Sunday, April 29, 2012


The five "W" questions that a detective always asks:  who, what, where, when, and why...provide the lead-in to this week's topic of Questions On Dogs and Cats.  The human/pet connection has existed for millenia, in one form or another.  Recent written history provides many clues to the dynamics of that connection while many of the sciences give us indications of what happened thousands of years ago.  Sit back and enjoy a story of why you probably feel very comfortable sharing your time with a pet.

Repeating Cues: Information or Affect?

By Patricia McConnell

A blog reader asked a great question recently, in response to my comment that I couldn’t help myself and repeated “Stay, Stay, Stay” to Willie when in a dangerous situation at the side of a busy highway. We all know that repeated cues, like the ever popular “Sit, Sit, Sit” are not exactly “best practice” in dog training. And yet, they are commonly used, especially by beginners; just go to any Beginning Family Dog Training class and you’ll hear repeated cues thrown around like confetti at a homecoming parade. It was that very occurrence that helped inspire me to write The Other End of the Leash, about how the evolutionary backgrounds of people and dogs both help us (we’re both crazy social and insanely playful) and hurt us (direct facial contact is polite to people, rude to dogs). “Sit, Sit, Sit” sounds a lot like “Wooo Woo Woo” coming from a chimpanzee, and that is not a random association. But why? Why do we repeat ourselves like agitated apes, and why is it so hard to stop? We all know why it is a problem in training: If you want your dog to sit the first time you say “Sit” you are teaching the opposite if you say it three times in a row. But besides wondering why we do it, might it be useful, ever, to repeat ourselves?

First of all, why do we repeat ourselves when it makes no sense? A look at the science of vocal communication is helpful here. We know that individuals who are emotionally aroused tend to produce short, repeated vocalizations. Think of repeated whines from a needy dog, whimpers from a child upset about something, and your own predisposition to repeat yourself when you are nervous. In The Other End of the Leash I talk about a good friend who had never ridden, and yet was inappropriately placed on a nervous, high strung horse. The faster the horse went, the more my friend said “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” and the more he did the faster the horse went and the faster the horse went the faster he said “Whoa Whoa Whoa”… You can well imagine that it did not end well.

This linkage between emotional arousal and short, repeated vocalizations is so common in mammals that some speculated that all animal vocalizations were nothing more than indicators of their emotional state. As arousal increases, so does the rate of vocalizing. Thus, it makes sense that when we are nervous we tend to repeat ourselves, and who isn’t nervous the first time they take a dog into a dog training class, no matter how kind and benevolent the instructors?

But there’s more to vocalizations than the internal state of the producer. An important aspect of my dissertation research was to shift the focus and look at a sound’s effect on the receiver. I had found that across language groups, cultures and species of receiver, people use short, rapidly repeated notes to speed animals up, long and slow ones to soothe or slow them and one sharp sound to stop a fast moving animal. And the study I did on puppies showed that they indeed were more active in response to short, repeated notes than to long, slow ones. That’s why I argued that sounds do more than provide information about the internal state of the producer (or predict future behavior), but can be used to influence the response of the receiver.

Go back now to the story I told in a recent blog about having to get Willie out of his crate beside a busy highway. Picture cars and trucks whizzing by at 65 miles an hour, a huge bleeding, flapping beast barely contained by Jim’s arms, and me needing to open the crate in the back of my RAV to get Willie out and put the turkey in. Describing everyone as “aroused” is appropriate here: If Jim had lost the turkey it could have fallen/ran/flown just a few feet into the highway and caused a horrible accident. If I didn’t handle Willie right he could have been killed. Tom Turkey must have been the most agitated — injured and now captured by monsters, he must have been terrified. Here’s what the scene looked and sounded like, as best as I can describe it:

I opened the door to the back of the car (the door to Willie’s crate facing directly to the back). While holding my out, palm toward Willie in the universal “Stay” signal, I began repeated “Staaaaaaay, Staaaaaay, Staaaasaay” before I opened the door to his crate. Notice there were two important variables the sounds I used here: I repeated myself, but I was using looooooong, sloooooooow notes designed to keep Willie calm and still. I was also consciously keeping my voice low, the better to sound confident and even somewhat inhibiting to a dog. Thus, there were 2 functions to my “cue.” One was using sound to inform Willie what I wanted him to do. The other, which over rode the first, was focused on using sound to influence his emotional state and motor activity levels. This had an indirect benefit on me, in that speaking as I did acted to calm me as much as it did Willie. (Not a small benefit at the time, believe me.)

Was that a “perfect” use of sound in that context? Nope, I don’t think so. It was adequate, and it worked, but here’s a tweak that would have made it better. Ideally, now that I have time to think it through, it would have been better if I had said “Staaaaaaay” once, and then, as Willie did stay (which he did, bless him), I should have said “Gooooooooooood boooooooy” and repeated it as long as I needed to until I had him safely by the collar. That avoided repeating a cue (and thus undercutting the power of it when spoken once) but would, at the same time, serve to keep all of us calmer and safer.

Lots to think about here: First, think about what you say to your dog. Are you using vocal cues to convey information, or to influence your dog’s emotional state? And how do the sounds you use influence your own internal arousal levels? I’d love to hear your thoughts about this. Heaven knows I will never use sound ideally in every context (I have been known, on occasion, to shriek like a five-year old when truly panicked) but I find the more I understand about acoustic communication the better I am at it. You?

Adapted from:

Human-Dog Communication: Breed As Important As Species

Dog breeds selected to work in visual contact with humans, such as sheep dogs and gun dogs, are better able to comprehend a pointing gesture than those breeds that usually work without direct supervision. A series of tests should caution researchers against making simple generalizations about the effects of domestication and on dog-wolf differences in the utilization of human visual signals.

Márta Gácsi, from Eötvös University, Hungary, worked with a team of researchers to examine the performance of different breeds of dogs in making sense of the human pointing gesture. Gácsi said, "It has been suggested that the study of the domestic dog might help to explain the evolution of human communicative skills, because the dog has been selected for living in a human environment and engaging in communicative interactions with humans for more than 10,000 years. However, this study is the first to reveal striking difference in the performance of breed groups selected for different characteristics."

The researchers found that gun dogs and sheep dogs were better than hunting hounds, earth dogs (dogs used for underground hunting), livestock guard dogs and sled dogs at following a pointing finger. They also out-performed mongrels. Moreover, breeds with short noses and centrally placed eyes were better at interpreting the gesture than those with long noses and widely spaced eyes, which can probably be connected to a more optimal retinal location of greatest visual acuity, that might help focus their attention. According to Gácsi, "Although these results may appear to be unsurprising, there is a common tendency to make assumptions about genetic explanations for differences in comprehension between 'dogs' and wolves. Our results show that researchers must be careful to control for animal breed when carrying out behavioral experiments."

Adapted from:

Why Humans Love To Keep Pets

By Krystal D'Costa

I’ll never forget the day S brought home a live chicken. When we lived in Queens, there were a number of fresh poultry and livestock suppliers that catered to the growing West Indian community so live poultry was readily available, but there were also a few backyard farmers in the neighborhood. S was at a gas station when he heard a cheeping noise. He knelt down to investigate and when he straightened up, found a chick sitting on the mat in the car. “What was I supposed to do?” he asked showing me the chick later that day. “It jumped in the car.”

His affinity with animals is nothing new. He trained goldfish. He has refused to kill mice, insisting on releasing them into the wild. At fifteen, he nursed a pigeon back to health after setting its broken wing. During a trip to Trinidad, he befriended a bull—despite being warned away by my uncles—by sitting in the mud with it for hours. And today, we are the proud parents of two cats (we did not keep Chicken Little) who can’t seem to get enough of him. I am definitely second fiddle in their feline minds—though handy to have around when they need to be fed.

S is not alone. Pat Shipman notes the significance of pets—and animals—in our lives:

In both the United States and Australia, 63% of households include pets, compared to 43% of British and 20% of Japanese households. In the United States, the proportion of households with pets is larger than those with children.

This relationship, dubbed the animal connection by Shipman, may have played an important role in human evolution, linking the traits that distinguish Homo sapiens from other mammals. How is it that some animals transitioned from food to friends, and what is the significance of this relationship?

The animal connection is the process by which pets or livestock become companions and/or partners, and are treated as members of the family. It refers to the close relationship between animals and humans starting 2.6 million years ago (mya), beginning with the use and study of animals by humans, and leading to regular social interactions. Today this is manifested in the adoption of animals and the care provided to them in the course of that relationship. The roots of this relationship may be found in the development of three often recognized traits of humans: making and using tools, symbolic behavior (including language, adornment, and rituals), and domestication of other species. Shipman views the animal connection as a fourth trait, tying the other three together and having an immense effect on human evolution, genetics, and behavior.

Though tool use has been documented in other nonhuman mammals, the manufacture and use of tools by humans is an extremely complex behavior. Modern chimpanzees are often recognized for their tool usage, but this usage varies whereas humans consistently use tools. Early humans used tools to process carcasses, and we have evidence of this from the marks left on the bones after contact with implements. Stone tools gave humans an advantage: they no longer needed to compete with scavengers. They could hunt game on their own and/or drive off those scavengers if needed. The increased meat in the human diet meant that humans occupied a predatory niche, and as such necessarily needed to disperse so that their localities could support their needs. While Shipman makes clear that the fossil record supports that expansion of geographic range about 2 million years ago, the more interesting point, in my opinion, is that in seeking out live game, humans needed to learn about their prey, which opened the door for a more meaningful relationship with animals.

Wild animals are certainly able to communicate with each other, but language has thus far largely been relegated to humans, who have a clearly identifiable syntax and grammar.  Animals have alarm calls, but there are limits to what they can communicate. For instance, a chimp alerting his troupe about a snake cannot provide details about the snake: The chimp cannot say it is a brown snake. (Or maybe it can, and we just don’t know.) And while educated apes may have a vocabulary of about 400 words, they don’t apply syntax and grammar to those words. Language allows humans to share information, and we have developed delightfully complicated means of doing so:

Ritual, art, ochre, and personal adornment are used to transmit information about such concepts as beliefs, group membership, or style, leaving physical manifestations visible in the archaeological record. Nothing interpreted as art, ritual, the use of ochre, or personal adornment has been reported in nonhuman mammals in the wild.

As more sophisticated stone tools were developed, humans could pursue larger game. But this might often require collaboration, which encouraged language. Perhaps the strongest example of this is prehistoric art which depicts animals extensively, revealing morphology, coloring, behaviors, and sexual dimorphism. It creates a record to be shared with others.

Domestication required humans to select for desirable behavioral traits and control the reproductive and genetic output over generations. They lived in close proximity to the animals, historically even bringing them into the home. Indeed, the physical closeness of humans to animals has allowed some infectious diseases to enter the human population from animal hosts, e.g., measles (dogs), mumps (poultry), tuberculosis (cattle), and the common cold (horses). However, the benefits have outweighed the costs when it comes to keeping animals near—animals are much more than a food source:

The Goyet dog is at least 17,000 years older than the next oldest domesticate (also a dog) … animals were domesticated first because their treatment was an extension of tool making.  Animals were domesticated as living tools. They expanded the reach of humans and made other resources more accessible. Animals could provide labor, milk, wool, and opportunities for the production of tools and clothing. And domestication was hedged on an understanding of biology, ecology, physiology, temperament and intelligence.

While much has been made of the monkey who appears to have adopted a cat, such cross-species alloparenting is rare. Humans are the exception. We routinely take in animals integrate them into our families, creating a beneficial relationship. Our connection to Fido may be deeply rooted in our evolutionary history.

Adapted from:


The LA Dodgers finished this week with a 3-game sweep of the Washington Nationals, the other hot team in the National League.  That leaves us with the best record in the NL.

The San Antonio Spurs won their first playoff game handily against the Utah Jazz.

"Properly trained, a man can be dog's best friend."  Corey Ford, 1952

~~The goal of this blog is to provide general information and advice to help you be a better pet owner and to have a more rewarding relationship with your pet. This blog does not intend to replace the professional one-on-one care your pet receives from a practicing veterinarian. When in doubt about your pet's health, always visit a veterinarian.~~

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