Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Dog days

As I mentioned in my last post, I have two dogs.  First we have Grendel:

Grendel is a very mixed breed.  We think that in his ancestry he has some boxer, pug, German shepherd, and (given his general build) potato.

And in case you were wondering: no, he's not a bit spoiled.

Then we have Lena:

Lena always has this chipper, alert expression, which we didn't realize until we got her home was her way of expressing the concept, "Derp."  She's one of the sweetest dogs I've ever met, but also possibly the dumbest.  She has been known to stare at a stuffed toy on a shelf for 45 minutes straight, presumably because she thought it was a squirrel, or possibly because she was simply interested in interacting with something that was on her intellectual level.

So we're totally dog people.  They're a nuisance sometimes, make a lot of noise, and a lot of the past twenty years has been one long series of carpet stains.  But we love 'em, and honestly, I can't imagine living without at least one dog.

This comes up because of two academic papers that I ran into last week that shed interesting light on dog behavior.  In the first, by a team led by Biagio d'Aniello of the University of Naples, we find out that dogs actually can smell fear -- but it doesn't make them attack, it makes them scared, too.

The authors write:
Do human body odors (chemosignals) produced under emotional conditions of happiness and fear provide information that is detectable by pet dogs (Labrador and Golden retrievers)?  The odor samples were collected from the axilla of male donors not involved in the main experiment.  The experimental setup involved the co-presence of the dog’s owner, a stranger and the odor dispenser in a space where the dogs could move freely.  There were three odor conditions [fear, happiness, and control (no sweat)] to which the dogs were assigned randomly.  The dependent variables were the relevant behaviors of the dogs (e.g., approaching, interacting and gazing) directed to the three targets (owner, stranger, sweat dispenser) aside from the dogs’ stress and heart rate indicators.  The results indicated with high accuracy that the dogs manifested the predicted behaviors in the three conditions.  There were fewer and shorter owner directed behaviors and more stranger directed behaviors when they were in the “happy odor condition” compared to the fear odor and control conditions.  In the fear odor condition, they displayed more stressful behaviors.  The heart rate data in the control and happy conditions were significantly lower than in the fear condition.  Our findings suggest that interspecies emotional communication is facilitated by chemosignals.
Which certainly squares with what I've observed in my own dogs, especially Grendel, who is (and I say this with all due affection) a great big coward.  Just last night, I woke up in the middle of the night to a pack of coyotes howling nearby, and Grendel (who was sleeping in bed with me because my wife is currently away at an art show, and that's how we both cope with her being gone) jerked awake, whimpered, and then snuggled up closer to me.  The message was clear: "Protect me from the big mean wild dogs."  Presumably he knew that the big mean wild dogs were outside and he was in the house, but he still engaged in the horizontal equivalent of hiding behind my legs.

Then there was the study by Juliane Kaminski et al. of the University of Portsmouth, wherein we find out that dogs don't just pick up on our emotions; they manipulate them toward their own ends.  The "puppy dog eyes" we get from our dogs are reserved for their human companions -- and, as I've suspected for ages, they use 'em in a completely calculated fashion to get attention and treats from us.

The experiment studied 24 family dogs, who were tested with and without their owners, and also when the owners were watching them and when the owners were present but turned away from them.  And they found that dogs produce a much greater range of facial expressions when their owners are looking at them.

"Domestic dogs have a unique history," Kaminski said.  "They have lived alongside humans for 30,000 years and during that time selection pressures seem to have acted on dogs' ability to communicate with us.  We knew domestic dogs paid attention to how attentive a human is - in a previous study we found, for example, that dogs stole food more often when the human's eyes were closed or they had their back turned.  In another study, we found dogs follow the gaze of a human if the human first establishes eye contact with the dog, so the dog knows the gaze-shift is directed at them."

This behavior is remarkably sophisticated, Kaminski said.  "We can now be confident that the production of facial expressions made by dogs are dependent on the attention state of their audience and are not just a result of dogs being excited.  In our study they produced far more expressions when someone was watching, but seeing food treats did not have the same effect.  The findings appear to support evidence dogs are sensitive to humans' attention and that expressions are potentially active attempts to communicate, not simple emotional displays."

Which again squares with my experience.  I know that both of my dogs turn on the charm when they want something, and know I'm watching.  When I'm busy writing and Grendel wants attention, he comes quietly into my office and puts his chin on my leg, then just waits.  Sometimes I try to ignore him, but inevitably I look down and make eye contact, and he starts wagging, because he knows he's won.

Making me wonder sometimes who trained whom.  

Lena is at least a little more subtle.  When she wants us to notice her, she adopts what my wife and I have called her "splat pose" -- flat on the floor on her belly, legs splayed out, her long floppy ears stretched straight out from the side of her head -- a position that makes her look like she was dropped from a considerable height.  Then she stares at us with her liquid brown eyes until we give her what she wants, which is typically either food, an ear skritch, or a stuffed toy to have a philosophical conversation with.

So it's nice to know that we're not the only ones being played by our pets.  In the long haul, though, I doubt it'll change our behavior.  They're just too good at what they do.  In fact, I have to wind this up, because Grendel is currently staring at me.  I'd better go see what he wants, or he'll resort to his "Sad Eyes And Furrowed Brow" tactic, and heaven knows we wouldn't want that.

1 comment:

  1. Oh yeah, they're a lot smarter than we understand....they have ways of knowing things.....