arguing that dogs adopt human social manners, I would say that they learn, over time with the same people, what those people think is acceptable. Much about dog-human relationships entails dogs trying to do what they think their human wants; it’s not surprising that this can get nuanced or that Wylie and Jana are good at it.

An Idea Whose Time Is Up

A recent Freakonomics podcast featured various politicians talking about one idea about elections that they wish would die, go away, never be mentioned again. I like that idea because I have a long list of absurd ideas about dogs and other nonhumans that I wish would go away and die a miserable, lonely death.

High up on that list is one that is getting a lot of attention these days, due to the unfortunate publication of a new book by novelist Tom Wolfe: the idea that only humans use language. Though I am one of the few people I know who disliked Bonfire of the Vanities, I had some professional respect for Wolfe as a writer until I heard his interview on NPR about his new book.

Wolfe essentially suggests that if evolution occurs, it only happens to nonhumans. That’s bad enough. But what really got my blood boiling were his comments on language. In the interview, Wolfe made the absurd claim that no evidence of anything resembling a language has ever been seen in a nonhuman. Wow. He really should have done some very basic research, like a cursory Google search, before deciding that. There’s a lot of research out there on animals and language.

Wolfe uses “speech” and “language” interchangeably, which is already a clear indication he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Many languages exist that are not based on speech, the most obvious being American (or any other) Sign Language. Thousands of nonverbal people understand and use language; some even write beautifully. Many actual scientists, even some who believe that only humans use language, have published extensive research on language and how it is separate from and does not require speech.

Wolfe also claimed that speech / language is necessary for any sort of memory or planning. Hmm, how does he explain insects, birds, mammals who store food for the winter (and remember where they put it); any critter who finds his way home once he leaves the den, ever, or who leads his pack back to the marvelous carcass or other food source he’s discovered? Even bees remember and guide others to food sources they’ve found. Memory. Memory, communication, teaching … And wouldn’t pack hunting, as wolves do, require planning? Building a nest or den requires both planning and memory. There’s a lot of research on these topics, too.But t

But really. Let’s focus on dogs for a moment. To establish that these nonhumans use language, remember, and plan, all you really need to do is spend a few days with a dog. Watch a dog come up with really clever plans for appropriating a coveted bone or toy from his sibling, or walk a dog who remembers where that lovely dead thing she rolled in last week was, or see how excited the dog gets when she recognizes the drive to the dog beach?

I could list, literally, thousands of examples from my own experience, reading, research, and students’ and friends’ stories. So could anyone who has ever paid much attention to dogs, elephants, chimps, whales, prairie dogs, birds, or any of the many other nonhumans who use language. Memory is essential to learning anything; and it is clear that millions of critters, but especially, and most near and dear to my heart, dogs, learn, remember, plan, use tools, problem-solve, and manipulate humans.

book cover of Beyond Words by Carl Safina My favorite comment on the interview came from an NPR listener who wrote that “It was the equivalent of interviewing an expert on evolutionary biology who never reads novels to get his opinions about how novelists can write better stories.” Yup. Stick to what you know: make-believe. Another good response is this column about why it matters when a famous writer dismisses evolution.

If you want to learn about language, read Chasing Doctor Doolittle or Beyond Words, both beautiful books about what language is and how various nonhumans use it. I’ve written several posts on this blog that address human communication with dogs and dogs’ ability to learn to understand human language. (I’ve never claimed that dogs have speech, and I do know the difference.) You can find those by searching this blog site.

 

Last Night Alone

koala-in-showerA guest post by Deni Elliott

Tonight is my last night alone. After four months of crawling into bed without Guiding Eyes Alberta snorting and snoring a few feet away, tonight is my last night alone. Tomorrow I meet Guiding Eyes Koala. As hard as I’ve squinted at photos and video and as tightly as I have clutched each new piece of information, I find it odd how little I can imagine about our future together.

Koala’s passed all the tests and has exceeded expectations. I’ve heard that she leaps into her harness and back-channels routes after only one trip. She eagerly solves problems and pivots on a dime, ready for new adventure. A personality match for sure. But I remind myself that I need to go slow and not expect too much of this 2-year-old.

At the cusp of this unknown relationship curving to be real, my tummy flutters with butterflies of anxiety and anticipation. I can imagine the home trainer better than the dog he is bringing me.

Jim Gardner, GEB director of home training, will fly from New York to Tampa with Koala curled at his feet. I imagine Jim cheerfully answering the questions I am annoyed to be asked. “Are you training that dog?” someone will ask. “Yes,” he’ll smile, “This is a new, young guide dog. I am taking her to meet her blind partner.” When asked, I put on the same “please the public” smile, but say in a way that invites no further intrusion: “Every day is a training day, but I am blind, and she is my guide dog.”

I imagine Jim calmly replying, when asked the dog’s name, “We don’t tell people that because we don’t want them distracted.” Knowing that despite 16 years of guide dog use that I am still paralyzed by strangers asking my dog’s names, other trainers have had me practice giving a fake name. I don’t lie well. Saying, “I won’t tell you,” feels rude. “Leave us alone,” is definitely rude. Saying, “If I tell you the dog’s name, you will immediately say it and distract her and that is exactly what I don’t want you to do,” is too long and complicated. So, I quickly say, “This is the dog’s name, BUT DON’T SAY IT.” As those words come out of my mouth, I concurrently offer a treat so that the dog doesn’t pay attention to what the other person might say. We then hurry away.

I imagine Jim chaperoning Koala and me on our first neighborhood walk. “What can we do for our first outing?” I will ask. “Two miles? One mile? 250 steps?” I have three routes mapped out just in case.  For the months I’ve caned my way through twice-daily walks, I’ve imagined being guided by new dog instead. I whisper “Right-right,” and “To the curb please,” and “Good dog, good job.” I’ve counted the number of streets I cross on these daily laps so that I can help Koala learn streets where she needs to stop and driveways where she doesn’t. I imagine the neighbors that I pass daily expressing surprise and sending best wishes when they see me with Koala in harness instead of gripping a cane.

I cry when I imagine Jim and Koala arriving from the airport tomorrow night. I have joked about lighting candles and pouring wine for the new girl’s arrival. In truth, I have stocked the house with beds, toys, crate, food and treats. I ache with the knowledge that none of these will fill her heart tomorrow night. All I can do is make promises that she won’t understand.

She’ll wonder where her most recent caregivers, Graham and David, have gone. She’ll look for her special canine friend, Wrangler. Some visual or scent will call to mind her puppy raiser mom, Eileen, although it has been six months since they’ve seen one another. From Alberta, I know that well-raised guide dogs never forget previous family members and greet them with great joy. I suspect Koala would prefer we all live together in one pack. I can’t make that happen, but I will promise to keep her connected with the dogs and humans who matter to her most.

koala-and-deniI will promise to keep her safe. I hope that she never needs to know that I will instinctively fold her under my body for protection if anything threatens her just as I did when Alberta and I were attacked by a stray dog.

I will promise to trust her today and for all of the tomorrows we have together. When I am utterly confused, I will follow her lead, knowing that she’ll have better ideas that I about what to do next.

I can’t imagine Koala at my side because I don’t know yet the person she will turn out to be. But I can promise to show her day after day that I will love her for being her own best self and for who we can become together. Maybe that’s enough for the first day.

Postscript: Koala and Deni are off to a great start!