Monday, June 28, 2010

Domesticating foxes for fun and profit

The Thoughtful Animal has been writing about domesticated foxes and has pointed out that they are commercially available.

Dude! I want one right now! For the low price of $5,950, why not?

Let’s assume the cost isn’t actually an issue. (I want one of these guys badly enough that I would probably find the money somewhere.)

It’s just like a dog, and we know all about taking care of them. It won’t be like owning an exotic animal. It will be like owning an extra cute dog.

Well, it isn’t exactly just like a dog; they aren’t closely related enough to interbreed, for example. One thing vet school has impressed upon me is that species differences jump out at you when you least expect them. We have lived with dogs for a long, long time. In fact, I will hazard a guess that veterinary medicine was practiced on them very early. We know a lot about what makes them tick. We don’t know all that much about foxes.

Well, I live just up the street from a wildlife clinic. They could provide veterinary care.

Actually, in my case, this is true. However, the approach to veterinary care at a wildlife clinic is different from the approach at a small animal veterinary clinic. Ask me again after I have done my wildlife rotation, but I imagine they are not as used in that clinic to the kind of care we expect to give to our pets. For example, I had cardiology specialists caring for my cat when she was in heart failure. They knew all about how cats respond to heart failure (differently from dogs). Cardiologists wouldn’t have the first idea about species differences in foxes, but the wildlife clinicians would be much less skilled at reading a cardiac echo. Neither would be quite able to provide complete care for a pet fox. And the number of foxes a wildlife veterinarian sees a year is much, much smaller than the number of dogs a small animal veterinarian sees a year. It would just not be the same as getting veterinary care for a dog.

My guess is that your local vet would refuse to see the fox at all, with good reason. If you know someone who owns a bird or bunny, ask them how hard it is to find a vet to see one of those animals! And if you can only find one vet who’s even willing, you will have no choice of where you get care.

This will be a young, healthy animal, so I’m not worried about veterinary care.

Are you worried about behavior?

It’s domesticated. That means it’s just like a dog.

In this case, the foxes were “domesticated” by being bred to not be afraid of humans. They weren’t bred to be good house pets, though. They have been maintained as laboratory animals since their strain was developed, living in runs. They won’t bite you. But they may chew up your house, kill your cat, pee inappropriately — actually, a dog will do any of those things. Who knows what else a fox might come up with? We don’t have all the experience with their quirks that we have with dogs.

I’ll take him to a good trainer and make sure none of those things happen.

I’m betting you will have trouble finding a dog obedience class which will allow him in. You will have to shell out for private lessons.

Well, I’ll get him lots of exercise. A tired fox is a good fox.

Who will play with him? Will you take him to the dog park? Will his unusual smell and unusual body language (I’m just guessing here that a different species speaks a slightly different language) make it harder for dogs to accept him? Is it OK with you that he will never see another member of his species for the rest of his life?

And what will you feed him?

Dog food, of course.

There’s a lot of debate over what’s healthy food even for a dog these days. Again, we don’t know as much about foxes. And remember, they are only maintained in the laboratory for a few years, so the researchers don’t have experience with what is healthy for them as they get old. How hard is it to feed an animal right? Well, before we discovered that taurine was a required nutrient for cats, cats which ate commercial cat food tended to go blind as they got older. What might we be missing in a fox’s diet?

We take a lot of things for granted with dogs, and even so, they can be a big commitment. I really, really want a domesticated silver fox. But it is not a good idea for me or anyone else to have one. We have plenty of species of domesticated animals already which make excellent pets about which we know a great deal. We have a much better chance of providing good husbandry for a dog or cat. The foxes make for fascinating research animals, and I am glad that they exist (though I am sad that they have to live in a laboratory in order to be studied). But turning them into pets is not a responsible thing to do.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Responsibility for dogs who bite

My school has a large, fenced field. Traditionally, people have been free to let their dogs run off leash in this field. I’ve taken advantage of this resource myself. However, my school is considering the possibility of closing the field, because some dogs have menaced or attacked people while in the field. My school is fearful of liability — if a dog severely bites someone while loose in the field, the school could be sued. In this economy, simply being sued is something for a cash-strapped school to be very cautious of, even if they are found not to be liable in the end.

In my opinion, the responsibility for a dog which might bite falls squarely on the shoulders of that dog’s owner. And there are currently some potential consequences. The owner of a dog which bites may be sued; the dog may be destroyed if it is judged to be a public menace. I imagine that these consquences do deter some people from letting their unsafe dogs run free in public, but apparently not enough people.

In a perfect world, owners of reliable, safe dogs would have full access to resources such as large fields, and would not lose access to these resources because of the behaviors of owners who do not manage their dogs responsibly. I don’t know the specifics about what happened in this particular field, but it is my strong suspicion that the owners of the dogs in question suspected that the dogs were not completely reliable, and took them to the field anyway, hoping for the best.

This is a bigger issue than just setting a policy for my school’s field. I believe that keeping large spaces open to the public is important. It’s good for humans to have green spaces to walk in. It’s good for dogs to have large spaces to run in. It’s good for humans and their dogs to spend quality time together, for walks to not be a chore. Neither we nor they get enough exercise as it is. It’s also good public relations for institutions which own these spaces to let the public use them.

How can we make the owners of unsafe dogs take responsibility for their pets? It’s a problem society is really struggling with right now. Some people feel that the right answer is to ban particular breeds. I don’t believe breed specific legislation is effective, because I believe it’s not the breed that’s the problem, it’s the owner. How do you ban irresponsibility? How do the owners of a privately owned space control who uses the space, short of disallowing all access?

One solution that comes to mind is that owners of private spaces (or towns with public spaces) require some proof that a dog is reliable before it is allowed off leash in the space in question. For example, a dog might have to pass the Canine Good Citizen test, administered by the American Kennel Club, to prove that it has basic obedience skills. The CGC isn’t an off-leash test, but it’s a start, and more appropriate tests could easily be designed. However, obviously the overhead of such a system would be prohibitive. The owner of the space would have to maintain some sort of registration system, perhaps even give out tags with proof that access is allowed. They would also have to police the space to make sure unregistered dogs weren’t being allowed into it.

The other extreme is to push for punishment, after the fact, of owners whose dogs dangerously misbehave. The space owner could sue such owners themselves. (Is there any precedent for this, I wonder? What grounds would they have?) They could declare that the owners of dogs which menace or bite while in the space will be fined. (How would collection of such fines be enforced?) Perhaps simply posting that the owners of the space are not responsible for any altercations, and then hoping not to get sued if something happens, is the only practical course of action besides closing the space.

I like the idea of having consequences for irresponsible owners. Hopefully such consequences would encourage owners to think before they act, so that no one else gets hurt. Public spaces where dogs are let off leash might be very good places to post advertisements for off leash training classes! But I just can’t figure out the mechanism for what these consequences would be, or how they would be applied. I’m very sad to see open spaces gradually closing, as people are unable to behave responsibly in them.

What about you, Blogosphere? Any ideas?

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Links post

  • The Slaughterhouse Problem: is a resolution in sight? (Food Politics): Overview of the slaughterhouse problem by Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics and Safe Food. “The slaughterhouse problem is what small, local meat producers have to contend with when their animals are ready to be killed. The USDA licenses so few slaughterhouses, and the rules for establishing them are so onerous, that humanely raised (if that is the correct term) animals have to be trucked hundreds of miles to considerably less humane commercial facilities to be killed... Furthermore, appointments for slaughter must be made many months or years in advance — whether the animals are ready or not.”
  • A Movable Beast: Four-legged mobile slaughter (cows, goats, sheep) comes to the northeast! There is now a mobile unit in New York state which can travel to farms to provide slaughter services (and helps mitigate the problem described by Nestle in the post I mentioned above). Until now, the only mobile units in the northeast were mobile poultry processors. The arrival of mobile four-legged slaughter units is a good thing — trucking animals long distances to slaughter is unpleasant for them. This also allows farmers more oversight over how their animals are treated on that important last day. Four-legged slaughter is more highly regulated than poultry slaughter; it is also technically more complicated because of chilling requirements. So this was a long time in coming.
  • A good week for UK science journalism (despite one big fail) (Not Exactly Rocket Science). A bunch of links to interesting new ideas in science journalism.
  • Seals do it with whiskers, sharks do it with noses – tracking fish with supersenses. Seals can sense the passage of fish in the water with their sensitive whiskers up to 35 seconds after the fish have swum by. I think this sort of insight into alternative senses is so interesting — what is it like to be able to perceive these sorts of things? How do their brains interpret it? Is it like sight is to us?
  • fight club soap: Nature Publishing Group proposed a 400% price hike of the licensing fee paid to them by the University of California library system. The UC schools proposed boycotting NPG. Boycotting NPG would be a big deal; they publish some very important journals. This post, by a librarian, summarizes the situation well and has some interesting ideas about the broader impact it may have on academic journal pricing.
  • Nutritional inadequacy: Is it what your pet’s having for dinner? (PetConnection): “So, ‘holistic’ pet food companies, don’t you have trade or industry groups? Create your own third-party-verified feeding trials the way the organic food industry created its own certification programs. That would be something to brag about.” Hear, hear.
  • The Switches That Can Turn Mental Illness On and Off: Review of current state of research on how epigenetics affects stress. (Epigenetics is a set of mechanisms that affect how your DNA is accessed and read, and therefore how it is used. I have posted about it before.)

Friday, June 18, 2010

Why cortisol sucks as a measurement of stress

Standing in the ward of a veterinary hospital, you see a dog jumping up and down in his run, barking. Is he distressed at being here? Or is he just barking to get attention? Obviously, you decide to perform a research study on dogs in the hospital, to measure their stress levels. How are you going to go about getting some sort of numeric measurement of stress, so that you can perform statistics on your data and publish it in a journal?

People have approached similar problems in a lot of ways. One of the most common answers is to measure the dog’s cortisol levels. (Or corticosterone, if it’s actually a rat, mouse, rabbit, or bird.) This is the approach I’m using; cortisol is in saliva, which is why I spent so much time over the last year trying to get dogs to drool more.

What is cortisol, actually? There was an excellent post on recently about cortisol and how science journalists sometimes misrepresent it. I’m going to use dogs as my examples, but what I have to say is just as relevant to studies on humans, if that is your cup of tea. It might help you to understand some of the news stories floating around about various things which “raise cortisol levels.”

Cortisol is a hormone made by your adrenal glands. Your adrenals sit next to your kidneys, but they produce cortisol in response to hormones released from your brain in stressful situations. So we like to measure cortisol levels because they tend to increase when the brain is sending out “I’m stressed” messages.

OK, but what is stress? What I care about, and what many people who measure cortisol care about, is psychological distress — being yelled at, being scared you’re going to be eaten by a predator, being left in a loud veterinary hospital with no familiar faces around you. Stress is a lot of other things as well, however. It is hunger, illness, feeling too cold, having exercised recently. In fact, cortisol has a normal rise and fall over the course of the day to help your body know that it is time to be awake or to go to sleep. Your adrenals also produce it to help you deal with anything which requires some extra energy. You may need that extra energy for a good reason, such as competing in an athletic event. “Good” stressors like that are known as eustressors. So if you’re going to use cortisol to measure stress, you are going to be measuring both eustress and normal daily stress like hunger, in addition to whatever source of distress you may be interested in.

Knowing this, you’ll try to design your experiment to work around the problem. You’re interested in whether dogs find their time in a veterinary hospital to be distressing. So you will try to remove eustressors from the equation — you will make sure that none of our dogs have exciting things like getting fed or taken for walks happen while we’re studying them. You will also make sure that all of your study dogs are healthy, since illness can raise cortisol levels. And you will measure the dogs’ cortisol levels at exactly the same time of day, because of cortisol’s diurnal cycle. (There is some very interesting debate about whether dogs, unlike all other mammals which have been studied, actually don’t have a daily cycle of cortisol. One theory is that they don’t because they sleep most of the day.) Now you believe you're just measuring distress.

Cortisol is still an awfully bad way to measure distress! Males and females react to stressors in different ways. (This has mainly been reported in humans, but it’s been said that studies of stress in rats which are limited to males miss an important segment of the population.) Age has something to do with cortisol levels as well, though mainly just in the very young and very old. In dogs, it is an open question of whether breed matters, but I’m guessing it does, since personality affects cortisol responses to stress in humans.

So you control for that, too. You get a bunch of dogs of the exact same age, gender, and breed. They are all laboratory animals, so you can be reasonably sure their histories are the same, and you aren’t going to find out at the end that half of them have spent more time in a veterinary hospital than others. (This wasn’t the direction I chose, but some studies do give it a go, using laboratory beagles of similar ages and only one gender. There are obvious ethical implications here, but that’s a post for another time.) You put these dogs in a veterinary hospital and measure their cortisol levels. Now are you measuring their reaction to the hospital setting?

Maybe. The next problem is that all these animals have their baseline “unstressed” cortisol level set at a different point. We don't understand all the genetics having to do with how this system works, but we are learning. We do know that a cortisol level that indicates stress (good or bad) in one individual might indicate total relaxation in another. Many studies deal with this problem by looking only at changes in cortisol levels. They measure cortisol before and after the stressor, and look at the difference, rather than at absolute levels. So let’s assume you can do this in your hospitalized dogs. You keep them in one environment for a few weeks or months, until they have time to settle in and relax, and you keep track of their average cortisol levels there. Then you put them in the hospital and look for a difference. Now are you measuring their reaction to the hospital?

You probably are, but what exactly are they reacting to? Something which is a stressor for one individual isn’t necessarily a big deal for another. For example, the Trier Social Stress Test (TSST) is a test specifically designed to raise cortisol levels in humans. It’s used to study things like how gender affects responses to stress. You stress the person out by making them do some public speaking and public arithmetic. But only 70% of people who take the TSST actually have increased cortisol levels compared to just before they took the test. Doing arithmetic in front of a hostile audience just isn't alarming for some people.

In the case of your hospitalized dogs, some don’t like the noise, and some don’t like being in a cage, and some don’t like having other dogs around, and some don't like all of the above. But some think it’s awesome to be in such an exciting environment with so much going on. The hospital isn’t just one big stressor, it is a lot of different little ones.

If cortisol is such a bad way to measure distress, why do we use it? Unfortunately, it is still the best understood method we have. There are lots of other methods, but they all have their own problems. It’s a good idea to use at least two methods together, actually.

So what do you do? Give up? My approach has been to cross my fingers (maybe close my eyes) and just proceed. I think a lot of research involves just circling around a problem, picking away at it until it starts to give in. Studies of stress may not be able to give precise answers to questions about stressors. But if enough of them are done, our picture of how the stress response works will continue to get clearer and clearer. It’s really hard to know what is going on in the mind of a member of a different species; it can even be hard to know what’s going on inside the mind of a member of your own species. We just have to keep trying.

[ETA: See the follow-up post, “Why do other measurements of stress suck worse than cortisol?”]

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Greeting dogs

After reading my assertion that children should learn the appropriate way to approach a strange dog, Nathan commented: It seems strange to put the responsibility there. Why is it OK for us to have creatures around that are dangerous to children who have not memorized this bit of trivia?

It is an excellent question, which I’d like to break down into several questions.

What is the purpose of learning how to approach a strange dog?

It could certainly be beneficial to the human to learn how to approach a strange dog. However, I originally posted a link to the lovely How Not to Greet a Dog comic with the benefit of the dog in mind. I’d like to see more people be aware that their approach to a strange dog can be stressful to the dog. Luckily, most of the time, the dog’s stress at an impolite approach doesn’t have consequences for the human (no one gets bitten or even growled at). But it does have consequences for the dog, who might feel some measure of alarm.

A few days ago, a child visited my dog in my back yard. She put her arms around him and hugged him while making high pitched noises. Jack looked away from her in alarm and licked his nose three times in rapid succession to signal his discomfort. Because he did not growl at her, however, I’m guessing that she assumed he enjoyed the interaction. Doesn’t everyone like to be hugged?

I think Jack felt somewhat as you might if a stranger bodyslammed you on the street. (Remember, canines don’t hug the way we do. Patricia McConnell has made the excellent point that if a dog is pressing its stomach against another dog, it is probably mounting the other dog in a dominance display.) The girl had a good time, but I’m guessing that was mostly because she was assuming Jack was enjoying the hug. Hopefully she’d actually prefer for the dog to have a good time, too.

Whose responsibility is it to prevent dog bites?

OK, but some dogs do bite, and Nathan’s question remains: whose responsibility is it to make sure that that doesn’t happen? The child’s?

In my opinion, it is absolutely not the child’s responsibility to ensure their safety around a strange dog. It is the responsibility of the owner of the dog. If the dog cannot be trusted to put up with a hug, or a high pitched squeal, or a hand waved in its face, then the dog should not be around the child.

But this is the real world. Sometimes children approach dogs when the owner is looking the other way. Sometimes the owner is irresponsible and is letting an untrustworthy dog be around a child inadvisedly. And sometimes the owner thinks the dog is trustworthy, for very good reasons, but the dog is having an extremely stressful day and the child’s behavior is the last straw. You never know. I would say that Jack is “extremely unlikely” to bite, because I have never seen him growl at a child, or try to escape from the vicinity of a child, or even show stress behaviors around a child (until the child does something over the top like hug him — but as soon as she stopped, he relaxed again). But you never know. Any dog can bite. If I were a parent, I’d want my child to have some tools for dealing with a potentially dangerous situation, just in case.

Why should I learn how to politely approach a dog?

I think it would be a good thing for people to learn how to interact with dogs — to learn what is polite in the dog world. We have to learn what is polite in interacting with each other. (Don’t run up to total strangers on the street and hug them, even if they are extremely attractive!) Dogs have to learn what is polite in interacting with us. (Don’t leap up on humans and lick them in the face! ...Some of them don’t learn this, and most of us would agree that this is a real failing on the part of their owners.) So why shouldn’t we also learn how to greet a dog? It seems only fair.

If you don’t like dogs, and don’t intend to be greeting any, then it’s less worth it for you to learn this skill. However, in this case, learning a little canine body language can be helpful for keeping them away from you, too. I once saw a man in a park who encouraged every dog he met to jump on him by crouching down in front of them and raising his hands in front of his body. He meant to prevent them from jumping on him. He should have turned his shoulder to them and avoided eye contact.

A lot of people who don’t own dogs do like them and like to be able to greet strange ones on the street. A lot of young people are in this category, from what I can tell from my experiences walking dogs. Some dogs are social butterflies and don’t much care how you greet them (my old roommate’s dog Casey definitely falls into this category), but some are very sensitive. I think it makes sense for people to learn the polite way to greet a dog — both for the dog’s comfort and, very occasionally, for the human’s safety.

What can I do?

  • If you’re the parent of a school-age child, support your child’s school in providing education about how to interact with animals. It’s useful.

  • Of course, read that comic if you haven’t yet. It’s cute.

  • Patricia McConnell’s book The Other End of the Leash is a great resource if you’re curious about learning more about how to see the world from the dog’s perspective.

  • If you don’t want to read a book about this but have some specific questions about how to interact with dogs that you want answered, where can you go? It occurs to me that our society doesn’t really have a great solution to this sort of problem. Maybe the blogosphere can step up. I’d be happy to answer any questions people have — Translator for Dogs would be a fun job for me to have some day. Hopefully dog trainers who maintain blogs (and there are plenty of them out there) would enjoy answering specific questions, too.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The assessment of emotional expression in dogs

“The assessment of emotional expression in dogs using a Free Choice Profiling methodology” (Walker et. al., Animal Welfare).

Do different people tend to have overlapping or at least complementary ways of describing dog behaviors? And if they do, can a computer put together a behavior scale out of those descriptions, even without any understanding of what’s actually being described? Put a different way: Can we describe a group of observations of dog behavior using a fancy statistical technique which is hard for Dog Zombies to understand? Our intrepid investigators put a bunch of college women together with some dog videos and applied a lot of statistical processing to find out.

The mammals

The people: eighteen undergraduate women with varying levels of familiarity with dogs, but all currently studying animal behavior. (At a guess, they were all students in a class taught by one of the investigators.)

The dogs: ten Beagles trained as customs dogs.

The setup: The 18 women sit in a movie theater. They watch video clips of the beagles. They write down words that come to mind as useful in describing the dogs.

At the end of this first session, they hand in their terms. They then are sat down again (it doesn’t say if they’re all together in the movie theater this time, but I imagine them at individual desks for some reason) with the list of terms that they had generated. Each person gets their own list; there’s no collation yet at this point. They watch some of the beagle videos again. (I sympathize. I have watched a lot of Dog TV lately.) They rate each dog against each term using a visual analog scale. That’s a line, from zero to lots, and you put a mark on the line to rate the dog.

So if I were to have the word “energetic,” and be asked to rate my dog Jack at this moment, I’d draw a line and put a mark on it to rate how far along the “energetic” scale he is. Jack is currently fully lateral on the floor and twitching, so I’d put the mark on the far left of the scale. If you then asked me to rate him for “cute,” I’d put the mark on the far right. For “red,” I’d put the mark somewhere in the middle, based on my personal assessment of how red he is on the scale of blond to brick. (Jack’s sort of a strawberry blond, so the marker would be a little left of center.) So these are very individual sorts of assessments.

The computers

The investigators then took all this data and turned it into numbers by measuring the distance of the marks in terms of millimeters. And they handed it to a computer, which performed Generalized Procrustes Analysis (GPA) on it. I love that this technique involves the name “Procrustes.”

So, this is where I sort of want a companion blogger who is an expert in statistics to take over for a few paragraphs. I am not an expert in statistics by any means, but I will give explaining what happens next a shot. Please take it all with a grain of salt; I may be completely inaccurate.

Basically, I imagine the computer spreading all these scores out and seeing which ones match. I think the idea is, if one dog gets a 3-4 mm score by lots of observers, then the computer guesses that those people are all measuring the same thing with those particular terms. The computer checks to see if other dogs also rank similarly with those terms. So if one dog scores 1-2 mm on Term 2 from Observer 5, and Term 3 from Observer 7, then Observer 5’s Term 2 might be describing the same thing as Observer 7’s Term 3. It would then be worth checking a second dog. Is its score on Observer 5’s Term 2 (say 4.4 mm) similar to its score on Term 3 from Observer 7 (say 4.6 mm)? If so, and if other dogs are also similar, those two terms might be describing the same thing (“nervous” vs “shy,” for example).

In addition to seeing which terms might be measuring the same thing, the computer is also trying to figure out which terms are related to each other in other ways. If this dog scores high on Term 1 from Observer 13, does he also score low on Term 3 from Observer 13? Maybe those terms are opposites. (“Outgoing” vs “shy,” for example.) If this dog scores very high on Term 2 from Observer 10, does he also score mid-range to high on Term 7 from Observer 12? Maybe those terms have some sort of relationship, but aren’t exactly the same thing (“outgoing” vs “friendly,” for example).

From all this, the computer comes up with “dimensions.” Although the eighteen women had just ranked each dog in terms of “how much of this term does it have?”, the dimensions are paired, so that a group of positive terms are at one end, and a group of negative (opposite) terms are at the other. In this case, they got three dimensions:
  • playful/happy/confident versus nervous/unsure/tense
  • alert/inquisitive/investigative versus attention-seeking/quiet/unsure
  • playful/nervous/boisterous versus calm/relaxed/confident
So each of the observers’ original terms were allocated to one (or more?) of these dimensions. “GPA thus transforms the 18 different dog-scoring configurations into one multidimensional consensus profile, entirely independently of any interpretation by the experimenter.” In other words, a computer has done all the assignments, and it does not understand what the terms mean. The assignments were done in the complete absence of semantics. There is a point in the process where a check for “satisfactory semantic convergence between observer word charts” is done, checking to see if the grouped terms are reasonable concepts to put together. It’s not clear if a computer or a human performs that check. (How would a computer do it? Using a digital thesaurus? I love the idea of a database with weights for how similar each English word is to every other English word.)

They assure us that the eighteen observers, when their terms are applied to this scale, score the dogs very similarly. I started to lose the thread of the statistics at this point, but they did helpfully provide an image of a bullseye. Thirteen of the observers were inside the bullseye (scored dogs similarly). Five were outside.

The meaning

So what have they actually done here? It looks like these observers tended to pick up on similar traits. So if you show a dog to a bunch of people, they will have similar ideas about it. They may use different words, but whether they say “nervous” or “shy,” they will have comparable amounts of that trait in mind. And that is really interesting.

Of course, I also want to say what this is not. These people may all agree about how shy a dog is, but that doesn’t mean that they are any good at telling if the dog actually is shy. The scale generated here, and the scores these observers made, has not been tested for its predictive power. I would love to see something like a test of the scale on dogs placed in new and strange surroundings. Can a dog’s score on this scale predict how it will respond to a friendly stranger, or how much it will explore versus hide in a strange room? I am not criticizing this technique; it doesn’t claim to answer that question. But I think it’s worth keeping in mind what its limits are.

It does claim to tell us whether different people have similar perceptions, and I would love to see it tested on people of different cultural backgrounds, especially people who speak different native languages. The terms that the observers chose didn’t have to be the same in order to be grouped together, but they seemed to all choose similar concepts. Would people who were the native speakers of a variety of languages have such a strong overlap of chosen concepts?

And, as the researchers point out, the observers were all women. Is it possible that women tend to have similar perceptions about dogs, versus the perceptions men tend to have? Do women assign different levels of importance to different behavioral traits, and are they therefore more likely to choose different traits as important enough to score?

Looking more closely at the dimensions that were constructed causes me to suspect that the dimensions are indeed pulling together different traits. For example, one dimension has “alert/inquisitive/investigative” vs “attention-seeking/quiet/unsure.” Outgoing dogs on one side, insecure dogs on the other — makes sense. But the insecure dogs are also “attention-seeking.” That makes sense logically, as insecure dogs may be more likely to seek reassurance from humans. However, it is a somewhat different trait than “quiet.” In fact, I can imagine that a quiet dog might tend to be less attention-seeking, by virtue of being, well, quiet. So it’s interesting that these traits were pulled together into one dimension, even when people who labeled dogs “quiet” probably didn’t necessarily think of those same dogs as “attention-seeking.” Different behaviors, but one interpretation that pulls them together.

On the other hand, you get the “playful/nervous/boisterous” dimension. That may well be different characterizations of the same trait — high energy. Some people think high energy is good (playfulness) and some think it’s less good (boisterousness, what we call “freshness” in this house). But it’s the same thing, whether it’s something you look for in a family pet or not. So it’s also interesting that these traits were pulled together.

I’m particularly impressed that the computer was able to correctly pull positive and negative ends of dimensions together. It was able to determine that “nervous” is the opposite of “confident,” even though no human ever explicitly told it that. Good job.

On the other hand, it did less well on other terms. Looking at the table which details which terms were pulled into which dimensions, I have to say: “aloof/disinterested” is on the same end of dimension 2 with “curious/explorative”? Really, computer?

And there is significant overlap between the dimensions. “Nervous” and “unsure” each show up in two different dimensions. Lots of other terms overlap, too. If there’s so much overlap, shouldn’t the dimensions be constructed differently, more cleanly, somehow?

The investigators suggest that the resulting scale does describe real behavior, because “the dogs are distributed reasonably evenly over the three dimensions, which suggests that these dimensions effectively characterise observed variances in behavioral expression.” I’m not sure about this argument. Wouldn’t you expect to see clumping of some behaviors? Some things that aren’t desirable for customs dogs, or are unusual for beagles, but show up anyways? Why should behaviors be naturally evenly distributed?

So what does it mean? Could it just mean that computers are able to find meaning in any data set? All that semantic overlap makes me feel “nervous” and “unsure.” What are they really describing?

The investigators address this (I think) in some beautiful but very dense prose: “descriptors are not meant to designate separate, sharply delineated, causal factors, but complementary, overlapping, mutually-enhancing aspects of the whole organism. Rather than be confused by the multitude of terms, the idea is to perceive the meaning expressed through them.” That’s actually really lovely, but I am not yet sure it really works.

The future directions

So what’s next? The investigators suggest using this FCP methodology in research into dog welfare. Sounds like a good idea to me. It’s notoriously hard to really tell if an animal’s welfare is good or not, so new tools might be helpful.

However, I note that the reason it’s hard to evaluate welfare is that our prejudices get in the way. We keep thinking what we would like in a particular situation, without having any way to understand what the animal would like. Good welfare science finds ways to ask the animal. FCP seems to me to be only about asking the human. But maybe it can be used to find new axes we hadn’t considered scoring dogs on, and then we can test what those axes correlate with. Good next steps would be comparing how a dog scores on this scale to physiologic parameters, like cortisol level, immune system function, sympathetic nervous system activation, and the like.

Also, as the researchers note, this method should be tested on a variety of breeds. Although they don’t specify this, I’d like to see the method tested on a group containing a variety of breeds. Just performing multiple tests on groups each containing a single breed doesn’t tell you if this method is any good at handling increased variability. Different breeds do have their different dialects; would that change this method’s effectiveness?

This article was a really fun read. Does it tell us more about dogs, or more about humans? I’m not yet sure how the approach will be used in dog welfare, but the article has some good ideas for things to try out. Good luck to them!

J Walker, A Dale, N Waran, N Clarke, M Farnworth, & F Wemelsfelder (2010). The assessment of emotional expression in dogs using a Free Choice Profiling methodology
Animal Welfare, 19, 75-84

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

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