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.

Can stories about fat dogs hurt people?

I was snooping around the American Kennel Club website when I came across an article called “The Biggest Loser: Canine Edition.” Before I knew it I was scrolling through a set of ‘success stories’ of extreme dog weight loss; stories that included stats, before and after pictures, and heart wrenching personal narratives. The first pup was Denis from Ohio, who went from a hefty 56 to a svelte nine pounds. Before his weight loss we see a picture of Denis sitting alone, beside a tennis ball. After Denis loses the weight and goes through surgery to free him of two pounds of excess skin, we see him happy in the arms of a smiling woman. Fat, sad, lonely Denis became thin, happy, and loved. It is tempting to cheer for Denis, that is until a person realizes how this story reinforces serious and harmful negative stereotypes about weight.

This sort of heroic dog weight loss narrative litters the internet. In addition to the AKC “Biggest Loser: Canine Edition,” the American Dog Club has a “The Biggest Loser: Doxie Edition,” which tells the story of Obie, the 77 pound Dachshund. Obie’s handler hopes Obie “can be an inspiration to any person or animal trying to lose weight.” If you google “biggest loser pet” you can spend an entire afternoon (believe me I know) reading stories, scrolling through facebook pages, and exploring contests and prizes for extreme dog weight loss. The internet, it seems, is very concerned about fat pets.

a very cute grey and white puppy sitting on a hardwood floor. the caption reads, "I'm not fat... I'm just a little Husky."This internet concern echoes warnings from veterinary medicine and science. Alexander German of the University of Liverpool Institute of Ageing and Chronic Disease writes that “obesity is now recognized as the most important medical disease in pets worldwide.” And the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) identifies “weight control/management as the number one thing a pet owner can do to increase the length of their pet’s life.” The CVMA documents a parade of health horribles resulting from pet obesity including problems such as high blood pressure, increased risk of kidney, heart and vascular diseases, and increased incidence of arthritis, all of which are also health risks faced by obese people.

Some veterinarians draw explicit connections between human health and fitness, and pet health and fitness. For example, the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention‘s mission is to make “the lives of dogs, cats, all other animals and people healthier and more vital.” Founder, veterinarian Ernie Ward, is committed to “developing and promoting parallel weight loss programs designed to help pet owners safely and effectively lose weight alongside their pets.” It is not surprising that my doctor and my dog Milo’s vet are both pleased that Milo and I spend so much time walking together.  We both need the exercise. This focus on the relationships between overweight pets and overweight people, as well as how we think about overweight pets and overweight people, extends from the clinic to the scientific laboratory.

There is a growing body of veterinary research on pet obesity. One concern among veterinary researchers is the absence of a clear standard for what counts as a healthy weight for dogs. Dr. Christopher Byers begins his review article, “Obesity in Dogs,” with a discussion of Body Mass Index (BMI), a research and diagnostic tool developed for humans. Byers points out that the lack of a BMI-like standard for dogs makes it difficult to conduct objective research. This desire for a doggy BMI is troubling because the problems with using BMI as a human health indicator are legion.

But, we can put that worry aside for now because instead of figuring out a dog’s BMI, veterinarians assign a dog a Body Condition Score (BCS) based on their observations of its fat, muscle, and overall shape. Vets will keep track of a dog’s BCS and weight as measures of its overall health and to track health changes over time. The body condition system that I’ve come across most frequently was developed by Nestle Purina in 1997.

A chart showing pictures of dogs ranging from fat to thin from the top and side.Based on this system my vet complimented Milo on being a four or five. I balked, “What do you mean a five, he’s a 10!” My vet quietly let me know that the scale only goes up to nine, and that a four or five is ideal. I’m not the only dog guardian who identifies, maybe a bit too closely, with her pup. The last time I was at the vet’s office, a portly golden retriever came in for her weekly weigh in. The golden’s guardian left the clinic crestfallen—her dog didn’t lose any weight that week. Thankfully, the dog was not fazed by this apparent failure, because losing weight and keeping it off is really difficult for dogs, and for people too.

Back and Tan German Shepherd, standing in profile against a background of green grass and trees. The dog's tummy is tucked up behind its ribcage.

Milo’s body condition score indicates that you can easily feel his ribs and vertebrae when you pet him, you can see his waist from above, when you look at him from the side you can see that his abdomen is tucked up behind his ribcage, and he is well muscled.

Complementing Biggest Loser style online narratives of canine weight loss, the internet provides generous guidance for how to help your dog lose weight. Two themes run through this advice. The first is that we humans have a responsibility to make sure that our dogs aren’t fat, and the second is that weight loss is a matter of calories in and calories out. In her article “The big fat truth about canine obesity,” Christie Keith, science writer for The Bark, tells us that

While healthy, permanent weight loss in humans is hard to achieve, it’s much easier with dogs. They don’t eat a container of Ben and Jerry’s after a stressful day, and they rarely hit the drive-through instead of making a healthy dinner. As long as the human in the relationship manages not to overfeed and under-exercise the dog, weight-loss programs for canines are surprisingly successful.

lets-get-fat-dogsWhile it’s true that most of our dogs eat what we give them, and exercise when we walk them, when we shift our focus from popular to more scientific sources of information it becomes apparent that achieving and maintaining weight loss for dogs and for people is more complicated than avoiding fast food and ice cream. With respect to people, some research indicates that, in the long run, it may be better not to diet at all because most dieters gain back more weight than they initially lose. This often leads to yo-yo dieting, otherwise known as weight cycling. And there is initial evidence that weight cycling may be an issue for dogs as well. Dr. Byers reports a study on weight loss and gain in beagles. He writes that this study

demonstrated weight cycling in dogs in which rapid regain of body weight occurred after successful weight loss. These findings support the phenomenon of metabolic down regulation of energy needs with weight loss, which continues after target weights have been achieved.

With both dogs and humans, there is a significant mismatch between popular and scientific accounts of weight loss. This does not surprise me because the popular story of discipline, hard work, and responsibility spelled out in a heroic personal narrative is catchier than talk of metabolic down regulation and weight cycling. We love our heroic stories, and they sell.

The heroic narrative is foundational to The Biggest Loser TV shows. The trouble with these shows is that they ended when most of the characters had lost a lot of weight. These shows did not reveal how excruciatingly difficult it was for contestants to maintain their weight loss or how many of them regained significant amounts of weight. Research indicates that this is because after their weight loss, contestants burned fewer calories than other people their size, and developed hormone imbalances that left them feeling continually hungry. People, as well as beagles, experience metabolic down regulation after weight loss.

Unfortunately, if we accept weight loss as simply a matter of discipline, work, and responsibility it becomes easy think of not losing weight or regaining weight, as failures of discipline, work, and responsibility. The science shows that this is false. However, this misleading story is common and supports negative attitudes about fat people being lazy and irresponsible.

 


Our stories, the science, and cultural stereotypes about canine weight and fitness, and human weight and fitness are intertwined. As a result, the way we think about one influences the way we think about the other.


I think trying to keep ourselves and our dogs as healthy as possible is a great goal. Milo and I walk, for miles, every day. We need and love the exercise.

2017-01-01 20.42.10

Milo gets me out hiking, even in the middle of winter.

However, the goal of promoting health and fitness is undermined by negative attitudes and stereotypes about fat people.

It is common and easy for stories about fat pets to reinforce these negative attitudes and stereotypes. For example, one of the fat dog stories on the American Dog Club website features a funny/ not funny picture of a roly-poly white bulldog, wearing a towel, and reclining on a sofa with a plate of muffins. The dog’s head is covered in pink curlers and the caption under the image reads, “dogs can become couch potatoes too.” The connection with people is pretty clear: the dog represents the stereotype of a fat, lazy, and ill groomed woman.

flabby cat and slobby dog

Even the names of the characters reinforce negative stereotypes about fat people.

This sort of stereotype is the basis for prejudice and damaging inequalities, inequalities that are stronger for fat women than they are for fat men (the men have to be fatter before they kick in). Fat people get worse medical care, have lower job security, lower earnings, and slower career advancement than thin people. This is not just unfair, it also leads to stress, which can lead to weight gain.

Negative weight stereotypes impact children as well as adults. The book Flabby Cat and Slobby Dog is an example of negative stereotypes about fat pets and people directed at children. In this book, Flabby and Slobby go on a difficult quest and lose weight because

When they were hungry, they had to hunt for food. So they couldn’t eat and eat and eat. When they were thirsty, they had to look for water. There was no time to sleep and sleep and sleep. They were too busy trying to stay alive.

You don’t have to dig too deep in this book to find the message that being fat is the same as being a slob, and that it is worth risking your life to be thin. This is troubling because research in Canada, Iceland, Australia, and the US reveals that overweight children are not just a target of bullying, but comprise the group of children most likely to be bullied, and that adolescent girls who engage in strict dieting are significantly more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who don’t. This book might be intended to help fight childhood obesity, but it reinforces negative and dangerous attitudes toward fat people and weight loss.

Pets are part of our lives and part of our culture. Negative weight stereotypes hurt people. Why on earth would we add to this problem by invoking these stereotypes with respect to our dogs?  The things we do with our dogs, what we say about them, and what we write about them are not separate from the rest of our lives or from our culture. In fact, for many of us, our dogs are an integral part of our homes and our families, and a rare source of unconditional love.

I want our dogs to be healthy and happy, but we need to be careful to talk about canine weight and fitness in a way that enhances human, as well as canine, health. The way we talk about and relate to dogs reflects and reinforces values in our culture because, whether or not we’re a dog guardian, dogs are part of our lives.

How does pet ownership contribute to population health? An interview with Melanie Rock

Check out this interview where Dr. Melanie Rock, an anthropologist at the University of Calgary, reveals how pet ownership contributes to human health.

Dr. Rock starts out on familiar ground explaining some of the concrete human health benefits arising from companion animals. For example, simply being exposed to a dog can lower a person’s blood pressure and walking a dog is good exercise. This makes sense to me, my German Shepherd Milo keeps me calm, happy, and on the move.

However, this interview really caught my attention when Dr. Rock started talking about the significance of human-animal relationships. She gave examples ranging from farm animals to pets, from rural settings to cities, and from the Global North to the Global South of how our sense of our own identities and our health, and our sense of belonging in a place are tied to our relationships with animals. This has a significant impact on human well being.

Dr. Rock says,

If it’s true that even in resource poor countries in which food is a daily concern, that people establish effective relationships with pets and relate to a dog as a friend, as a member even of the family in some cases, then those relationships are important to take into account when we are designing and delivering health services and broader population health initiatives. … so far we have not really come to grips with the fact that our society is not purely human.

 

Melanie [Rock] is an anthropologist and social worker whose research focuses on the societal and cultural dimensions of health, with an emphasis on the importance of nonhuman animals for mental, physical, and social well-being. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Calgary, where she serves as Associate Scientific Director in the O’Brien Institute for Public Health. Her primary appointment is in the Cumming School of Medicine’s Department of Community Health Sciences, and she holds a joint appointment in the Department of Ecosystem and Public Health, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. In addition, she has supervisory privileges in the Department of Anthropology and Archeology, Faculty of Arts and in the Faculty of Social Work. Honorary affiliations include the Institut de recherche en santé publique de l’Université de Montréal and the Human-Animal Research Network (HARN) at the University of Sydney.

 

From The Science Dog: Do dogs have negativity bias?

Sometimes, psychological similarities between dogs and people can be bad for dogs. Linda Case at The Science Dog provides insightful analysis of research on how dogs mirror emotions displayed by humans and other dogs. She writes,

Negativity bias – We all suffer from it.

This is the phenomenon in which we naturally pay more attention to and give more weight to negative information and experiences compared with those that are positive. It is this particular cognitive bias that causes us to be more hurt or discouraged by insults or criticism than we are pleased or encouraged by compliments and shining reviews.

Case points out that human negativity bias is common in training relationships: handlers are more likely to notice and correct unwanted canine behaviours, than they are to notice and praise desirable canine behaviours.

However, the study Case analyzes looks at this issue from a dog’s point of view. Researchers recorded dogs’ responses to positive and negative vocalizations produced by people and by other dogs. They found that when dogs heard negative sounds from either species they

froze in place more often, remained immobile for longer periods, and showed more signs of stress and arousal than when they listened to positive vocalizations from either a human or another dog.

Case points out that dogs may experience negativity bias. This means that our poor pooches get a double whammy–not only are we likely to respond disproportionately to our dogs’ bad behaviour (our negativity bias), but our dogs are likely to respond disproportionately to our negative reactions (their negativity bias).

Case has a clear take-home message:

Knowing that dogs are naturally more sensitive to negative information (and emotions) than to positive and also knowing that dogs react to the negative emotions of others with stress, then it is a no-brainer to conclude that we should avoid aversives when we train and interact with our dogs. There are of course many reasons that we should focus on positive reinforcement and reduce or eliminate the use of aversives in training. This research just adds one more – negative emotions (harsh voice, hard stares, anger) emotionally bleed into our dogs and cause them to be unhappy and stressed. Not only are they aware of these emotions in us, they may be more sensitive to them than we have previously realized.

This motivates me to renew my efforts to notice, be grateful for, and reward my dog’s good behaviour. Milo the AwesomeDog is laying nicely on his bed right now. I’m off to give him a cookie.