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

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4 April 2013

Ask scientific questions about dogs


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Hi Mia!

Glad to hear your meta-analysis pool is filled with data, or better said, 5,000+ salivary cortisol samples, translating to roughly 1.3 gallons of canine saliva. Never did I think I would see a sentence written about that much saliva, from dogs or any other species. 


It's amazing what we can learn just from studying dog spit. Somebody, somewhere had to think to themselves, "Hey! Why don't we examine hormone levels in spit?" And then, they had to create a system for doing so (and now, this field of research has gone so far as to have Spit Camp, where people learn how to collect saliva samples). This all kind of leads into what I've recently been thinking about... 

Science = Questioning
One of the challenges of science is to question what we already think to be true, to challenge what is possible.

Neuroscientist Beau Lotto recently reminded me of this when I was watching his 2012 TED talk. He begins:

TED Talk Science is for everyone

“Perception is grander than our experience. The brain takes meaningless information and makes meaning out of it. Which means, we never see what’s there, we never see information, we only ever see what was useful to see in the past.

Perception underpins everything, our hopes, our dreams. If perception is grounded in our history it means we are only ever responding to what we’ve done before. But that creates a tremendous problem. Because how can we ever see differently?

All new perceptions begin the same way. They begin with a question.”


New perceptions begin with a question.

Questioning is especially relevant in The Age of Dog where so many of us wake up to a dog’s nose pressed into our face, and we spend countless hours telling tales about the dogs in our lives. And outside of our own experiences, we are bombarded by advertisements telling us, “This is who dogs are” followed by, “And this is what they want, so buy THIS product.”

As applied researchers, we ask scientific questions about our perceptions of dogs and the stories we tell about them. To name a few possible questions: Are we able to visually recognize a dog’s dominant breed? What is the welfare of working dogs? What are the mechanics behind dogs drinking water? What does the “guilty look” mean for dogs? Do dogs have paw preferences and if so, what might that mean? Do all dogs share the same rates of behavioral development?

By asking questions, we are trying to unearth dog perspectives and dog storylines.



Video about ScienceOnline Teen 2013
ScienceOnline Teen!
Which is why I am incredibly excited to participate in ScienceOnline Teen on April 13th (connection coming soon).

Beau Lotto reminds us that young people, in particular, are pretty awesome at asking questions, and significant questions at that.

ScienceOnline Teen is an “unconference conference”, where teens and people involved in science and scientific inquiry coming together “to build connections between students & teachers and the online scientific community and discuss how new media is changing the world of science.”

My hope is to remind teens that we can ask scientific questions not just about atoms and cancer cells but also about the species we interact with on a daily basis.


My short presentation at ScienceOnline Teen is Dogs: Science in Your Living Room. Sure, everyone blogs, tweets and posts pictures of cute dogs, but can our interest in dogs be part of an actual learning experience? The session discusses how a well-known and often beloved companion species, the domestic dog, can help everyone learn about science and scientific principles.

Your post last week on meta-analysis of salivary cortisol research is a prime example of the interplay between learning about dogs and learning about experimental design and data collection.

I’m also participating in the Women in Science Panel by Maia Winstock with Hilda Bastian, Krystal D’Costa, Cynthia Duggan, Delaram Kahrobaei, Gabrielle Rabinowitz, and Jayne Raper (Bios found here). Based on my early titrating challenges and fear of fire (and the Bunsen burner), it's cool to see how much can changed.


Do you have a scientific question about dogs?
Which leads to my last thought: people of any age can ask scientific questions. So, people out there in Internet Land. What scientific questions about dogs do you have?

Bye for now!

Julie 

More reading
Cobb, M. 2013. Thinking laterality: steps, jumps and wonder-whorls. DYBID
Cobb, M. 2013. The heat(map) is on... The colours of canine welfare. DYBID
Cobb, M. 2013. Throw another dog in the (data) pool. DYBID
Hecht, J. 2012. . Dog Spies
Hecht, J. 2012. What kinds of dogs are troubled by fireworks & what to do about it. DYBID
McConnell, P. 2009. Podcast report; Breed ban info; MARS Wisdom Panel. The Other End of the Leash

© 2013 Julie Hecht
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3 comments:

  1. Interesting blog and I do love the more quirky discoveries like the dog drinking and left/right paw. Things that we take for granted that we "know" and it only takes a high fps video camera to blow that perception completely. I'd love to see dog communication analysed on that high fps too as I'm sure there's lots they are saying to each other that we aren't seeing.

    I have a question relating to the perception that dogs live 'in the moment' and aren't able to 'pre meditate' actions. I have a bullmastiff who twice now has done something which seems to suggest differently. George is a rescue dog so I don't have a full history on him but I do know he will steal food and raid the bin, mostly only when humans are absent (we don't have an indoor bin now).


    Twice I have put a box of biscuits on a shelf and forgotten about them. On both occasions it happened that several days passed before George was home alone. On both occasions I went to the car, realised I'd forgotten something and gone back to the house (with only seconds having passed) to find George up at the shelf stealing the box of biscuits. Is it possible that he made a mental note that they were there for accessing the next time all humans were absent?

    We know he's a food thief, we know dogs are more likely to steal food in the dark therefore more likely to steal food when the owner is absent. So perhaps it doesn't seem all that unusual?

    However, George was left with a stuffed kong containing far tastier food and he hasn't touched it. He had gone straight to those biscuits as soon as I went out. He hasn't had time to do a systematic sweep of the house. They were in a different room, above eye level and they were pretty boring, dry biscuits and yet he left the kong to go and steal them within seconds of me leaving.

    Additionally he is the typical 'guilty' dog if you come home and he's stolen food he's not at the door to greet me. Again this is perceived as a history of punishment, though I always laugh about my mistake and never punish him I don't know what his experiences were in his first year of life so there may be a history there.

    The question I have is if he can't premeditate how can he anticipate the potential for punishment and decide to hide when I come home?

    I understand the reasoning for both these behaviours is given as a simple association. Absent owner = opportunity to steal food. Owner comes home (after food theft) = punishment.

    In the first scenario given the very short latency is it possibly indicative of pre-meditation?

    In the second scenario, given the time elapsed from stealing to my returning home may be 4 hours, this would seem quite a long period of time over which he may project the association that stealing food = punishment and I should hide?

    Perhaps my perception is skewed, but out of all the things I read about dogs this idea that they cannot think into the future just doesn't seem to chime with experience. Particularly with fearful dogs who seem to be able to chain a number of associations to predict future scary events.

    Don't get me wrong, I don't think dogs can plan to poop in the house to spite us. Or that they are plotting to pee on the bed in retaliation for a punishment. However within the summary of John Bradshaw's talk given at APBC 2013 seminar it states " dogs live in the present and appear to be incapable of either reflecting on what they have done or planning what to do next" and I would like to see that perception questioned further.






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  2. I like the question about whether we can identify the breeds in a mixed breed dog, but I am troubled by the science of the research that you link to. The DNA data does not have any statistical accuracy measures linked to it, because it is all proprietary information. Thus, the strongest argument that really can be made without this information is that different people identified the breeds of dogs differently.

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  3. I think that it would be maladaptive for dogs to live entirely 'in the moment'. Otherwise they would not be able to learn. Even slime mould has the means to tell if they are covering ground they have covered before. http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=brainless-slime-molds Dogs must be able to think at least immediately into the future or they would not be able to act to influence events, which is the basis of operant conditioning. I expect that dogs have a kind of associative memory. For example, if I take my dog out for a walk and he has a bone waiting for him at home, he doesn't seem to be thinking about this while he's walking, but when we arrive back home he will all of a sudden drag me back to the house and dive in to look for his bone. I am guessing he sees/smells home and is reminded that last time he was here there was a bone. Perhaps it is the same for George. He may check the shelves for biscuits every time you leave, or he may be reminded to look for food when you leave because normally you don't interrupt him.

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