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As I’m typing this, it’s nearing the beginning of autumn in 2018. It’s been a wild few years for many reasons – health scares, politics, new technology, the list goes on and on. One thing that has also been changing rapidly lately is the way we use science to understand man’s best friend better. This year alone, dozens and dozens of scientific reports were released about new things we know about dogs. I rounded up 11 of the reports that were put out this year that had me the most interested – here are some cool things we didn’t know about dogs just one year ago.
Last update on 2018-09-24 at 15:14 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
I know, I know – I find this kind of behavior a little annoying, too. But a study by the University of York published in March of this year, reveals that dogs and humans have a stronger bond when the human speaks to their pet with that baby voice. “Who’s a good boy? Who’s a good boy? You are! Yes, you are, yes you are!!” That’s what I’m talking about, but also just using a silly voice when you talk to your dog, as though you were sweet talking a little baby, counts. That high-pitched, exaggerated happy voice has been shown to make puppies feel more engaged and happy to be around us. The study gathered up dogs and had them interact with people who spoke with that baby talk voice, and those who spoke normally. The dogs preferred to interact with those who spoke in baby talk. So go ahead and tell Fido how cute it is when he begs for treats – apparently, science supports you.
Recently we had a lot of posts about the pit bull breed group here on the blog, and I referenced many studies about dog bite statistics. Did you know that we learned quite a lot about those statistics just this year? All thanks to YouTube videos! Researchers have been able to gather a lot more information about breeds more likely to bite, what may provoke breeds to bite, the results of a bite, and more.
This may not exactly be news, but a report released this May revealed that scientists have actually identified the group of genes that dictate whether a dog will be athletic, and to what extent. There are 59 genes in total that affect everything to do with athleticism, such as heart health and how strong a dog’s muscles are. This can help us understand canine sporting ability, and can even be translated into understanding human athletes one day. If your dog would rather chase a flying disc than anything else in the world, there’s a good chance they have many, if not all, of these genes.
Guess what cat lovers? Scientists proved this year that dogs are ahead when it comes to brain power. Despite their seemingly goofy natures, dogs have a denser cerebral cortex than cats, which means that they have way more neurons helping them think, understand the world, and make decisions. In fact, where cats have about 250 million neurons, dogs have about 530 million. This means that their inner mental life is richer than a cat’s – their ability to predict what will happen next is better than a cat’s – their ability to communicate with humans is better than a cat’s – and more. This information comes from neuroscientists at Vanderbilt University, who say that their findings basically indicate that dogs are capable of learning and doing far more complex things than cats can. Anyone who’s seen dogs round up their favorite toys knows this to be true, but it’s nice to have the science to back it up.
A few years ago, there were studies released that showed that dogs did have a preferred paw that they liked to use. Some dogs were “right-pawed” and others were “left-pawed”. However, this year, researchers found out that dogs are actually both, but they use a different paw for different types of tasks. The reason this is such an interesting discovery is that the way the paw choice relates to brain function can actually help trainers and vets determine a lot about a dog. For example, the part of the brain that lights up during the use of the left paw is the region that also lights up when a dog is stressed or afraid – so a dog exhibiting a strong preference for his left paw could be in an agitated state, which helps those working with him. Cool, right?
In May of 2018, a report was released by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine that showed that dogs born in June, July, and August, have a higher risk of heart disease. In fact, dogs born in July have a risk rate that is 74% higher than dogs born in any other month. The issue could be the air quality during the summer months. It’s important to note that if your dog is of a breed that is prone to heart disease in the first place, the birth month doesn’t make that much of a difference. But if you have a dog that isn’t that prone to heart disease, such as an American Staffordshire (often called a pit bull), the birth month could have a pretty major impact on their risk. Omega-3 fatty acid supplements have sometimes been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease in dogs.
Another study released in the spring of 2018 showed that researchers at the University of Helsinki discovered the gene responsible for a dog developing abnormal eyesight while in utero. Previously the gene was known to be hereditary, but now we know that it comes from the mother, not the father. This is very interesting because it can help researchers potentially identify other types of possible birth defects by looking closer at the maternal line. It has also led to some thoughts on new modes of genetic testing that could be useful for helping prevent other diseases and conditions in the future.
All right, this one isn’t exactly a study, but a bit of investigative reporting caught my eye earlier this year. A question was posed to a New York Times reporter about why dogs are studied more by scientists than cats are. After extensive interviews with people in the field, it was largely determined that dogs are simply more useful. The differences between breeds and types of dogs make dogs better for studies because it allows scientists to focus on very specific genomes. Cats, on the other hand, are too broad a category. However, they did note that cats may actually be better to study for things like kidney disease, despite the fact that dogs are more genetically diverse.
There was an amazing discovery in Illinois of a dog buried with some other ancient remains. Genetic testing this year showed that this dog is not at all related to the dogs that live in America today – almost entirely of European descent. The native dogs of America were of Siberian descent, and are essentially gone today, likely due to diseases that European dogs brought with them. Next time you take your dog for a walk, think about the fact that you could be stepping on some fossils of dogs that used to call this land home. This discovery isn’t the oldest dog we’ve ever found, but it is, as far as we know, the oldest dog ever found in North America.
Therapy dogs are amazing creatures, able to do a lot for people with many different conditions. However, we mostly think of these dogs as helping with physical ailments – assisting someone in standing or sniffing out blood sugar drops in diabetic patients. In July of 2018, the University of California – Irvine released a study showing that therapy dogs can actually help reduce ADHD symptoms in children. The study focused on children between the ages of 7 and 9 who were not taking medication for ADHD. The dogs helped them reduce periods of inattention and also helped them gain better social skills. In fact, after just eight weeks, many of the children saw a huge improvement in their behavioral issues related to their ADHD. While the dogs didn’t improve instances of hyperactivity or impulsive behavior, just the fact that they can help with focus and social skills is a huge boost to a child’s confidence and learning ability.
The last cool thing on my list today is a study released in February of 2018. In it, Purdue University researchers determined that soldiers paired up with service dogs saw a big reduction in the severity of PTSD symptoms. They had less depression, less anxiety, were more willing to go out onto public, and were more engaged with daily life. This study showed a significant improvement in the quality of life for returning veterans, which is a huge sign that there is hope for PTSD sufferers. This is also a good reason to push organizations that help match up veterans with service dogs, because many cannot afford to get a service dog through the more traditional channels.
There is one more study I wanted to mention but couldn’t leave out any of the 11 I listed above. This one was posted in Psychology Today back in March of 2018, and in it, we learned why it’s so important to study dog behavior. The point of the article was that dogs are telling us a lot more than we realize through their behavior.
For example, did you know that a dog that gets afraid of thunder or fireworks may actually be in physical pain? By understanding that the tensing of the muscles due to fear can cause pain, we can help our dogs have a better quality of life.
And did you know that the vast majority of doggie body language is a request for scratches, rather than a request for food? Dogs aren’t always begging for a snack, and interpreting their soulful gaze as such may be one reason our dogs are overweight.
Dogs are very individualistic, and understanding their behavior can help us figure out what they need when generalizations just don’t cut it.
Last update on 2018-09-24 at 15:14 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API
All the studies I’ve mentioned in this article are linked down below so you can check them out for yourself. I love keeping up with the latest in dog science, but this year seemed like a particularly full year when it comes to new dog discoveries – and the year’s not even over! Who knows what we’ll learn this fall and winter about man’s best friend?
What these studies say to me is that we are still just scratching the surface of what these amazing animals can do, how they learn, what they need, and more. No one, not even the leading dog experts, really know all that they need to about dogs just yet. That’s really exciting because it means we have decades – maybe centuries or more – of study to do to learn all about these wonderful creatures.