A blog about dog training and dog breeding…and other sundry matters

Posts tagged ‘dog behavior’

Research on the Human/Dog Bond Illuminates aspects of Canine Intelligence

A recent BBC documentary, The Secret Life of the Dog, explores research being done to explain the human/dog bond.  It is highly informative, and an eye-opener, too, as it has ramifications for dog breeders and trainers.  Some points that the documentary make are:

1) The presence of oxytocin in humans’ blood provides one explanation for man’s attraction to these canids.  Petting or playing with a dog seems to stimulate the flow of this hormone into the blood stream.

2) Although dogs and wolves share 99.8% of their genes, and can be bred together, the two species differ vastly in their interaction with humans and their environment from each other.  This bit of research further refutes the dominance theory that characterizes traditional training techniques used for dogs.

3) It appears that wolves are the main ancestor of the domesticated dog, and the physical variation that we see today in our pets stems from the very process of domestication.  This conclusion is based upon research done on the silver fox where researchers found that as the generations of tame foxes born in captivity increased, so did the variation in coat color.

4)  Aggression is heredity and not genetic.  Again, that conclusion came from the experiments made with foxes.  Only the tame animals were allowed to breed together.  These pairings produced tame animals.  When the aggressive animals were allowed to breed together, aggressive offspring was the results.  When a cub born to aggressive parents was raised by a tame mother, the cub still grew up to be aggressive.

5)  Dogs are an incredibly smart species that interact with us differently than they do with their own species.  They have different barks which seem to mean different things (most dog owners already figured that out), such as a bark for excitement, a bark for anxiousness, one to warn off intruders, etc.  This repertoire apparently came about through the domestication process, as wolves and other canids rarely bark.

The documentary consists of six parts.  The first part is given below.

Do Dogs Really Display Guilt?

Ever came home to find the cushions on the floor, a broken lamp in the middle of the living room, and a big pile of poop in the kitchen, and your dog looking really guilty.  Turns out dogs do not feel remorse; they merely respond to their owners’ reaction.

Here’s the full article below:

What Really Prompts the Dog’s ‘Guilty Look’

ScienceDaily (June 14, 2009) — What dog owner has not come home to a broken vase or other valuable items and a guilty-looking dog slouching around the house? By ingeniously setting up conditions where the owner was misinformed as to whether their dog had really committed an offense, Alexandra Horowitz, Assistant Professor from Barnard College in New York, uncovered the origins of the “guilty look” in dogs in the recently published “Canine Behaviour and Cognition” Special Issue of Elsevier’s Behavioural Processes.

Horowitz was able to show that the human tendency to attribute a “guilty look” to a dog was not due to whether the dog was indeed guilty. Instead, people see ‘guilt’ in a dog’s body language when they believe the dog has done something it shouldn’t have – even if the dog is in fact completely innocent of any offense.

During the study, owners were asked to leave the room after ordering their dogs not to eat a tasty treat. While the owner was away, Horowitz gave some of the dogs this forbidden treat before asking the owners back into the room. In some trials the owners were told that their dog had eaten the forbidden treat; in others, they were told their dog had behaved properly and left the treat alone. What the owners were told, however, often did not correlate with reality.

Whether the dogs’ demeanor included elements of the “guilty look” had little to do with whether the dogs had actually eaten the forbidden treat or not. Dogs looked most “guilty” if they were admonished by their owners for eating the treat. In fact, dogs that had been obedient and had not eaten the treat, but were scolded by their (misinformed) owners, looked more “guilty” than those that had, in fact, eaten the treat. Thus the dog’s guilty look is a response to the owner’s behavior, and not necessarily indicative of any appreciation of its own misdeeds.

This study sheds new light on the natural human tendency to interpret animal behavior in human terms. Anthropomorphisms compare animal behavior to human behavior, and if there is some superficial similarity, then the animal behavior will be interpreted in the same terms as superficially similar human actions. This can include the attribution of higher-order emotions such as guilt or remorse to the animal.

The editor of the special issue, Clive D.L. Wynne of the Department of Psychology, University of Florida, explained, “this is a remarkably powerful demonstration of the need for careful experimental designs if we are to understand the human-dog relationship and not just reify our natural prejudices about animal behavior.” He pointed out that dogs are the oldest domesticated species and have a uniquely intimate role in the lives of millions of people. Recent research on dogs has indicated more human-like forms of reasoning about what people know than has been demonstrated even in chimpanzees.

Journal reference:

  1. Horowitz et al. Disambiguating the ‘guilty look’;: Salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour. Behavioural Processes, 2009; 81 (3): 447 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2009.03.014
Adapted from materials provided by Elsevier, via AlphaGalileo.
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