Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Empathy between dogs and their owners - proven.

I always enjoy reading well conducted research articles concerning canine behaviour especially those that give further proof to the incredible bond between a dog and their owner. 

I was interested in an article I read recently ( which had a couple of extra references, which my geeky nature had to follow up. 

One in particular referred to the way dog owners feel they can read the emotions of their dog through their facial expressions and not just through the way they are standing, turn their head or the way they hold their tail. It appears that this is actually true. A Japanese study in 2013 (Nagasawa et al) examined the facial expressions of dogs, using a high speed camera, when they were presented with their owner and someone they didn’t know.

It is always good to have things like this verified so we are just not classed as ‘mad dog people’. The study showed that when a dog is reunited with their owner, they lifted their eyebrows, especially the left eyebrow. But when they saw someone they didn’t know, there was little facial movement. 

The research team suggested this demonstrated behavioural facial laterality in response to emotional stimuli which reflects their attachment to their owner. 

Another study from the article referred to contagious yawning. We frequently yawn empathetically when someone we are watching yawns – echoing their behaviour. But apparently, this is not limited to humans. I guess it is not too much of a surprise since dogs have always been bred to watch us and see what we are doing. 

The study by Romero et al (2013) was conducted to determine whether contagious yawning in a dog was due to mild distress related response or empathy. They studied 25 dogs faced with familiar humans (their owners) and an unfamiliar human (the researcher) and acted out a yawn or other movements used as a control mouth expression. The dogs yawned far more frequently when watching their owners than the unfamiliar human which clearly demonstrates the correlation between emotional proximity. In addition, contagious yawns in the dogs were significantly higher during true yawning than other mouth movements. To make the inference even more factual, the research team actually measured the heart rate of the dogs. This did not change throughout the experiment which demonstrated the yawning response was not due to stress. They concluded that their study showed this contagious yawning is consistent with a form of empathy between a dog and their owner. 

So next time someone tells you that your dog can’t possibly understand what you are saying, tell them “Oh yes they can” and it is now scientifically proven. 
Talking to my kids


Nagasawa M et al. (2013) “Dogs show left facial lateralization upon reunion with their owners”. Behavioural Processes, 98 September 2013, pp 112–116 

Romero T et al. (2013) “Familiarity Bias and Physiological Responses in Contagious Yawning by Dogs Support Link to Empathy”. PLoS ONE 8(8): e71365. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0071365

Friday, 23 October 2015

Kyto the Warrior

Ever wondered how a dog reacts after a massage therapy session? Well...look at Kyto bounce and dance - says it all really. And this is an 11.5 year old 46.5 kg dog with nerve damage in spine, backache and arthritis behaving like a puppy. He totally loves his regular sessions with me and the additional daily work his mum gives him. 

When his owner moved to her new house with Kyto she had lovely wooden floors throughout the hall. When I first met her, I suggested maybe a few carpet runners would help stop him skittering along the floor when he defends her from The Postman. On my last visit I noticed a few carpets here and there. This time, her beloved wooden floor had been carpeted. The things we do for our dogs. 

His owner had an animal communication session with one of Elizabeth Whiter’s graduates last week. The first thing that was said was that Kyto had been a warrior and thinks of himself as such. He communicated that he used to work alongside horses and lost many of his friends. I felt a little chill as the day before I had been researching a section I am about to teach for my new Canine Massage diploma module which I am delivering with Elizabeth. The part I was researching was the History of Massage in Animals. Although the use of massage techniques in ancient human cultures is well-documented, searching for the history of animal massage took a bit longer. The article I had just read said that Julius Caesar travelled with a personal massage therapist who also worked on his war dogs. And that a full-body massage was recommended for dogs and horses by Flavius Arrianus, a philosopher and administrator under the reign of Roman Emperor Hadrian. When I relayed that to Kyto’s owner she also felt a little chill and we both looked at Kyto and said “You knew Julius Caesar?” He just did his cute head tilt one way then the other as though to say “Of course….don’t you?” 

From that point, the massage session took an even more referential tone than usual. Do I address Kyto as “Your Emperorship”? or “Hail Kyto”? He didn’t seem any more warrior-like than usual and simply nuzzled my hand and nose so maybe he is happy to have left all that behind him and to be able to live his life with his wonderful caring human who covers up her slippery wooden floor for him. 

Monday, 12 October 2015

Give a dog a bone....and they will find it like we do

Research that looks into neurophysiology, behaviour AND dogs…..ooooo, right up my street!

I always knew dogs were really really smart and this was confirmed by a recent study at the University of Sheffield ( The research team found that when humans navigate through computer files, the same brain structures are used as when a dog searches for their bone.

Apparently, it seems most of us search for stuff on our computers by going through folders or other pathways. (Sounds about right for me anyway!). There are two ways to search : hierarchical or query-based. Most people in the study moved through folders in a top down fashion until they reached the file they wanted rather than spending time composing a specific query-based search. This is despite advances in search technology.

So why did their sample prefer this long-winded method? They suggested that top-down navigation uses the same parts of the brain and neural processes that have evolved over millions of years for navigating in the physical world – looking for a path where we actually stored something physically.

To get technical, these parts are in the posterior part of the brain. And that is what links us to dogs. This is exactly how they use their brain to navigate instinctively to that part of the garden where they buried their bone so they can find it when they next want it.

I’m sure there will be some people who use the key word search. Ok, for you, to get even more technical, searching for a file using a key word activates a part of the frontal brain, called Broca’s area just in case you ever need that for a pub quiz. But for us ‘old fashioned’ types it is not all bad news. Apparently top-down searching makes less use of words, leaving your ‘language system available for other tasks’, the researchers said. Phew!

Interestingly, using the frontal part of the brain for searching is a function, so far, unique to humans. But watch this space. Other recent studies have shown how the brains of dogs are evolving in parallel with us as they have spent so many years working alongside humans. You may well come home one day and find your dog on Google! 

Sam Googling walks