June 25, 2013
The Summer of 2013 officially began only last Friday, but already it has a good shot at achieving a dubious distinction in the annals of parental indulgence. This could be the summer that ice cream trucks for dogs go mainstream.
Ever since the K99 ice cream truck set up shop in the parks of London during the summer of 2010–to the tune of the Scooby Doo theme song, no less–the trend of cruising trucks full of specially-made canine ice cream treats and cookies has been spreading and appears to be hitting its jaunty stride. Last summer, they started dropping by dog parks in more and more American cities, confident in the knowledge that all it takes is one person ponying up $3 for a doggie cone and in no time, every other dog owner in the vicinity will feel compelled to do the same for their own little precious. And now, according to a story on NBC’s website this weekend, some of the more successful dog food trucks are talking about franchising their brands.
This was inevitable, I suppose, given all the singles whose significant other has paws, and all the aging Baby Boomers whose own kids have moved out, or at least down to the basement. These days, dog love swings easily into sweet, excessive indulgence.
Among recent examples of ideas whose time apparently has come are a device developed by a San Francisco firm that allows pet owners to track how active their dog is during the day while they’re at work, and a high-end dog food whose main ingredient is ground-up chicken feathers. It’s designed for dogs with food allergies.
Products like those get much of the media attention, yet some of the more interesting developments in the deepening entanglement of dogs and owners have not been in the marketplace, but in scientific laboratories. Researchers have been focusing on the potent bond between dogs and owners, particularly how it affects a pet’s behavior.
For instance, a study done at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna, published last week in the journal PLOS ONE, found that connections between dogs and their owners can have striking similarities to parent-child relationships. Okay, no surprise there, but what they learned about how it influences a dog’s confidence was pretty revealing.
Specifically, they saw that, as in parent-child bonding, dogs use their caregivers as a “secure base” from which to interact with the world around them. In this case, the dogs could earn a food reward by manipulating toys. But they showed much less interest in working for a treat when their owners weren’t around. If they were there, it didn’t seem to make much difference if the owner was silent or encouraging. What mattered was their presence. And it couldn’t be just any human–the dogs weren’t very motivated when a stranger was in the room with them. Only when their owners were nearby did they go after the food with gusto.
Said researcher Lisa Horn, “One of the things that really surprised us is, that adult dogs behave towards their caregivers like human children do.”
Then there was the study published earlier this year in the journal Animal Cognition, which concluded that dogs are much more likely to steal food if they think nobody can see them. Again, big surprise, right? Anyone with a dog knows that even the most guileless mutt becomes a creature of cunning when food is involved.
But there’s a larger lesson here. What the research actually determined was that dogs were four times more likely to sneak food in a dark room than a lighted room. Which suggests that they can understand when a human can or cannot see them. And that could mean that dogs are capable of understanding a human’s point of view.
Explained lead researcher Juliane Kaminski:
“”Humans constantly attribute certain qualities and emotions to other living things. We know that our own dog is clever or sensitive, but that’s us thinking, not them.The results of these tests suggest that dogs are deciding it’s safer to steal the food when the room is dark because they understand something of the human’s perspective.”
In dogs we trust
Here are other recent studies on the dog-human connection:
- Beware of southpaws: According to researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia, dogs that show a preference for using their left paws are more aggressive toward strangers than dogs that are right-pawed or show no preference. But they also found that left-pawed dogs were no more excitable or attention-seeking than other dogs. Only about 10 percent of humans are left-handed, but there’s an even split between left-pawed, right-pawed, and ambilateral canines.
- Fortunately, humans have refrained from chasing their butts: It turns out that Doberman pinschers with canine compulsive disorder (CCD) have similar abnormalities in their brain structure as humans with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). That makes scientists more hopeful that further research in CCD–exhibited in dogs by blanket-sucking, tail-chasing, and chewing–could help lead to new therapies for OCD in humans.
- Thanks for sharing: If you have a dog, you no doubt realize that it brings a lot of bacteria into your home. What you may not realize is that’s not a bad thing. For instance, skin microbes, note scientists at North Carolina State University, can help you fight off diseases. Particularly high levels of microbes related to dogs were found on pillowcases and, strangely enough, TV screens.
- Except when they pee on the rug: No source less than the American Heart Association says that owning a dog can be good for your heart. The organization issued a statement to that effect last month following a scientific review of research showing that dog owners not only get more exercise, but also can have their stress levels and heart rates lowered by the presence of their pets.
- If dogs were on Facebook, they’d like everything: And finally, a survey by the research firm Mintel found that almost half of those who participated said that their pets are better for their social lives than being on Facebook or Twitter. Also, according to the survey, almost one out of five Millenials who own a dog or cat have a pet-related app on their smartphones.
Video bonus: You think dogs couldn’t really appreciate the approach of an ice cream truck? Think again.
Video bonus bonus: When you see a salsa-dancing dog, you feel compelled to share.
Video bonus bonus bonus: And while we’re at it, here’s why you should let sleeping dogs–and cats–lie.
More from Smithsonian.com
September 17, 2012
If, like me, you have dog that can sense when you are feeling particularly indebted, you might want to make sure he or she isn’t in the room when you read this.
Because now their species is becoming a key weapon in fighting human diseases, particularly cancer.
As William Grimes pointed out in The New York Times last week, doctors and veterinarians are working together more than they ever have before, exchanging notes and insights about their research and seemingly dissimilar patients.
One reason is that treatments that work on mice and rats too often are frustratingly ineffective on humans. At the same time, an approach called “one medicine” is beginning to take root, based on the recognition that 60 percent of all diseases move across species, as do the environmental factors that can help cause them.
“Dogs live side-by-side in our environments with us,” notes Elaine Ostrander, genetics researcher for the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health. “They drink the same water, they breathe the same air, they’re exposed to the same pesticides and they often eat some of the same food.”
It’s all about breeding
Last month Ostrander published a study in the New England Journal of Medicine that explained why, when it comes to making connections between genetics and disease, dogs are so special.
It has everything to do with breeding. By selectively mating purebreds to excel at a particular behavior or maintain a specific body shape or hair color, breeders also limited their genetic diversity and made them more susceptible to diseases carried through recessive genes.
But it’s that clustering of genes that’s helping to speed up the process of connecting the dots between a genetic mutation and a particular disease. For instance, several dog breeds are prone to epilepsy, and researchers have been able to identify the genes responsible. The hope is that will help pinpoint what’s happening in humans.
Same thing with cancer, the number one cause of death in dogs. Chromosome changes seen in some canine cancers have been similar to what’s been observed in humans with the same kind of cancer. By focusing on what parts of genes are altered in both species, the number of potential target genes can be reduced to a handful.
Learning from dogs
In one study, Matthew Breen, a researcher at North Carolina State University, tracked 150 dogs with lymphoma. He and his team were able to identify a genetic indicator that predicts how long a dog will respond to chemotherapy, and he believes that that knowledge could help refine treatment for humans with lymphoma.
Says Breen: “Within the canine genome, we’re starting to find the answers we’ve been looking for in our own genome for 50 years.”
In another dog cancer study at the University of Illinois, researchers found that a particular type of virus that doesn’t harm humans or dogs was able to invade dog cancer cells and leave healthy cells alone. The scientists also determined that a version of the virus with a single gene deleted was four times better at killing cancer cells.
It’s only a first step, but it shows promise as a cancer treatment for dogs that could do far less collateral damage than chemotherapy or radiation–and could one day be used to treat humans.
Adds lead researcher Amy MacNeill:
“We wanted to make sure that the dog cells were like the human cells because we want to use these viruses not only to cure dogs of cancer but also to use the dogs as better models for humans with cancer. People are beginning to see the logic of this approach.”
Dogs in diagnosis
Here’s more recent medical research involving connections between dogs and humans:
- Help me help you: Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine are using an experimental treatment on a handful dogs with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. If the therapy is successful–it involves introducing bacteria to provoke their immune systems to kill cancer cells- it could be used in trials on humans.
- Magic mushrooms?: In another study at the University of Pennsylvania, scientists found that a mushroom used in Chinese medicine for 2,000 years has been effective in treating dogs with hemangiosarcoma, a particularly nasty blood cancer that attacks the spleen. It too could one day be tested in human clinical trials.
- Going ’round in circles: It sure can look funny, but a recent study in Finland came to the conclusion that a dog chasing his tail is a canine variant of obsessive compulsive disorder in humans.
- I feel your pain. No, really: Several new studies say that dogs’ brains may be hardwired to comfort humans in distress. The majority of dogs in one of the studies tried to calm people with licks and nuzzling when they pretended to cry–even if they weren’t their owners.
- So why does he keep grabbing my hair?: A study of more than 5,000 babies in Australia found that they were less likely to develop an egg allergy if there was a dog in the house.
- And 50 percent of it gets on you: And finally, researchers at Georgia Tech determined that a wet dog can shake off 70 percent of the water on its fur in four seconds. For that alone, dogs deserve props, but the scientists think this uncanny ability could some day lead to self-drying machines on equipment.
Video bonus They help us fight cancer and catch Frisbees?
More on Smithsonian.com
October 3, 2011
Usually when I write this blog, our dog Maz is lying somewhere nearby. He doesn’t say much, but I’ve come to take his silence as approval. Some may scoff that such a cross-species mind meld is possible, but just the other day, as I read that a new study found that people typically spend more than $26,000 on a pet in its lifetime, Maz sensed a great disturbance in the Force and discreetly left the room.
Not that he needed to worry. I’m not likely to indulge him any less. And now that digital technology has been thrown into the mix, that’s only going to ratchet up.
Take pet GPS. The recent tale of Willow, the calico cat tracked by a New York shelter—through an implanted microchip—to a Colorado family that last saw her five years ago was TV news gold. And while it turned out that Willow apparently didn’t stroll across country, the story undoubtedly raised anxiety among pet owners that their own furry friends might one day take a road trip.
One of the hottest digital pet items is a collar attachment that allows you to track your animal in real time. The Tagg Pet Tracker—$200, plus another $60 a year in wireless charges—lets you create a virtual fence, and if your pet strays out of bounds, you receive a text or email alert. Then you can locate it on a map on the Tagg website or with an iPhone or Android app.
Another tracker, called Retriever, would go even farther. It also will tell you the last five places your pet has been—now that’s obsessive—and it plans to connect you with other pet owners or services in the same area. It’s expected to go on the market in December.
A tool for dog walkers, Pet Check Technology, keeps track of where and how long your dog is walked: When the walker picks up the dog, he or she punches in by using a mobile app to swipe a QR code. Then the GPS takes over and your dog’s jaunt is tracked until the walker punches out by swiping the bar code again. Pet Check is being sold only to professional dog walkers now, but the assumption is that if walkers are smart, they’ll share all the doggy data with owners.
Here’s a little more evidence of burgeoning pet power: Nestle announced on Friday that it has begun airing in Austria the first TV commercial aimed at pets themselves. The ad for Beneful dog food includes a whistle sound, the squeak of dog toy and a high-pitched ping—all to draw your pet’s attention to the screen—and make you think this must be some really special chow.
Other pet tech advances:
- A leg up: Some truly remarkable things are being done with animal prosthetics these days. Check out this Wired slideshow, which includes Winter, the dolphin that inspired the recent film Dolphin Tale.
- Closed door policy: A British quantum physicist has invented a cat door called SureFlap. It keeps strays from wandering in and snarfing food because it’s activated only by your pet’s microchip.
- Smart pet tricks: When your dog gets within three feet of the battery-operated outdoor Dog Motion Activated Outdoor Pet Fountain, a motion sensor sets off a release of fresh drinking water. He moves away, the water stops. His friends are amazed.
- See me, feed me: If you can’t get home and don’t want to feel guilty about cheating your pet out of a meal, there’s the iSeePet360 Remote Pet Feeder. A webcam enables you to check in on your BFF, and then remotely release dry food into a bowl. He’ll no doubt be quite grateful, even if he has no idea how this happened.
- Born to run: Running in circles isn’t just for hamsters anymore. Now there’s the Tread Wheel and your dog can jog to his heart’s content without bouncing off walls.
Bonus: You don’t want to miss AlphaDog, the latest robot hound funded by the Defense Department. This is a dog you’d want on your side.
Can you think of an invention you’d love to have for your pet?