Animals in our lives: A philosophical investigation of the science of companion animals

I am terribly pleased to announce that I’ll be teaching Philosophy 271: Animals in our Lives, a new course offered by the Philosophy Department at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

This class is a philosophical analysis of contemporary scientific research on companion animal (mostly canine) cognition, emotion, and training.

The students and I will explore:

  • how this scientific research is embedded in contemporary culture,
  • the practical influences on, and impacts of, this research, and
  • the role of values and ethics in the creation and use of this new scientific knowledge.

I’ll keep you posted as I develop and implement this course. I am So. Excited.

Phil 271 Animals in our lives

Gift ideas for people who love dogs (and science)!

Books! Books! Books! I went from being a shy nerd in high school to being a proud nerd in university. I loved university so much that, except for one mercifully short semester waiting tables, I never left. Proud nerds like to give and receive books. I haven’t read all the books that about dogs and science, but I’ve read lots of them. Here are some that would make good gifts:

My top pick:

what the dog knowsWhat the Dog Knows: Scent, Science, and the Amazing Ways Dogs Perceive the World, by Cat Warren

What the Dog Knows is one of those books that you sit down to read for half an hour, and suddenly three hours have gone by, you’re starving, and it’s dinner time. It’s a page-turner about working dogs who use their sense of smell for a living. Cat Warren, a journalist turned university professor, guides us on a tour of the science of the canine sense of smell, the history of scent detection and tracking, and the practice of training and working with dogs by telling the story of searching for dead people with her cadaver dog, a German Shepherd named Solo.

Runner-up:

the two in oneThe Two in One: Walking with Smokie, Waking with Blindness, by Rod Michalko

This memoir documents sociologist Rod Mechalko’s changing understanding of his own blindness through his relationship with his service dog, Smokie. Although there are places where this book can be a very dense read, it is also touching, and at times funny.

Stranger: Is that one of those blind dogs?

Mechalko: “I hope not!”

The story of the developing trust and respect between this scientist and his dog changed how I think about working guide dogs. And, Michalko’s changing relationship with his blindness made me think about disability not as a lack or absence, but as a different way of being in the world.

Third place:

animals make us humanAnimals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals, by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

As usual, Grandin encourages us to pay close attention to the creatures around us. With clear and concrete prose the authors explore the emotional architecture of different kinds of animals to figure out how to maximize their emotional welfare. There are three things that I especially love about this book. First, the authors respect both scientific and practical experts in animal behavior and combine insights from both groups of people. Second, this book highlights the work of field scientists, and the importance of keeping science open to researchers with a wide range of experiences, perspectives, and skills.  Finally, this book is premised on the notion that humans are animals too. The authors use their emotional framework to advocate for creating environments that encourage humans to treat animals in ways that maximize animals emotional well being. That is clever and demonstrates an interesting sort of integrity.

Tied for fourth place:

How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain, By Gregory Berns

The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter than you Think, by Brian Hare
how dogs love usThese books offer the reader a glimpse of what scientists actually do. Gregory Berns offers a fascinating discussion of the research ethics involved in training pet dogs to participate in fMRI experiments. He treats his canine research subjects with the same ethical consideration that is mandated for research with human children. Cool.

the genius of dogsWhat grabs me most about Brian Hare’s book is that he doesn’t just explain his experiments, he explains how he developed those experiments and why he ran the experiments the way he did. Reading this book can help a person understand how to think like a scientist. These two books aren’t written with the same grace as my top three picks, but they are both good picks for people who want to think about science and ethics as well as learn something about canine cognition and emotion.

What books would you add to this list?

 

This blog is about RV travel, dogs, and science.  Here is my RV travel-themed gift list, and here is my German Shepherd Dog-themed gift list. Happy holidays!

Shaking dogs: It’s Physics!

There are lots of neat slow-motion videos of dogs shaking. But this one is probably the best. Why? Because it features David Hu, a mechanical engineer from Georgia Tech, who explains his research on shaking dogs AND how that research can be applied to all sorts of things ranging from solar panels, to cameras, to planetary rovers (OMG, this pun just made itself 😀 ).

The video is 2 minutes long. Don’t let the mouse in the first frame deceive you, it’s about dogs. It really is full of adorable shaking dogs.


This is a great example of scientific research with applications that wouldn’t, at least immediately, come to mind for most of us.

To some people, research on dogs seems wasteful.

But, research on canine health has resulted in huge improvements human health and human medicine. And David Hu’s research on shaking dogs, a topic that at first glance seems whimsical and even silly, could someday help us humans explore other planets.

Shaking dog

Thanks buddy!

Figuring out what your dog is thinking: “Does this pee smell funny to you?”

This post is not about asparagus.

One of the neatest thing about being human is that I get to know what it is like to be me. I’m not saying I’m all that, I’m saying that I have consciousness, self-awareness, and that it’s great. For example, I love chocolate cake. Not only am I happy when I eat it, I know that I’m happy when I eat it, and moreover, I know that there’s a me that is happy. There is something that it is like to be me. I can stop, introspect, and think about what I’m thinking right now—which, thanks to that last example, is chocolate cake.

Amoebas don’t get to do this. I doubt an amoeba says to itself, “Damn I’m hungry. I’m going to tuck into the next paramecium I see.” That amoeba exists and eats, but it doesn’t know what it is like to exist or to eat, it doesn’t know that IT is doing the eating and I am pretty sure that it didn’t enjoy doing the eating.

Consciousness, humans have it, and amoebas don’t. But what about other creatures? One way scientists have tried to test whether a creature has consciousness is to see if it recognizes itself in a mirror. Most creatures, including humans less than 18 months old, don’t.

When my cat Hoss jumps up on my bathroom counter while I’m getting ready in the morning, he puffs up, hisses, and arches his back at the sight of his reflection, just like he does when he sees the neighbor’s cat walk by the living room window. While he might have some kind of consciousness, he doesn’t provide evidence of it when he treats his reflection like it’s another cat.

When a chimp sees its reflection, it might initially ask its mirror image to play, but before long you can see a lightbulb go off in that chimp’s eyes as it realizes it’s looking at itself. At this point, chimps start doing things like opening their mouths to check out their molars and pulling their eyelids down to look at the whites of their eyes. My personal favorite is when they turn around to look over their shoulders at their rear ends like they’re trying on jeans in a department store. It seems like these chimps know they’re seeing themselves, and this means they have some idea that they are a self, that they have some sense of being a “me.”

Scientists also perform an experiment called the Mark Test, in which they put dye on a chimp’s forehead and then plunk her back in front of a mirror. When a chimp passes this test she will touch her forehead as if to say, “What the heck is this stuff on me?” Again, there is that word, “me.”

Adult humans, chimps, elephants, magpies, and dolphins have all ‘passed’ the mark test. But not dogs.

Psychologist Andrea Horowitz realized that the mirror and mark tests might not tell us much about dog consciousness because these tests are primarily visual and dogs rely heavily on their sense of smell. So, instead of marking a dog’s head with dye, she had the cool idea of marking a dog’s scent with another scent. In other words, she performed a sort of olfactory mark test.

She exposed a bunch of dogs to four kinds of smells: their urine, an unfamiliar dog’s urine, their urine with another scent added, and that other scent on its own.

She found that of all these scents, dogs were most interested in the smell of their urine with another scent added to it. These dogs paid a lot of attention to the smell of their own “marked” urine.

So, does a dog paying attention to the smell of its ‘marked’ urine, mean the same thing as a chimp paying attention to its marked reflection in a mirror?

The comparison is complicated because while we can observe a chimp try to remove the dye from its face, we can’t observe a dog try to remove the funny smell from its pee.

But even so, and as Horowitz explains in her original publication titled “Smelling themselves: Dogs investigate their own odours longer when modified in an “olfactory mirror” test” her data is

consistent with a thesis that dogs notice their odour when it is changed, and move to more fully examine it. Such behaviour implies a recognition of the odour as being or from themselves.

The neat word in this quote is ‘themselves.” If the dog could talk, it might say, “Hey, this smells like me, but with something different added in.”

We need to be careful not to make too much of a single study. There is still a lot of research that needs to be done on canine consciousness and canine minds.

But I have to admit that I am enthralled by Horowitz’s idea of an olfactory mirror for dogs.

sniff 3Milo the AwesomeDog loves to sniff. He regularly sniffs so vigorously that he has to sneeze out the debris he’s sucked into his nose. I am almost overcome with curiosity about what the movie in his mind must “look like” when instead of being based on sight, it’s based on smell-o-vision. And then Horowitz comes along and uses this smell-o-vision as way to look into what it is like to be him. Milo knows he smells, therefore he is?

 

Life with a recovering reactive dog​: Part two

Note: This is part two of a two-part post. Click here to read part one.

Now.

A couple of months ago I signed Milo and me up for a research project investigating canine fear and aggression in veterinary settings. I jumped into this survey eagerly, sure that Milo’s jackassery would provide them with some interesting data. They wanted to know about dogs acting out, and boy could tell them about a dog acting out.

I don’t think I was ever so pleased to be so disappointed about an experiment.  You see, the survey questions all had a time index.


What sorts of fear behaviour did Milo exhibit at his last vet visit? None.

During that visit did he show any aggressive behaviours when:

  • Getting weighed? No.
  • Touched? No.
  • Vaccinated? No.
  • Having his ears examined? No.
  • Having blood drawn? No.
  • Having his temperature taken? OK, Yes. He growled at the vet tech when she tried to stick a thermometer up his bum. Fair enough. We didn’t get a temperature that day.

If those questions were about my worst vet visit or any vet visit three years ago, the answers would have been different. When I sat down to take this survey, I was ready to give those three-year-old answers. But, in the last three years Milo, and I, have changed. He’s a more confident dog. I’m a calmer person. And we’re a stronger team.

I caught myself living in the past again when Milo and I were camping at Killbear Provincial Park. Our campsite was beside what must have been an intergenerational, extended family camping trip. There were at least seven children under the age of five, they yelled a lot, and all of them, except the newborn, seemed to think that running while yelling was the thing to do.

Screaming creatures darting around—the kind of game that Milo was always keen to join, except that he weighed more than any three of those kids combined. I steeled myself for a couple of days of barking and a complaint from the Park Office.

Would you like to know what happened?

Nothing.

Milo started staring at one of the kids, and I told him to knock it off and that we don’t bark at silly things. He knocked it off and did not bark at the silly things. There were a bunch of people with dogs at that campground. And every single dog that walked by reacted to those children more than Milo did, every single one.

People came by my site and complimented Milo on being such a good boy.

One person even told me that I was “lucky” to have such a good dog. I let that one slide on by.

I will always be careful and respect the fact that Milo is a formidable animal. We’ve done a tremendous amount of work together over the years, developed a fantastic relationship, and things got better.

I love him to distraction. I just have to remember to love the dog he is right now.

2

 

Please, leash your … children

Over the last four days, three children have charged Milo. They squealed, threw their arms in the air, and ran, full tilt, right at him. In the olden days, this is when natural selection would happen.

back and tan German Shepherd Dog standing on a rocky outcrop against a blue sky

This is Milo, the dog those children charged.

These situations turned out OK because Milo and I have practiced staying calm around children. I kept the kids off Milo and Milo under control, but those kids gave him a fright. He barked at one of them (so did I actually) and the parent gave me the evil eye as they collected their progeny.

I am proud to say I adulted very well. I ignored  the parent and put Milo through a little obedience routine. I wanted him to remember that although kids can be irritating they are not a big deal, and that he and I have more interesting things to do than attend to them. I also wanted the parent to see that Milo is a serious and well-trained dog.

It is common to be more strongly influenced by bad events than by events that make you happy, so common in fact, that psychologists have named the phenomenon. They call it negativity bias. I bet Milo and I have met hundreds of kids and hundreds of dogs on this trip and that most of them were perfectly fine. However, my memories of the good interactions are not nearly as strong as my memories of the bad interactions.

And you know what? Dogs dogs suffer from negativity bias too. The kids who disrespect and frighten Milo are going to make a disproportionate impression on him. Just like negative interactions are more likely to stick in your mind, they are also more likely to stick in a dog’s mind. A bad experience with a child can make it more difficult for a dog guardian to nurture a dog who is friendly and behaves well around children.

The bottom line is that if you happen to have access to a child, Milo and I would be very grateful if you taught them how to respect dogs. This makes it easier for people like me to teach our dogs to respect children.

To learn more, check out the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals webpage where you’ll find information about how to respect dogs and help children and dogs live well together.

The high cost of doggy weight loss

There are a lot of fat dogs out there. The rate of canine obesity, like the rate of human obesity, seems to be climbing. According to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention 53.9 percent of dogs are overweight or obese, and the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association tells us that the most important thing we can do to lengthen our pet’s lives is to control their weight.

Our concerns about pet welfare easily transform into concerns about pet weight loss. So, perhaps it is not that surprising that human diet cultures and weight loss industries are reiterated with respect to our canine companions.

There are many things that we can do and buy to get a dog’s weight under control, and some of them sound a lot like things we can do and buy to get a person’s weight under control.

You might have heard of the Hollywood Diet, but have you heard of the Show Dog Diet? One article on the American Kennel Club webpage actually recommends the Show Dog Diet, which involves feeding your dog one ‘normal’ meal in the morning, and then feeding her low sodium green beans with a bit of kibble later in the day. After the initial weight loss resulting from feeding your dog beans this diet recommends that owners switch their dogs to commercial weight loss dog food. And there is a plethora weight control and weight loss dog foods to choose from– Science Diet, Royal Canin, Iams, Arcana, Purina One, the list goes on and on.

How can you tell if your dog is a healthy weight? Purina helps veterinarians and pet guardians alike make this determination with their Body Condition Score chart.

A chart showing pictures of dogs ranging from fat to thin from the top and side.

In addition to high quality, and high price, dog food pet guardians can also purchase exercise equipment for their fat dogs. If you have an extra thousand or so dollars laying around you can even invest in a treadmill for your pudgy pooch.

small white dog on a black treadmill with red rails.

We can also buy exercise equipment for our pudgy pups. Canine treadmills are often advertised as tools for canine weight control and obesity prevention.

After trying the diets, special foods, and exercise equipment, dog guardians can turn to pharmaceuticals to help their dog lose weight. “Doggy diet pills: Are they safe?” tells the story of Dirlotapide, a drug that “tricks [a dog’s] brain into feeling the dog is full after a smaller meal.” The article goes on to say that while taking this drug a “high-quality commercial diet is recommended” to ensure the dog gets adequate nutrition. It’s a good thing there are so many high quality commercial diets on the market. This article assures us that “side effects, if any, tend to be mild, and can include vomiting, diarrhea, and lethargy.” Other sources, however, tell us that “All pharmacologic weight-management aids should be considered short-term interventions, may have significant side effects.”

In addition to the products we can buy to help our dogs lose weight, there is a wide range of books available about how dogs and their humans can get thin and fit together. Wouldn’t it be a nice to spend an evening curled up with a bowl of ice cream reading Walk a Hound, Lose a Pound: How You and Your Dog Can Lose Weight, Stay Fit, and Have Fun Together?  

The special food, exercise equipment, drugs, and books all cost money. Some of them cost a lot of money. On one hand, if someone finds a way to separate rich people from their cash that’s fine with me. But on the other hand, I’m sad to see yet another way that a person’s income impacts the health of the creatures (both the humans and the nonhumans) in their lives.