Do you believe in dog?

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It started when two canine scientists decide to become pen pals in an era of digital media...

Thursday, 30 June 2016

Italy: The Fifth Canine Science Forum is Here

Hello world!

It’s Mia and Julie, and we’re at the 5th Canine Science Forum in PADOVA, ITALY!! This is our third canine science forum together. Do You Believe in Dog? started in 2012 when we first met in Barcelona, Spain. Two years later we had a great conference in Lincoln, UK, and now we’re in Italy where the coffee is very, very, very good. We also like the canine science, but really, the coffee is fabulous.

What’s the Canine Science Forum?
You know when you come across a headline, “Study finds dogs do X!!” The Canine Science Forum (CSF) is where researchers behind the headlines come together to share and discuss their latest studies and theories about dogs, wolves and related canines. It’s a place to get a pulse on the field -- what’s going on, and what’s to come.

The CSF is also a reminder that when a headline states, “Study finds X…” that's typically an oversimplification of what was actually found. There's a lot of discussion of the nuances of dog behavior and cognition. And science is complicated, but each study brings to the table a piece of the puzzle that is understanding more about the wonderful (and also, the not so wonderful) dogs in our lives.

The conference consists of short talks, plenary talks, and poster sessions (and important espresso coffee shot breaks). Today we're presenting a poster about Do You Believe in Dog? and the importance of communicating our fields' findings to everyone. The blog will continue to be a space where researchers can share the findings of their research, helping it jump over the paywalls and without the stuffy scientific language, to help dogs everywhere. If you're a researcher and you'd like to know more, check out the contributors page!

Out poster about Science Communication!
Email if you want a copy: DoYouBelieveInDog @

The conference began earlier this week on Tuesday and concludes tomorrow (here is the entire program). Anyone can follow all conference-based tweets on Twitter at #CSFPadova as well as @DoUBelieveInDog. We of course want to tell you about talk after talk after talk, but space, time, you get the picture... so here are a few highlights:

Doggie brains
Giorgio Vallortigara began the conference looking at brain asymmetry. The dog’s tail offers a pretty nifty insight into the brain — dogs wag more to the right when seeing an owner (associated with left hemisphere activation which is historically associated with approach-type behaviors), whereas seeing a strange person or strange dog prompts more wagging to the left (i.e., right hemisphere activation typically associated with more retreat behavior). Vallortigara also explored why brain symmetry evolved looking at both benefits to the individual as well as on the population level.

Smelly dogs
Márta Gácsi did not discuss why dog feet sometimes smell like Fritos (maybe next time, Márta!). Instead, Gácsi and colleagues from the Family Dog Project devised a simple, new procedure — that requires no pre-training — to test Natural detection task olfaction in canids, both hand-raised wolves and dogs.

In the study, they placed food in a plastic box with a lid to control the amount of smell released, and then placed the container under a ceramic pot to avoid visual cues. They wondered whether dogs would attend to the location of the hidden food, even when the access to the food was made increasingly difficult (see picture above). They found this was a good way to identify dogs who were both motivated and good at scent detection. Scent breeds and wolves were generally better at finding the food then non-scent breeds and short-nosed dogs. But hey, on an individual level, a Hungarian greyhound and Whippet (non-scent breeds), scored very very high, as did a Boston terrier (short-nosed dog).

A wider view of dog domestication
Friederike Range of the Clever Dog Lab, Messerli - Research Institute University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna and Wolf Science Center reminded us that as dogs entered the human environment, it wasn't initially because they wanted to spend time with us, cuddle all night long, look into our eyes, and follow our gaze and gestures. Dogs entered the human environment for food and to scavenge and exploit our fabulous resources. She reminds researchers that dogs are adapted to the human environment as scavengers and this should be considered in terms of its consequences for dog behavior. Check out the Open Access article, Tracking the evolutionary origins of dog-human cooperation: the "Canine Cooperation Hypothesis" (Range & Virányi, 2015)   

Oxytocin. Don’t oversimplify me
Love? Affection? Come on, Anna Kis of the Family Dog Project would say. It’s way more complicated than that. Kis won the Early Career Scientist Award, and she discussed how oxytocin is being investigated in terms of human-directed social behaviors in dogs. She covered three main areas of research: measuring peripheral oxytocin levels using blood or urine, exploring single nucleotide polymorphisms in regulatory regions of the oxytocin receptor gene, and administering intranasal oxytocin. Julie covered her research on the oxytocin receptor gene in dogs here.

Stay in touch with the conference this week on Twitter at #CSFPadova

And drink a coffee with us!

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Can Therapy Dogs Help Students Handle Stress?

Please welcome today's guest contributor, Molly Crossman, a Graduate Student & Co-Director of the Innovative Interactions Lab in the Department of Psychology at Yale University. 

More than 925 colleges and universities have therapy animal programs for their students. The idea is that playing with a dog (or a cat, rabbit, bird, guinea pig, actual pig, llama, or rat—to name a few of the available options,) will help students cope with stress. But with record-high rates of anxiety and depression among students, can a few minutes with an animal really help? 

To answer this question, we did a randomized controlled trial (the gold standard for testing out new medical and psychological treatments). We randomly assigned 67 students and medical residents (who have especially high rates of distress), to either: 

  • Play with a therapy dog, 
  • View pictures of the same dog, or
  • Wait for a turn to play with the dog

Our participants ranged in age from 22 to 37 years old, and the majority (55%) were female. We used the State portion of the State/Trait Anxiety Inventory and the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule to assess participants’ subjective experiences of anxiety and mood before and after participating. Both questionnaires ask respondents to rate how they are feeling at the moment, and both are well-validated for this purpose. 

 Photo: John Curtis/Yale Medicine
Dog: Finn (DYBID has to add that he's just the cutest! Look at those eyebrows!)
We found that interaction with the dog did reduce anxiety and improve mood for our participants. Participants who spent their time with the dog improved more than those who viewed (but did not interact with) the dog, and more than those who waited. In other words, as important as it is to take breaks, and as great as cute animal pictures make us feel, getting to interact with an animal is even better. 

Our study corroborates what many dog owners experience—playing with a dog really can improve mental health. But this evidence gives us something that our own experiences cannot. Our findings show that it is not just our high expectations that make therapy animals seem effective. In our study, less than 10 minutes with a therapy dog produced improvement on measures of real clinical symptoms, and that change was not just about taking a break from work.  

The Role of Therapy Animals in Combating Student Stress 
Our findings are important because student stress has reached a crisis point. Over 50% of college students have symptoms of depression, and 11% have thoughts of suicide. Of course, I am not suggesting that therapy animals will ever replace counseling centers on college campuses. On the contrary, therapy animals have already carved out a niche all their own. Therapy animals are appealing and students expect that they will help, therapy animals do not require appointments or commitments, and therapy animals can help many students in a small amount of time at little to no financial cost. In other words, even though therapy animals do not necessarily have a huge impact on every student, they are exceptionally well suited to make some difference for an enormous number of students. 

Graduate Student & Co-Director of the Innovative Interactions Lab 
Department of Psychology, Yale University 
Twitter: @mollycrossman

Crossman, M.K., Kazdin, A.E. & Knudson, K. (2015). Brief unstructured interaction with a dog reduces stressAnthrozoös, 28, 649—659.

For more coverage of this research, check out the Psychology Today post by Hal Herzog, ‘Stress Relief in Seven Minutes: Doggie Style. Do programs using dogs to relieve anxiety in university students really work?’ Nov 19, 2015

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

What happens to your heart when you share time with dogs? #HeartsAligned

Most dog owners will tell you that their dogs are good for them. They don't need a scientist to tell them that. But if you ask those same owners "How is your dog good for you?", they might struggle to find the words to describe what underlies the feelings they have about their animal companions.

I recently helped out with a demonstration (organised by Pedigree) that measured the heart rates of dogs and their owners, while separated and when reunited. The idea was prompted by an observation made by Dr Rollin McCraty, who monitored his son and their dog. We used non-invasive heart rate monitors on three dogs and their owners, to measure their heart rate rhythms in real time. We set the owner up on a couch, in front of cameras and lights in a studio, and kept their dog on the other side of a screen, out of sight, for less than two minutes. We then reunited the dogs and owners and encouraged the owner to relax with their dog on the couch, as they would usually do at home. The results? Well - see for yourself, here:

If you had asked me before the demonstration, what to expect, I would have told you "a reduction in heart rates for both dogs and owners over time (maybe 3-5min or so), perhaps after an slight initial increase of reunion excitement". I would not have predicted the close coherence in patterns that we observed within 1min of the reunion. Even as a dog owner and canine science researcher, who knows my dog helps me lead a healthier, happier life, I was astonished!

I genuinely hope this phenomenon is an area of human-animal interaction that attracts more research attention.

So how do dogs help our health?
It's currently unclear what processes underlie the coherence of heart rate patterns we observed between dogs and their owners during the Hearts Aligned demonstration. It's fascinating and something I'd love to research further. Although this was a small case study of just three dogs, the results were striking. 

These Australian dogs and their owners were randomly recruited through a routine casting call to the general public. The data are authentic. It was a delight to witness the beautiful relationship that Glenn, Alice and Sienna enjoyed with their dogs, Lyric, Juno and Jake. It would be interesting to explore the closeness of pattern alignment with other validated measures such as attachment (a term used in psychology that describes the strength of the emotional bond) between people and their dogs.

Glenn & Lyric, Alice & Juno, Sienna & Jake
Existing research suggests that pet owners exercise more, which of course is beneficial for our health. Pets have also been shown to improve cardiovascular health in other ways. For example, patting your dog can release oxytocin that acts to reduce levels of stress hormones, resulting in  lower blood pressure and heart rate. Additionally, research shows us that heart attack survivors and people with serious heart related abnormalities who own dogs may live longer than people with the same problems who don't have pets. There are also many studies suggesting animal companions are good for boosting our social resilience and mental health too.

The Hearts Aligned demonstration shows us that perhaps something as simple as relaxing in the company of our dogs at the end of a day of work or school, might also help to reduce our heart rate and offer our bodies a break from the stresses of everyday life.

Speaking for myself, I feel more light-hearted when in the company of my dog. He distracts me from every day stresses, promotes me to get outside and exercise, makes me laugh every day with his antics and gives me company, even when other family members are away. I think I'm a fairly typical dog owner and that others share these feelings. Physically, these things probably result in a lower heart rate and blood pressure than I'd otherwise experience, and I suspect I feel less stressed than I otherwise would.

Luckily, I was able to enjoy the relaxing effect of patting the beautiful Millie when I was invited onto the Studio 10 program to talk about how dogs can help us stress less on national TV:

Hearts Aligned is also fundraising for the national rescue organisation, Pet Rescue, who support over 950 shelters across Australia. We hope the video inspires people to share their own dog photos using the official hashtag #HeartsAligned. Each post on Facebook will trigger a $1 donation from Pedigree to Pet Rescue, up to $20,000. 

That's certainly enough evidence to make my heart feel good!


Further reading:
Cutt, HE, Knuiman, MW, Giles-Corti, B, 2008, ‘Does getting a dog increase recreational walking?’, International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity, vol. 5. pp. 17-27.

McConnell, AR, Brown, CM, Shoda, TM, Stayton, LE, Martin, CE, 2011, ‘Friends with benefits: on the positive consequences of pet ownership’, Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, vol.101, no.6, pp.1239-1252

Headey, B, Na, F, Grabka, M, & Zheung, R, ‘Pets and human health in Australia, China and Germany: Evidence from three continents’, 2004, International Association of Human Animal Interaction Organisations Conference, Glasgow.

Nagengast, SL, Baun, MM, Megel, M, and Leibowitz, JM, 1997,‘The effects of the presence of a companion animal on physiological arousal and behavioural distress in children, Journal of Pediatric Nursing, vol. 12, pp. 323-330.

Thompson, KL, & Gullone, E, ‘Prosocial and Antisocial Behaviours in Adolescents: An Investigation into Associations with Attachment and Empathy’, Anthrozoos, vol.21, no. 2, pp. 123-137.

Wood L, Martin K, Christian H, Nathan A, Lauritsen C, Houghton S, et al. (2015) The Pet Factor - Companion Animals as a Conduit for Getting to Know People, Friendship Formation and Social Support. PLoS ONE 10(4): e0122085. doi:10.1371/ journal.pone.0122085

© Mia Cobb || Do You Believe in Dog? 2016

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Dog Researchers Head to the City by the Bay: The Canine Science Symposium in San Francisco, CA

Hi Julie & Mia,

I wanted to write to the two of you about the Canine Science Symposium. It's happening this April 16 & 17 in San Francisco, and I thought you might be interested to hear all about it. I bet Julie remembers speaking about anthropomorphism at the very first CSS. Hopefully, we’ll be able to get her back to San Francisco for the next one!

This year's Symposium promises to be bigger and better with an extra half day of presentations, more speakers and new breakout sessions to dig deeper into the research. Three years later since that inaugural Symposium at Pawsitive Tails, we're now at the San Francisco SPCA where we’ve partnered with the organization’s Behavior & Training Department, brought on sponsors (such as the Karen Pyror Academy) and in all, expect well over 100 shelter staff and volunteers, trainers and dog enthusiasts to join us for this day and a half of canine science. We love coming to San Francisco in part because of the vibrant dog community there!

While many Symposium speakers continue to return each year to share their research, we ensure that the topics are new – and we’re real sticklers on the “applied” part of the research. We want those that come out to learn with us to be able to walk away with new techniques and approaches to try in their interactions with shelter dogs, dogs that they train and the dogs they live with. 

This year’s addition of breakout sessions will provide more advanced content (something we think the Symposium crowd is eager for) and live opportunities to discuss research and training ideas (and in some cases, as they’re happening!). We like sharing our enthusiasm for dogs, and the Symposium is our opportunity to make our research accessible.
Xephos running the maze at ASU.
Our CSS speakers for 2016 include Drs. Clive Wynne (Arizona State University), Erica Feuerbacher (Carroll College), Lindsay Mehrkam (Oregon State University), Sasha Protopopova  (Texas Tech University) and myself. This year, we have new additions to our speaking roster including Dr. Monique Udell from Oregon State University and post-doctoral scholar Dr. Nathan Hall from Arizona State University. Dr. Jeannine Berger, who heads up the SF/SPCA’s Behavior Resources, will be speaking too (in the past, she’s led our roundtable, but now she’s joining us at the podium).

While many of us are former or current students of Clive’s, our research interests are diverse as evidenced by this year’s topics. Our presentations include decoding dominance in dogs; canine sociability and attachment; using advanced behavioral principles in dog training; applying cognitive, behavioral and physiological measures to improve shelter dog welfare; using play as training and enrichment; understanding visitor behavior in shelters to increase adoptions; exploring canine olfaction and interpreting canine body language.

We’re excited to return to San Francisco this April and hope to see many in the dog training and behavior community at the Symposium! 

For those folks that are interested in attending, head on over to for all the details including speaker bios and presentation descriptions, and online registration (registration is at the waaaay bottom of the page).

Our early-bird registration ends March 2nd, so those that want to attend should sign up soon!  

Lisa Gunter 

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Understanding the Tame Fox: The Hunt for the Genetic Mechanisms of Fearfulness

Jessica Hekman meets friendly fox.
Guest post by: Dr Jessica Perry Hekman DVM MS

Hi Mia and Julie,

One of the things I love most about dogs is how friendly they are. What's the biggest difference between a dog and a wolf? The dog probably wants to come say hi to you. The wolf is scared of you, and may demonstrate that fear through aggression if you get too close. 

But not ALL dogs are friendly, right? If “friendliness” versus “fear” was on a spectrum, most dogs would be on the “friendly” end, but some would be down towards the “fear” end with the wolves. This is what I study: what is going on in the brain of fearful dogs to make them scared of things? What are the mechanisms that are different? I'm interested in the wiring in the brain, hormone differences, neurotransmitter differences, and more.

Right now, the way I'm studying fear in dogs is by studying fear in foxes. I know you know about the famous population of tame foxes at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics in Novosibirsk, Russia. I got to go meet these foxes recently! 

They have been bred for tameness for more than forty generations, and are a lot like dogs in their friendliness and lack of fear. In the lab where I work, we compare these foxes to another group of foxes that have been selected for fearfulness/aggression. Through comparing these very different groups, we to try to understand the biological mechanisms behind their personality differences. Foxes are evolutionarily close to dogs, and because these foxes have carefully controlled genetics and environments, they are easier to study than pet dogs are. (I still hope to transition to working directly with pet dogs some day, though.)

Hekman with friendly fox.
Over the years, much has been learned about the tame foxes: their stress response is very different from that of the aggressive foxes [1]; they have different levels of various neurotransmitters in their brains [1], and they even have differences in brain structure [2]. In the lab where I work, Kukekova Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, we study the genetic differences between these groups of foxes. We hope that finding differences in their genes will help us learn more about mechanistic differences in their brains. Our lab recently published a new paper in PLoSONE [3] about some of our findings.

We are still very much at the stage of just trying to figure out where in the enormous genome (3.3 billion nucleotides!) the personality differences between tame and aggressive foxes come from. (By the way, various efforts looking at personality differences in humans are at the same stage.)

Our lab's approach in this paper was to look at the entire genomes of 40 foxes, 20 tame and 20 aggressive. First we found the places in their genomes in which at least one fox was different at the level of just one nucleotide. A single nucleotide differences is known as a single nucleotide polymorphism, or SNP. Unfortunately, while a SNP might be a pointer to an important difference, most SNPs mean absolutely nothing. The problem is telling which is which. And we found thousands of them – more than 100,000 of them, which we filtered down to 8,437 of them that we actually wanted to use. So how would we figure out which ones were pointing at real and important differences in the tame fox genome?

To answer this question, we looked for differences not just between individual foxes, but between the group of 20 tame foxes and the group of 20 aggressive foxes. With 8,437 SNPs you had better bet we used computers for this. It was a surprise to me when I got into modern genomics just how much of the work deals with complex computer algorithms to process the massive amounts of data we're dealing with!

Hekman with fox at the Institute of Cytology and Genetics.
We found several areas of the fox genome in which tame foxes tended to have one version of some SNPs, while aggressive foxes tended to have another version. To understand this, it can help to think of the genome as a big instruction manual, a book called “How to Build a Fox.” Mostly the instruction manuals for tame and aggressive foxes would be the same, but in a few cases single letters would be different. 

Imagine that the tame foxes all had, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” in their version of chapter two, but the aggressive foxes all had, “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy doc” in their version. Basically, by finding places where the tame foxes all had one version, and the aggressive foxes all had a different version, we were finding places in the genome where we hoped to find important differences, changes that help cause the tame fox personality phenotype. We found 28 regions like this, but focused on three of them as the most interesting.

Next we looked at the genes that these changes might affect, because finding gene differences was the point of the whole exercise. Remember, we still don't know most of what most of the genes out there do! This is really dark side of the moon stuff, and everyone is still guessing about what's going on in the genome, human or fox. But here are some interesting genes we found. I'm including a “wild hypothesis” with some of them. These hypotheses are probably wrong, but I hope they help to show why these genes are so interesting to us...

Hand sniffing.

GRIN2B: this gene codes for a receptor for one of the major neurotransmitters in the brain, glutamate. Glutamate is involved in learning and memory. Wild hypothesis: maybe tame foxes are less afraid because of a difference in how they learn about what to fear.

GABARAPL1 (GEC1): this gene is involved with opioids, molecules in the brain that help us feel good. Wild hypothesis: maybe tame foxes are more friendly because social interactions feel different (better) to them.

COUP-TFII (NR2F2): this gene is important during embryonic brain development, especially in the amygdala, a part of the brain that tells us when to be afraid. This gene also influences expression of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter which functions in social bonding.

These genes are extremely interesting, but even more than that, this work helped our lab implicate specific regions of the genome in the differences between tame and aggressive foxes. That list of regions will prove invaluable as we do more work in the future, using different tools to examine the tame fox genome and seeing which tools point at the same regions.

Tame fox kisses to you both!


Dr. Jessica Perry Hekman graduated Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in 2012, where in addition to her DVM she received an MS for work on stress behavior and cortisol levels in hospitalized dogs. She completed a shelter medicine internship at the University of Florida in 2013, and is now a PhD student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she works at Kukekova Lab. Her research interests are in the biological mechanisms behind fearfulness in dogs. You can follow her at @dogzombieblog.

Images copyright Jessica Hekman.

[1] Trut, Lyudmila N., I. Z. Plyusnina, and I. N. Oskina. "An experiment on fox domestication and debatable issues of evolution of the dog." Russian Journal of Genetics 40.6 (2004): 644-655. 

[2] Huang, Shihhui, et al. "Selection for tameness, a key behavioral trait of domestication, increases adult hippocampal neurogenesis in foxes." Hippocampus (March 2015). 

[3] Johnson, Jennifer L. et al. "Genotyping-By-Sequencing (GBS) Detects Genetic Structure and Confirms Behavioral QTL in Tame and Aggressive Foxes (Vulpes vulpes)." PLoSONE (2015).

© 2015 Jessica Perry Hekman | Do You Believe in Dog?

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

What can a DNA test tell you about your mixed breed dog?

The results are IN!
Rudy's DNA test results have come back.

Let's see what a DNA test can tell us about this mixed breed dog.

What you thought he was

We asked you all to place your bets on what mix of breeds he might contains, and boy did you come to the party! Here's what the poll results say YOU think he is:

The 'Other' category included suggestions of: Collie, English Foxhound, Irish Setter, Galgo, Super cute curly tail hound (!), Glamour dog(!), Borzoi, Petit Basset Griffon Vendeen, Pomeranian and German Shepherd.

What the DNA test says he is

Not surprisingly, Rudy has been identified as having come from a line of mixed breed dogs. 

We know that he was picked up as a stray in a very rural/bush area as a four month old puppy. In that location, it's likely he was bred to be a hunting dog, and was bred from a line of dogs very similar to him. Both of Rudy's parent have been identified as being mixed breeds. This has meant the DNA test is not just a clear cut simple cross between two breeds, but a bit murkier to decipher. 

What we expected

We always knew there would be sighthound in the mix! Fortunately, one grandparent on each side (e.g. his mother's mother and his father's father) have been identified as being a single breed. So the test says that Rudy is identified as one-quarter Scottish Deerhound and one-quarter Greyhound. This makes sense and fits with his physical appearance.

(Photo: source)
(Photo: Sue Muir)

Part of Rudy's DNA test results report

What we weren't expecting

Because of Rudy's muddled up mixed breed lineage, the DNA test results offer us a further five breeds that have been identified as "the 5 next best breed matches which appeared in the analysis of your dog's DNA. One or more of these breeds could have contributed to the genetic makeup of the ancestors indicated by the mixed breed icon. The breeds are listed by the relative strength of each result in our analysis with the most likely at the top of the list". This is definitely where the fun starts!


With the highest 'relative strength' (undefined and unclear if this is supposed to be % of total dog, or % of the 50% unaccounted for, or some other strength) of 10.86 (again, 10.86 units of what, or out to a total available number of ##, is unclear) - is... 

The Dobermann! I find this plausible. Dobermanns are certainly not unusual in Australia and I can see inclusion in a line of hunting-purpose dogs making sense to someone at some point, way back when. Rudy also has a wonderful mate who's a Dobe, so now they're totes cousins.

Dobermann reportedly represented in Rudy with strength of 10.86
Now, our first surprise... coming in with strength of 10.55 - the Shetland Sheepdog! Ha! I would have been more convinced by a Rough Collie I think, but who knows, maybe Rudy's great great grandma was a house dog sheltie? It would explain those neck flares... This is nothing compared to the next couple!

Shetland sheepdog reportedly in Rudy with a strength of 10.55

Oh hi there Puli, with a strength of 6.64. In a million blue moons, I would never have picked you in this line up! There are not that many Puli breeders in Australia, and to think that one was used to contribute to a farmer's hunting line seems... odd. But then, my personal favourite is still to come....

Puli reportedly in Rudy with strength of 6.64

...but we'll save it for last. Coming in with the second lowest strength of the five mixed breed contributors identified, we have the Irish Wolfhound. I know most of you thought this was going to be a leading contributor to Rudy's make up, but whatever strength represents, 3.28 doesn't seem like much of it. So now my favourite....

Irish Wolfhound identified in Rudy with a strength of 3.28

Basset Hound. I guess Rudy gets his leg from the other side of the family, right?! With a strength of 1.63, it's the final and lowest reported strength identified in Rudy's report.

Basset Hound reportedly in Rudy with a strength of 1.63

Part of Rudy's DNA test results report

The science behind mixed breed DNA tests

So how did the results end up like this? DNA tests for mixed breed dogs vary between providers. We used the Australian Advance/Waltham test which is 'powered by Wisdom Panel', validated against Australian dog populations. This test examines the 321 markers from the DNA against a database of DNA markers for over 200 representative (NB: not comprehensive!) breeds of dogs and a computer program evaluates and returns a probable 'pedigree tree' reaching back three generations. Every possible combination the computer program arrives at is scored and the tree with the highest score is deemed most probable and presented in the report.

An important note about this kind of test is that 321 markers are not that many. Other canine research (genotyping for whole genome analysis) can use 170,000 markers. Human ethinicity testing relies on 20,000 (to determine caucasian/non-caucasian) -700,000 markers. 

321 markers provide a reduced scope of DNA marker testing, and they are comparing an unknown dog against a bank of typical groups of alleles that representatives for breeds, so the robustness of the test results should definitely be considered as a suggestion, more than an absolute truth. 

Another way to think of it

The best analogy (that may be over simplified, but I think is still useful) that I have been able to come up with to help explain this test in relation to mixed breed dogs is to think of dogs as colours. 

By this, I mean there is a broad spectrum and range, all able to be mixed together in various combinations, over time. We've applied some values to the range (such as when blue becomes green, or orange moves into red) which we can think of as breeds. 

Image: Dean Russo
So consider Rudy as being a light brown colour. The DNA test is essentially trying to determine the combination of colours that arrived at that shade of light brown. It's pretty sure there's some red and green in there, perhaps some yellow too. But because he's such a mixed up colour, it's harder to work out if there's also been orange  (or was it a certain shade of red with a different shade of yellow?), white, a darker brown or even some bright blue included, and when they might have been mixed into him. 

The computer program has presented his report with one possible combination of colours that arrived at his shade of light brown, but it's not the only possible combination to get there. And when I consider where he came from and the likely uses and sources of his forebears, I can be fairly sceptical about some of the results (I'm looking at YOU mop dog!).

For example, I would probably have believed fox hound over basset hound. Or rough collie over sheltie, and I'm not confident how well 321 markers can discriminate between low levels of these breeds in comparison to each other by using the database of 'typical representatives'. As time goes by and the databases are expanded, these tests become more reliable. For example, the test conducted this year is likely more correct than one done five years ago. If they extend the number of markers examined to 1,000 in the future, this would improve the accuracy again.

So - what is Rudy?

He is our dog. Much-loved family member, silly goose, and constant source of delight to our family. His breed heritage is not so important to us. We knew he was sighthound mix type of dog when we adopted him, and he still is. When I next get asked (as I always do!) "What IS HE?", I can now reply with a slightly more informed "He's a mix, mostly deerhound and greyhound, with little bits of a few other things in there too". He is certainly a dog.

Look forward to any comments and questions you might have,


Further reading:

van Rooy, D., Arnott, E. R., Early, J. B., McGreevy, P., & Wade, C. M. (2014). Holding back the genes: limitations of research into canine behavioural geneticsCanine Genetics and Epidemiology1(1), 7.

Hedrick, P. W., & Andersson, L. (2011). Are dogs genetically special?.Heredity106(5), 712.

McPhee, C. G. (2011). Advances in canine genetic testing—And what these tests mean for youVeterinary Medicine106(12), 608.

© 2015 Mia Cobb | Do You Believe in Dog?

Monday, 31 August 2015

Science wants to know about the dog in your bed

Hi Mia and Julie,

Out of all the potential sleeping places in the house, I’m pretty sure your four-legged companion would prefer to sleep in your bed! Does yours?

The decision to let your pet into your bed is a topic that often divides owners, but it might just be more common than you think. Around half of pet owners sleep alongside their pets. The luckiest seem to be dogs (although Great Danes probably miss out here) and cats. It is believed that around 40-50% of pet owners sleep alongside their pets - many of whom, go to extreme lengths to accommodate them (like the guy below). 

Yet for such a common practice, we know relatively little about how and why people do it, or the implications. Do dog and cat owners jeopardise their sleep quality to accommodate their animal companions in their bed or bedroom? Think about when your dog needs to go out for a pee at 2am, or wakes you before your alarm goes off in the morning because they are ready to play, or hungry for breakfast. Or what about the point in the night when the cat decides your face is the most comfortable place to sleep? After all, dogs and cat have completely different sleep needs and circadian rhythms to humans, and are much more sensitive to stimuli, even when asleep. 

A lot of the information that exists on this topic tends to focus on the health and hygiene implications (e.g. transfer of diseases, asthma and allergies). This is something I can related to. The day my wife and I watched our border collie roll around in fresh poo was the day we knew she was never going to join us in our bed…ever! But in reality, there is no real health risks, so long as you keep your pet clean and healthy.

I have been involved in several studies with colleague of mine, Dr Kirrilly Thompson, seeking to gain an understanding of this topic. First, in a survey of the sleep behaviours of 10,000 Australians, we gained some preliminary insight. We found that around 1 in 10 Australians bed-shared with their pet (this excluded those that allow their animals to sleep on the bedroom floor). 

We found 3 ways that human sleep practices were impacted:
  1. It took pet bed-sharers longer than non-pet bed-sharers to get to sleep 
  2. Pet bed-sharers woke up more tired, and 
  3. Pet bed-sharers were more likely to be woken during the night from dogs barking and animal noises.

It seems that there is a lot to this relationship, and many people are willing to make sacrifices to their own sleep. Maybe its because our pets provide us with a sense of security and comfort, or perhaps it’s the only way to keep the animal from causing more problems!

In a follow-up study, with our honours student Peta Hazelton, we conducted the first in-depth look into human-dog co-sleeping. The study, which included an Australian only sample, revealed the rate of human-dog co-sleeping was high (69%) amongst the 1,328 dog owners we sampled.

The most common dog sleeping location was in the bedroom, on top of the covers (34%), followed by in the bedroom on the floor (22%), in the house but not in the bedroom (21%), in the bed and under the covers (13%), and 10% of dogs slept outside. Heat map images revealed when two people are in a double (or larger) bed, dogs frequently slept between, or at the feet of couple. When one person is in a double (or larger) bed, dogs generally slept at chest level, presumably opposite participants. For those in a single bed, the dog often slept on the floor beside the bed.

So why do dog owners choose to bed share? 
The study revealed that people's motivations to co-sleep are diverse, with responses including for dog behavioural issues (barking or destructive behaviours if not in the bedroom), health reasons (needed to keep seizure alert dog nearby), owner’s attitude (viewing the dog as a family member or ‘pack’), factors out of their control (participant’s human sleeping partner or the dog made the decision), logistics (nowhere else for the dog to sleep), routine or habit (not wanting to disrupt the dog’s nightly routine), and becoming dependant on the dog’s presence to sleep (as well as feeling the dog did not disrupt sleep, therefore no need to alter the arrangement).

But not all dog owners felt the same, with many reasons given as to why they chose not to co-sleep with their dog. These included, dog behavioural issues (wanting to avoid the dog developing dominant or dependent behaviour), health (co-sleeping would provoke allergies or is unhygienic), disruptive behaviours (the dog is too restless), interpersonal relationships (human sleeping partner would not allow it or it would impede intimacy), dog characteristics (size of the dog), owner’s attitude (the dog doesn’t belong in the house), and logistics (owning too many dogs to co-sleep).  
Location of dog’s sleeping position (chest) for participants that slept on a double, queen or king size bed and two people in the bed, n = 517
In the end, co-sleeping (with whatever species) naturally disturbs our sleep, yet people continue to do it. But given all the health benefits of pet ownership, the good certainly outweighs the bad. It’s up to the individual owner whether they choose to co-sleep with their animal/s, or not.

We are currently in the process of conducting another study (with our honours student Jessica Mack), this time focussing on the impact of co-sleeping on sleep quality and quantity. 

If you are one of the many dog owners that bed-share with your dog, we would love if you could complete our online survey and share it with others who might be interested.

Access the survey here:

Tell us - where did your dog sleep last night?

Dr Bradley Smith BPsych(Hons) PhD 
Lecturer & Senior Post-doctoral Research Fellow
Appleton Institute, School of Human Health & Social Sciences 
CQUniversity Adelaide, Australia

If you found this interesting, you may also enjoy our previous guest post by Bradley Smith: Take a walk on the wild side: Dingo science, or see all of our guest contributors.

Further information:

Smith, B., Thompson, K., Clarkson, L., Dawson, D. (2014). The prevalence and implicationsof human-animal co-sleeping in an Australian sample. Anthrozoös, 27 (4), 543–551.

There is a Channel 7 Today Tonight segment relating to human-animal co-sleeping that aired on Jan 29, 2015:

 © 2015 Bradley Smith | Do You Believe in Dog?