Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Temple's advice on Labrador retrievers

There are two kinds of Labs, big-boned service Labs and slender, hyper Labs who would go crazy lying next to a wheelchair all day long. If you want a Labrador retriever who's calm, you have to find a service-type Lab. If you like hyper dogs (a hyper Lab can be a lot of fun) then choose a Lab who wouldn't be a candidate for service training.

When I was a child we had two black Labradors in our neighborhood, Hunter (a boy) and Tucky (a girl). Tucky was active and slender, and all she wanted to do was have kids throw the ball for her. She had this spit-covered tennis ball, and she'd just keep bringing the ball to you and dropping it. If you were bored and didn't want to throw the ball any more, she'd pick it up and drop it again, then keep doing it until you finally gave in and threw the ball. She'd pick it up and drop it, pick it up and drop it, pick it up and drop it. She could do this all day long.

Hunter was heavy-boned, heavy-bodied, and thick, and he could care less about the ball. Very, very friendly, very good with the kids. But he wasn’t active. Hunter was perfectly content to just lie around.

Hunter is the kind of dog you would use for a service dog, because he’s calm. He can lie around and not do very much all day long. Tucky would have gone crazy if she’d had to stay by a wheelchair all day.

posted by Catherine for Temple Grandin

laughing dogs and other animals

If you asked people who live with dogs whether dogs laugh, probably most would say 'Sure.'

Now scientists may be confirming folk wisdom where dogs are concerned:
To an untrained human ear, it sounds much like a pant, 'hhuh, hhuh,'" says Patricia Simonet of Sierra Nevada College in Lake Tahoe. However, this exhalation bursts into a broader range of frequencies than does regular dog panting, Simonet discovered when she and her students analyzed recordings.

They observed the bursts during play but not in aggressive clashes, Simonet reported in Corvallis, Ore., last week at a meeting of the Animal Behavior Society.

Gordon Burghardt of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, who theorizes about the evolution of play, says Simonet's presentation caught his interest. Her dog-laughing proposal needs more testing, he cautions. But he notes that other scientists have proposed that nonhuman primates and even rodents laugh.


With recordings of such laughs and growls, the researchers tested 15 mostly young dogs in an observation room. When the researchers broadcast the laugh, a puppy often picked up a toy or trotted toward a presumed playmate, if a person or another dog was in the room. Simonet's own best attempt at the laugh likewise prompted dogs to look for a romp. Broadcasting growls elicited no such effects.
Rats probably laugh, too:
This dog-exhalation study reopens many questions about whether animals laugh, comments Brian Knutson of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. He has recorded chirps that laboratory rats give as they wrestle with each other. Rats also chirp before receiving morphine or having sex. He interprets the sound as indicating "the rat expects something rewarding."

illustration: Dogs at play give breathy exhalation (top) that differs from standard pants (bottom, arrows).
photo: Simonet
further reading:
2000. The Smile of a Dolphin: Remarkable Accounts of Animal Emotions. Bekoff, M., ed. Random House/Discovery Books.
Provine, R.R. 2000. Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. Viking: New York.

Don't look now, but is that dog laughing?
Science News
week of July 28, 2001
Vol. 160, No. 4, p. 55

Monday, January 30, 2006

Malcolm Gladwell on pit bulls

Malcolm Gladwell has an article out on the difficulties involved in profiling pit bulls (and criminals).

The goal of pit-bull bans, obviously, isn’t to prohibit dogs that look like pit bulls. The pit-bull appearance is a proxy for the pit-bull temperament—for some trait that these dogs share. But “pit bullness” turns out to be elusive as well. The supposedly troublesome characteristics of the pit-bull type—its gameness, its determination, its insensitivity to pain—are chiefly directed toward other dogs. Pit bulls were not bred to fight humans. On the contrary: a dog that went after spectators, or its handler, or the trainer, or any of the other people involved in making a dogfighting dog a good dogfighter was usually put down. (The rule in the pit-bull world was “Man-eaters die.”)

[ed.: This is an example of what Temple calls 'informal selection pressures,' or culling.]

A Georgia-based group called the American Temperament Test Society has put twenty-five thousand dogs through a ten-part standardized drill designed to assess a dog’s stability, shyness, aggressiveness, and friendliness in the company of people. A handler takes a dog on a six-foot lead and judges its reaction to stimuli such as gunshots, an umbrella opening, and a weirdly dressed stranger approaching in a threatening way. Eighty-four per cent of the pit bulls that have been given the test have passed, which ranks pit bulls ahead of beagles, Airedales, bearded collies, and all but one variety of dachshund. “We have tested somewhere around a thousand pit-bull-type dogs,” Carl Herkstroeter, the president of the A.T.T.S., says. “I’ve tested half of them. And of the number I’ve tested I have disqualified one pit bull because of aggressive tendencies. They have done extremely well. They have a good temperament. They are very good with children.” It can even be argued that the same traits that make the pit bull so aggressive toward other dogs are what make it so nice to humans. “There are a lot of pit bulls these days who are licensed therapy dogs,” the writer Vicki Hearne points out. “Their stability and resoluteness make them excellent for work with people who might not like a more bouncy, flibbertigibbet sort of dog. When pit bulls set out to provide comfort, they are as resolute as they are when they fight, but what they are resolute about is being gentle. And, because they are fearless, they can be gentle with anybody.”

Then which are the pit bulls that get into trouble? “The ones that the legislation is geared toward have aggressive tendencies that are either bred in by the breeder, trained in by the trainer, or reinforced in by the owner,” Herkstroeter says. A mean pit bull is a dog that has been turned mean, by selective breeding, by being cross-bred with a bigger, human-aggressive breed like German shepherds or Rottweilers, or by being conditioned in such a way that it begins to express hostility to human beings. A pit bull is dangerous to people, then, not to the extent that it expresses its essential pit bullness but to the extent that it deviates from it.
Catherine speaking: over Christmas vacation, we visited Bob B., who is one of our best friends in Los Angeles. Bob and his family have become devoted lovers of pit bulls - they have 3 of them!

Having met those dogs, we've become pit bull devotees, too. They are incredible dogs, astonishingly focused on humans. Vicki Hearne is right: the dogs we met were fearless, resolute, and gentle.

Unfortunately, given the fact that criminal breeders are now deliberately mixing dog-aggressive pit bulls with human-aggressive breeds like the Akita, I'd be too nervous to buy or rescue a pit bull myself. I wouldn't feel confident that we'd be able to know what kind of genetic mix we were getting. We have 3 kids, two of them with autism; plus we have lots of kids coming to the house; and we have lots of neighborhood dogs walking by. Bob lives in Topanga Canyon where he can keep his dogs separate from other people and other dogs.

So we're going to be living a pit bull-free life for the foreseeable future.

But these are incredible animals.

The New Yorker
Issue of 2006-02-06
Posted 2006-01-30

books by Vicki Hearne:
Bandit: Dossier of a Dangerous Dog
Adam's Task: Calling Animals by Name

about Vicki Hearne:
Vicki Hearne, Animal Trainer and Philosopher

Friday, December 23, 2005

safe roads for animals

TUCSON, ARIZ. - A stream of traffic flows along Picture Rocks Road, past two roadside culverts where Natasha Kline is checking for animal tracks. The tunnels, intended to drain a sandy wash, are serving instead as life-saving byways for wildlife along this busy commuter route through Saguaro National Park.

As a park biologist, Ms. Kline knows such crossings can be crucial. A recent study counted as many as 53,000 animals killed on Saguaro's roads each year. "It's a huge problem," she says, "and our issue will be every park's issue in 10 years or so."


Increased roadkill in national parks and on America's roads is a serious issue. About 275,000 animal-related crashes occur each year in the US, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. An estimated 1 million animals are killed on America's roads each day.

Scientists and transportation planners are seeking to reverse the trend.


"The first step is understanding where the wildlife passages and corridors are," says Alison Berry, director of the Road Ecology Center at the University of California at Davis. "Then you can go on to [developing] structural barriers, various kinds of underpasses or culverts, and wildlife crossing structures."

Here in Westchester County, deer-car crashes are a danger. Last summer a deer jumped the stone wall at the bottom of our road and landed in the path of a car doing 40 mph.

I happened to be walking home with my neighbor at the time, and when we reached the car, we found the driver sitting inside crying. The deer lay in the road, dead. Terrible.

Culverts like the one in the photograph are one solution.

A push for animal-friendly roads: In road ecology, transportation engineers and biologists cooperate on projects so fewer animals are struck by cars.
By Tim Vanderpool
December 20, 2005 edition
Christian Science Monitor

Monday, December 12, 2005

can bees tell people apart?


SCIENCE NEWS reports on new research by Adrian Dyer of Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, Germany.
Dyer, who studies bee and human vision, wondered whether an animal that had faced no evolutionary pressure to distinguish among people could recognize human faces. "I thought it was a long shot," he says.

He and his colleagues fastened a portrait above each of four feeders that dispensed either a bee-favorite sugar solution or a solution tainted with quinine, which bees disdain. The researchers borrowed some black-and-white portraits of men's faces from a standard test used to diagnose people with cognitive deficits.

The researchers put the bees through a multistep education in picking out a photo of a beardless young man. They put his picture above two of the sugar feeders and placed images of another face above the two quinine feeders. Between trials, the researchers shuffled the positions of the pictures and the solutions, keeping the sweet flavor with the one man's photo.
After one trial with a stylized face and another with an unfamiliar photo above the quinine solution, a bee had learned to fly to the first man's photo most of the time. The researchers then switched the unfamiliar photos, emptied all the feeders, and positioned the photos. As long as the photos were upright, the bees picked out the original fellow's face at least 80 percent of the time.

I'm not surprised by this, given research showing that bees have better working memory than researchers had thought.

The big question is whether bees can tell distinguish among photos of the same person with different facial expressions.

Face Time: Bees can tell apart human portraits
Week of Dec. 3, 2005; Vol. 168, No. 23 , p. 360

danger mouse

Temple called to point me to two new articles in Science News , one on the 'danger mouse,' and one on bees.

Here's the mouse:
By removing one gene from a mouse's standard repertoire, scientists have turned a timid animal into an intrepid one.

Gleb Shumyatsky of Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., and his colleagues study the genetics that affect how animals remember scary stimuli and how they respond to fright. "Fear is definitely important when you think about the survival of an organism," Shumyatsky says. "If you make a single mistake, you can be eaten or killed."

In 2002, Shumyatsky and his team discovered that the amygdala, which processes fear, has high levels of a protein called stathmin.

So they bred a knock-out mouse lacking the gene that directs the production of stathmin.

Then they looked at two kinds of fear:
  • innate fear (heights, predators)
  • learned fear (such as a tone that signals a shock)
The stathmin-free mice were far less fearful:
When normal mice are released into a new cage, they skulk near the edges. A hardwired fear of possible predators seems to keep the animals from immediately exploring their environment. Shumyatsky and his colleagues found that mice missing stathmin strolled into the middle of new cages sooner than normal mice did. In another experiment, stathmin-free mice spent more time than normal mice did on platforms set up 50 centimeters above the floor.

Standing up high on a platform is something dogs and cats do, not mice.

The knock-out mice were less troubled by learned fears, too:
Shumyatsky and his team taught groups of mice to expect a mild shock after hearing a loud tone. Normal mice froze in place for several seconds whenever they heard the tone, even if the shock didn't come. Although stathminfree mice also struck a pose at the sound of the tone, they held it only 60 percent as long as the normal mice did.

Nothing else seems to have been affected. The knockout mice looked normal in memory, hearing, and pain perception—and they did have some fear: "They weren't stupid," Shumyatsky told SCIENCE NEWS. "If you wanted to catch them, they ran away."

However, other areas of the brain produce stathmin as well, so it's reasonable to assume that it's involved in other behaviors, too, as Joseph LeDoux of NYU points out.

I'll be interested to see what other behaviors stathmin might affect.


Danger Mouse: Deleting a gene transforms timid rodents into daredevils

Week of Nov. 26, 2005; Vol. 168, No. 22 , p. 341

Monday, November 28, 2005

Heart of the Horse

Just spoke to Temple—she is raving about Heart of the Horse, a book of photographs by Juliet Van Otteren. Text by Alan Lightman, foreword by Jane Goodall.

The cover photo is exquisite.

Juliet Van Otteren's website is here.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

that's why they call it the pecking order

The Wall Street Journal has a story on aggressive tom turkeys:
In April, Will Millington was riding his dirt bike down a narrow trail in Norman, Okla., when he stopped before a flock of wild turkeys. The hens scattered, but two toms flared their feathers and stalked toward him. Then they suddenly leapt in the air, beat Mr. Millington with their wings and tried to scratch him with the sharp spurs on the backs of their legs.

Mr. Millington frantically revved his bike's motor. Thirty yards down the trail he looked back. "They were running after me," says the 46-year-old property manager. "That was kind of spooky."


...naturalists who have studied the wild turkey say it can become aggressive toward humans as it adapts to suburban life. They worry it may become the next form of "nuisance" wildlife, following in the tracks of the whitetail deer and the Canada goose.

Wild-turkey flocks have a pecking order. If they live around humans, some of the dominant toms may begin to include people in that order -- at a level below themselves, says Jim Cardoza, a turkey expert at the Massachusetts wildlife agency. Wild turkeys "get used to people and incorporate them into their view of society," he says. Some behavior, such as putting out bird food and slinking quietly away, can encourage these lordly males to think that humans are a subservient life form, believes Mr. Cardoza.

Biologist James Earl Kennamer, senior vice president of the National Wild Turkey Federation, an Edgefield, S.C., hunters' group, has studied wild turkeys for 40 years. "When they think you're one of them, they'll fight you to show who's dominant," he says. "If you turn your back, they'll take it to mean they're dominant."


Last month, jogging on a back road in Massachusetts' Berkshire hills, Betsy Kosheff passed a farmers' field where farm-raised wild turkeys were pecking for grain. Suddenly about 30 of them took off after Ms. Kosheff, who has a public-relations firm in West Stockbridge, Mass.

"It was like that scene in 'The Birds' except there was no phone booth," says Ms. Kosheff, referring to the famous refuge in the Alfred Hitchcock movie. A passing friend stopped her pickup truck and Ms. Kosheff ran around it several times. The turkeys kept up the chase, although she says "they were too stupid to split up or change directions" to trap her. Finally, Ms. Kosheff got in the truck, where, she says, her friend "was laughing so hard she almost choked on her Dunkin' Donut."

We have very similar stories about bulls in Animals in Translation : Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior.


Never let a bull—or a tom turkey—think he's a person.

Happy Thanksgiving!

One for 'The Birds': Wild Turkeys Attack Humans in Suburbia

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

In the Company of Crows and Ravens the title of a new book by John M. Marzhuff and Tony Angell Temple's been reading.

Terrific story:

Marzhuff and Angell watched a team of crows—possibly as many as 5—gang up on an otter with a fish.

Some of the crows would swoop in and distract the otter, poking his tail and bugging him, while the others watched and waited for their chance to snatch the fish away.

Once the watching crows got the fish, they all flew off together.