Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Covering the coverage of the fox genome paper

Ah, the beloved Tame Fox Project! I worked in a lab that focused on these foxes for four years, during my PhD in Kukekova Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. We worked on analyzing the fox genome for publication throughout those four years, and now at last the fox genome paper is published. (You can see my name tucked neatly in the middle of the authors list.)

What does it mean to have the fox genome sequenced and published? There is a flurry of news reporting about it, and I have issues with a lot of that coverage. I'll be covering the coverage here, letting you know what is accurate and what is less so. I'll update this post as I cover more articles.

Feel free to comment with questions, or with news stories you think should be included here.


  • Fox ‘tameness gene’ identified in 60-year study (Independent): the title of this story is irresponsible, implying that there is one gene controlling tameness in these foxes and that that gene was discovered. The story itself does a decent job of untangling the facts: that a large number of genes affect tameness, and that the gene that was discovered influences whether the fox wants to continue to interact with humans during a specific behavioral test. However, I wonder how many people just read the headline and took away a very different message.
  • A Soviet-era experiment to tame foxes may help reveal genes behind social behavior (Washington Post, Animalia): Great title, intriguing and also accurate. However, the story itself over-emphasizes the morphological difference in the foxes, stating that the Tame Fox Project "spawned an ongoing area of research into how domestication, based purely on behavioral traits, can result in other changes — like curlier tails and changes to fur color." We still don't know if the morphological changes in the tame foxes (which are much less frequent than most journalists suggest) are related to their behavioral changes, or if they're just a result of founder effect. (The lab that produced the current study is betting on founder effect.) The rest of this article is good, with an excellent description of the study's design.
  • Sequenced fox genome hints at genetic basis of behavior (ScienceDaily): "today, with the first-ever publication of the fox genome, scientists will begin to understand the genetic basis of tame and aggressive behaviors" - I think this is overstating. The fox genome is an important tool for working with the genetics of tame foxes, and they are an important model for understanding the genetics of tame behavior. But this isn't the beginning of understanding the genetic basis of tame behavior - either we started that a long time ago, or we haven't really started yet, depending on how you look at it. As with other stories, this story also calls out the finding that there were some changes in aggressive foxes in a region similar to the one associated with Williams syndrome (hyperfriendliness, among other traits) in humans. Which is cool - but don't forget they also found changes in regions associated with autism and schizophrenia, which is also cool! (And which gives more perspective to the fact that a lot of changes were found in a lot of regions, and we don't know what any of them mean yet.) This story has a nice description of the behavioral trait associated with the SorCS1 gene, the one gene that the paper focused on that has changes associated with behavioral differences in tame foxes.
  • The first detailed map of red foxes’ DNA may reveal domestication secrets (ScienceNews): wow, I really like this one! Read this one! It does a great job summarizing the paper, it pulls out interesting stuff, and it doesn't ever go overboard in its interpretations.
  • Friendly Foxes’ Genes Offer Hints to How Dogs Became Domesticated (New York Times): quite short, so other articles are better bets for you to learn more about the study. However, I want to give a shout-out to this one for 1) not saying anything misleading and 2) explaining that tame foxes aren't great pets - something that can be really valuable to include in stories like this one.



Saturday, March 17, 2018

Keeping afloat in the social media ocean: how to post great dog content on your media feed

So you want your dog training school to have an active social media presence – a feed full of useful and informative posts, not a bunch of pictures of cute puppies (as much as we all love those). How do you find those meaty posts to share with your audience and give them food for thought? The internet is a big place these days, and finding that first doorway into the active world of dog science and behavior writing can be hard.

Social media apps


Maintaining a feed packed with shares about the most recent and interesting dog science is something I have done for fun as well as for pay, and I have a few suggestions to get you started in the right direction.
  • To share a lot, you have to read a lot! There is no getting around this one absolute requirement: you must follow a long list of interesting people. This list must be dynamic, because bloggers come and go, so maintaining a healthy list of them involves continually adding new entries. Start with Zazie Todd’s excellent and slightly overwhelming list of the Pet People to Follow in 2018. When someone on your new list shares something from someone you haven’t heard of, check them out. If you’re not sure, default to following them. You can always unfollow them later.
  • Check your feed frequently. When you're following a bunch of people, interesting links will rapidly scroll past and be lost in your timeline. When I was being paid to maintain content in a dog science laboratory’s Twitter feed, I checked Facebook and Twitter three times a day at least. (I will admit that with my smart phone I often did it more often than that, but three times was my minimum.)
  • There are, however, some tools out there to help you keep the fire hose of posts under control. Nuzzel is an app that curates your friends lists on Facebook and Twitter and generates the list of links that those friends shared today. It prioritizes links shared by multiple people as those most likely to interest you. This app has been invaluable to me during dry spots when I was having trouble finding good dog posts because everyone was posting about recent crazy happenings in American politics.
  • Another great app is Buffer (and there are others like it). This app lets you schedule your tweets so that you can browse and collect good content all at once, but parcel out sharing it over time. This keeps your audience from being overwhelmed by bursts of content and then losing interest during dry spells. (Although one morning I was catching up on sharing information out of my Twitter feed, and noticed one person responded to my sudden deluge of shares with the tweet “@dogzombieblog is on fire this morning!” That was a good thing. But not if you can’t maintain it!) This app is particularly nice because you can set a schedule and just pile your tweets on the stack for it to share out over hours or even days, without telling it when to share each one. Facebook lets you schedule individual posts, but you have to plan when each individual one will happen, rather than having a set “three times a day” schedule to fill up with posts.
  • I usually just share links without comment – this is much faster and can make the difference between my feeling I don’t have time to share a moderately-interesting post, and just doing it. On the other hand, if you do have time to comment, it can lead to more engagement with your audience, which is a good thing.
  • Always look at a post before sharing it; never share based on the title alone. If it’s from a new source who you don’t know well, you should read the entire post to make sure there isn’t something buried deep inside it that you don’t want to share. (I’ve often been surprised halfway through reading a post to encounter advice to use force on a dog.) If it’s someone I trust, though, I do sometimes share after just skimming, if it’s on a topic I already understand well.
Have fun! If you share stuff that you find really interesting and engaging, your audience will feel the same way. I share a lot of science, but I do share funny stories or cute animal photos from time to time. I try to make them unusual, though – for example, photos of canid puppies that aren’t dogs, like wolf, dingo, or hyena babies from ZooBorns. Recently I mixed it up by sharing a post about plant behavior. (Plant! Behavior! It’s not dogs, but surely dog behavior folks must find it interesting!) Don’t take it all too seriously – it’s part of your business, but it’s also a way to meet new friends and learn some cool new stuff about dogs.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Veterinarians are Responsible for the Welfare of Flat-Faced Dogs

Note: this post was originally published on the Dog International Blog.

What can we do about the welfare problem of flat-faced dogs?

The health problems associated with brachycephalic (flat-faced) dogs are no secret. Dogs bred to have ultra-shortened muzzles often have significant breathing problems, dental problems, bulging eyes prone to injury, and skin disease from deep facial wrinkles. The welfare problem of brachycephalic dogs has been covered before, including here, here, here, and here. The solution is simple: breed dogs with longer muzzles and wider nostrils. They can still have their distinct breed look, but with a real muzzle instead of a flat face. And yet the word isn’t getting out, and dogs with extremely flat faces are still popular with breeders and dog owners. Some of the most common brachycephalic breeds in question are the English bulldog, French bulldog, pug, Boston terrier, Pekingese, boxer, Shi Tzu and Cavalier King Charles Spaniel.

What can be done? What tools do those concerned with the welfare of breeding for extremely flat faces have to convince breeders to breed more moderate animals? What tools do we have to help the general public—the ones who don’t seek out news stories about the welfare of different dog breeds—to find breeders who produce more moderate dogs? As a veterinarian, I really want my profession to be part of the solution to this problem. In veterinary school, I was taught that part of the veterinarian’s job is to be an advocate for the animal. The owner may be the one who pays the bills, but it’s the animal who is the patient, and a good vet should speak up for the animal even when what she has to say is not what the owner wants to hear. However, I also learned that veterinarians, at least in the U.S., are extremely averse to conflict. We may be told to advocate for the animal, but we are trained not to upset the client. This isn’t just about money. If you upset your client too much, they will take their animal away, and your chance to help the animal will be lost. It’s a fine line, but not one that veterinarians are trained to balance. In my experience, much of our training plays lip service to the idea of standing up for the animal while demonstrating a strict policy of non-interference in a client’s decisions about what kind of dog to acquire.

A new policy about brachycephalics from the British Veterinary Association


French bulldog – 2014 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show
French bulldog – 2014 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
By Pets Adviser from Brooklyn, USA (2014 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show) [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons
Things are a little different on the far side of the pond from the U.S., however. In the U.K., the British Veterinary Association (BVA) recently published a new policy statement about brachycephalic dogs. It is a quite forward-thinking document, taking a multi-pronged approach to the problem.

The document begins with CT scans of a brachycephalic and a normal dog, showing the dramatic difference in skull shape. Even their brains are differently shaped! It continues with a policy position, which contains a list of goals beginning with “ensuring healthier future generations of dogs.” It describes an action plan, including campaigning in the media and a ten-point plan for veterinary practices to address engagement with owners of brachycephalic dogs. It concludes with a list of resources for those who want to know or do more.

This is not a document that will shake the foundations of British veterinary medicine. Its description of the health problems with brachycephalic dogs is based on solid evidence, and is not phrased in inflammatory fashion. Its goals are all positive, focused on education and research. Importantly, however, it provides veterinarians with guidance and resources on how to engage with prospective pet owners on the health problems with brachycephalic dogs. And it takes a strong stance: extremely flat faces in dogs aren’t healthy, and we should be moving away from them.

A weak policy from the American Veterinary Medical Association

Contrast the BVA’s policy to the approach taken by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), which recently passed a three-sentence position statement related to inherited disorders that does not even go so far as to mention brachycephalic dogs specifically. The AVMA’s animal welfare committee had initially proposed a slightly stronger policy that did specifically mention brachycephalics, along with other conditions, but this phrasing was seen as overly controversial. It was particularly opposed by the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club, the Bulldog Club of America, and the American Kennel Club. The final policy phrasing names no specific disorders, targeting only “genetic and inherited disorders” generally.

In failing to call out specific problems, the AVMA missed a chance to make the point that extreme brachycephaly is a disorder. The general public often perceives extremely flat-faced animals as normal, and as a result continue to purchase them without recognizing the numerous health problems these dogs face. Simply framing extreme brachycephaly as a disorder is a powerful tool to changing this perception.

The AVMA policy also fails to provide specific guidance to veterinarians. The policy encourages veterinarians to educate themselves, breeders, and owners “on the responsibilities involved with breeding and selecting companion animals.” Compare this to the BVA’s ten-point plan for veterinarians, with guidance on how to interact with owners during pre-purchase examinations, to breeders considering breeding an affected dog, recommendations of specific tests for assessing the health of dogs from brachycephalic breeds, and the provision of resources for veterinarians, such as health surveillance programs for gathering data on the health of brachycephalic animals, a #BreedToBreathe video, and infographics for social media. U.S. veterinarians receive little guidance in veterinary school about how to communicate with clients over difficult topics such as these. Providing resources to help them grapple with the problem in practice is key.

Who are veterinarians afraid of?

The AVMA’s approach to the brachycephalic welfare problem falls far short of the BVA’s. Why didn’t the AVMA at least pass a stronger policy statement, even if providing real guidance to U.S. veterinarians was not on the table? Who are they afraid of?

Note that, according to the news release about the policy statement in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, complaints about the original proposed policy that identified brachycephaly as a disorder came from clubs of breeders of brachycephalic dogs (the Bulldog Club of America and the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Club) and the umbrella club for many U.S. breed-specific clubs, the American Kennel Club (AKC).

I can’t speak for these clubs, but my understanding is that their concerns are two-fold: first, that if dogs such as bulldogs are bred to have more defined muzzles, the unique character of the bulldog breed will be lost; and second, that if public opinion turns against brachycephalic breeds, these breeds may actually be banned. The second fear is not as far-fetched as you may think, given the existence of a petition to ban bulldogs and pugs in the U.K. The U.K. government does have a history of banning dog breeds that it considers “dangerous” and ear cropping and tail docking are banned in England and Wales for welfare reasons. I can’t predict if this current petition might have teeth, but history suggests it might. For what it’s worth, I believe entirely banning flat-faced breeds goes too far.

However, in no way do I believe that breeding bulldogs, pugs, and other brachycephalic breeds to have a more defined muzzle goes too far! The extreme flatness of these dogs’ faces is a recent phenomenon—look at pictures of French bulldogs from fifty or a hundred years ago and you’ll see a dog with a muzzle who still looks uniquely Frenchie. I wager it is in the show ring that a truly flat face—the kind where the muzzle is flat beneath the eyes, almost as flat as a human’s—is prized. The pet owner is much less likely to find dogs with a bit more muzzle unattractive or to feel that they don’t resemble the breed to which they belong.

The AVMA should take a stronger stance on brachycephalic dogs

Finding the right wording in position statements like these is difficult, and alienating the very people you want to convince is an ever present danger. However, I believe the AVMA’s stance is unnecessarily watered down. Surely veterinarians can take the position that health problems due to breeding for extreme body shapes are something to work against. It must be possible to spread the word that ultra-flat faces are harmful to dogs, and that moderation in muzzle length won’t destroy the unique characteristics of a beloved breed. But we do have to try harder to get that message out there, and U.S. veterinarians are lacking strong leadership bringing us forward. How can we help to fix these breeds? One step is a new policy from the AVMA, providing real guidance to the veterinarians on the front lines about how to talk to the owners and breeders of brachycephalic dogs. The Veterinarian’s Oath includes a promise to work for the protection of animal health and welfare, and prevention and relief of animal suffering. Extreme flat faces cause life-long suffering in animals who need a longer muzzle in order to breathe properly, and veterinarians have a responsibility to take action to prevent that suffering.

Extreme flat faces cause lifelong suffering. It’s time for the AVMA to take a stronger stance on breeding for flat faces.
Extreme flat faces cause lifelong suffering. It’s time for the AVMA to take a stronger stance on breeding for flat faces.

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Friday, May 26, 2017

On showing dogs in conformation shows

I’ve been cogitating recently on the statement I’ve seen in a few places that “it makes sense to show a dog in conformation shows before breeding it to make sure a judge has a chance to say that the dog has good or bad conformation.” I just posted this to a breed-specific mailing list in response to that statement, and am curious what y’all think of it:

I think the real question is whether a judge selects a dog based on healthy structure or based on something else. I suspect it varies by judge, but the concern is that, given a ring of dogs all with good structure, the dog with some other flashy attribute will win (thick coat, particular head or ear shape). Then people start breeding for that attribute in order to win. Then that attribute gets valued over good structure. I think the fear that this will happen in any given breed is valid, given what we've seen in other breeds - take the show German Shepherd with its very sloping backline or the tastefully plump show Labrador.

What it comes down to for me is, what is the best way to evaluate healthy structure in a dog before breeding? I don’t think conformation shows are that way. I suggest a) making sure the dog is able to work well and without pain b) giving the dog time to mature to see if it has any structural unsoundness and c) having the dog examined by a veterinary orthopedic specialist. There are plenty of structural issues that are just not going to show up on physical exam (whether performed by vet or by judge), which is why (a) and (b) are so important.

Thoughts from the blogosphere?

Bonus dog photo because every post needs a photo (of a purebred dog out of parents who were never shown in coformation shows, and a mixed breed whose parents were probably not selected with any sort of care at all):


Sunday, April 16, 2017

The vegetables of genetics

Today I’m working on revisions for my DNA class at IAABC, which starts Monday, April 24. This will be the second time I’ve offered this class; it’s the first in a series of four classes (which you can take in any order, so this one isn’t required for later classes). And the auditor’s price is still super low to encourage people to take it just for fun.



I’m never sure how to promote this class. Will it offer you direct insights into how to modify behavior? It won’t, of course. It will tell you what DNA is and what genes are and how at a low level DNA differences affect traits. For how to apply this stuff to behavior consulting, you should refer to the fourth class in the series, which is about behavioral genetics.

But while the fourth class has that stuff we all want to know in it, to really understand how all that stuff works you really want to take this first class. Sometimes I think of this one as the vegetables class: you have to eat your veggies before you can have your dessert. But I hope it’s not just because I’m a genetics geek that I do think this class has some fascinating material in its own right. It’s not overcooked frozen peas, it’s heirloom tomatoes from the farmer's market. In later classes I’ll talk about the weird ways our DNA can affect our personalities, and in order to deeply understand what I mean, you want to know how DNA is put together and how the body reads the genetic code and how things can go wrong.

And by the way, I make sure all of my classes have something in them for everyone, so if you are a genetics geek too, come take the class for the optional resources, which have loads of articles with new research findings in which we (surprise!) realize DNA is more complicated than we at first thought, and getting more complicated the closer we look at it.

And if anyone can help me explain how to market this funny little class and explain to people that this really is stuff it’s good to know (for behavior consulting but also just for life in the middle of the Genomics Revolution) then please tell me!

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Puppies and Pointing


Why are some dogs better at paying attention to humans, particularly human gestures like pointing, than others? We know genetics has something to do with it, because some breeds (like border collies) are a lot better at responding to human signals than others like beagles. To better understand the biology driving differences in ability to respond to human signals, researchers at the Family Dog Project compared dogs and wolves as they grew up. They knew that wolves can respond to human signals, but that they are better at this when they have been extensively socialized, whereas dogs can understand human signals with much less socialization. But at what age do these differences manifest?

Family Dog Project
Image from the Family Dog Project

The researchers used a pointing test to measure ability to respond to human signals. This test has been used on dogs before: if a dog is given a choice of two bowls, only one of which contains food, and he can't see where the food is, will he follow a person's pointing gesture to pick the right bowl? (The bowl with no food in it is rubbed with food so the dogs can't use their noses to get the right answer.) This test has been done in the past with dogs versus human children (dogs do about the same as two year old kids on this task), dogs versus wolves (dogs generally outperform wolves, unless the wolves have a whole lot of experience with humans), and dogs versus chimpanzees, our closest primate relatives (dogs outperform chimps!).

For this study, the researchers compared hand-reared (i.e., well socialized) 8-week old dog and wolf puppies; 4 month old dog and wolf puppies; and adult dogs and wolves. They tested the animals' abilities both with "proximal" pointing (putting their finger right up to the bowl) and "distal" pointing (standing farther away and indicating the bowl) - except that, since very young puppies and wolves don't see well, they didn't test the distal pointing in the 8 week old babies. What they found:
  • The 8 week old puppies (dogs and wolves) had similar ability to follow the proximal pointing gesture with the researcher's finger right next to the bowl. However, 6 of the 13 wolf puppies tested had to be removed from the trial because they couldn't be held on the start line or didn't go choose a bowl. Of the 9 puppies, only one was removed for similar reasons.
  • 4 month old dogs did better at distal pointing (with the researcher standing away from the bowl and indicating it) than 4 month old wolves did. In fact, the 4 month old wolves seemed to do no better than chance.
  • Adult dogs and wolves did equally well with both proximal and distal pointing.
  • At all three ages, wolves needed more time to establish eye contact with the pointing human than dogs did.
So all the animals at all ages were able to understand a pointing gesture when the human put their hand right up to the bowl. But pointing from farther away was harder, as you'd expect. Very young puppies (dog and wolf) were not tested on that task. At four months, wolves hadn't figured it out yet, but dogs had. As adults, the wolves had caught up. These were highly socialized adult wolves with a great deal of experience with humans.

It's interesting that dogs seem to develop the ability to understand a more difficult human pointing gesture at a younger age than wolves - and particularly interesting that this may have to do with the fact that wolves are not as eager to look us in the eye as dogs are. (If you don't look at someone, it's hard to follow their pointing gesture!)

So what does this mean for differences in different dog breeds? Do different dog breeds have differences in the timing of their cognitive development? Does this affect how much attention they pay to us, and perhaps how easy they are to train? We don't know, but I think this is one direction dog research needs to go.

(By the way, check out the original paper - it's open access, and has some great videos of dog and wolf puppies at the end!)

Gácsi, Márta, et al. "Explaining dog wolf differences in utilizing human pointing gestures: selection for synergistic shifts in the development of some social skills." PLoS One 4.8 (2009): e6584.

This post was originally published with slight modifications at Darwin's Dogs.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Puppies and dog breeds

Thanks to Julie Wurth for a great interview with me and Linda Case of The Science Dog in our local paper, the News-Gazette.

Since the article was about getting a new puppy and provided pointers to this blog I figured it was a good idea to suggest some old posts to any new readers. As always, for a constant stream of interesting dog science articles not written by me, follow me on Twitter or like my page on Facebook!


And an update on Dash - he is turning into a fine young man. Here he is from a few days ago.
Dashiell, aged six months