The almost unbearable heat of southern Spain!

The sometimes oppressive heat and the slower pace of life in Almeria, southern Spain, is typical of Europe’s only desert. The ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ were shot here in the early ’70s for good reason. Horse culture is still prevalent! The Mediterranean coast invariably suffers from drought at this time of the year and relies heavily upon piped water from the River Ebro and other parts of the wetter north coast. This is thanks to the PHN running into billions of euros, largely as the result of EU subsidy!

A typical view of Almeria!

Dogs were bred to pull our sleds millennia ago!

The 9,500 year old remains of a dog found on the tiny island of Zhakhov, northern Siberia, are remarkably similar to living dogs in Greenland, genome sequencing has revealed. The discovery shows that people bred dogs for pulling sleds more than 10,000 years ago.

Mikkel Sindling and his team from the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, excavated the remains from an ancient human settlement, along with other less well preserved dogs alongside what look like dog sleds. “We thought it would be a primitive dog, but it’s a long way down the path to domestication – that was quite sensational”, says Sindling.

His team sequenced the remains, along with a 33,000 year old Siberian wolf and 10 living sled dogs from different parts of Greenland, and compared their genomes with each other as well as other dog and wolf genomes. The results show that modern sled dogs in Greenland, who’s ancestors were taken there by Inuit people around 850 years ago, are more closely related to the Zhakhov remains than any other kinds of dogs or wolves. The genomes also show that sled dogs have not acquired any DNA from wolves in the past 9,500 years. Sindling adds “It’s largely the same dog doing the same job”.

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A modern day husky rig!

Climate change: can we trust the scientists?

A vast accumulation of evidence substantiates the adverse effects that human activity is having on the levels of greenhouse gasses in Earth’s atmosphere leading to changing weather patterns. This evidence has been collected over the last few decades by scientist from a wide section of specialisms and all corners of the globe. However, behavioural psychology suggests that we (humans) can never be totally objective and that our values and beliefs affect how we engage with facts. The scientific community is split; some arguing that the facts need to be addressed and reversed, whilst others argue it is already too late and that we should, for example, be concentrating on alternative and renewable energy research. The distinction may seem somewhat blurred but is, nevertheless, an important one!

Contrary to the image that scientists collect data, gather theories and form a hypothesis totally objectively is, by the standards of social science and psychology, a misguided one.  Facts are open to interpretation, bias and the values of a particular scientist. They may be guided by what they want and expect to see rather than what they actually see – in other words they become subjective.

It is important, therefore, that the scientific community acts consensually, pooling knowledge and stretching the boundaries. In 1962 the American philosopher of science, Thomas Kuhn (1922-1986), introduced the term paradigm shift – the move away from a particular theory or model. He argued that scientific knowledge does not grow linearly but is an accumulation of, sometimes opposing, theories. This opens up possibilities that would not have otherwise been considered. Science can never be exact and, by definition, a theory is only scientific if can be falsified, tested or refuted. For example ‘all the ducks I’ve seen have feathers, therefore ALL ducks have feathers’. Compare this with ‘all birds have feathers, therefore all ducks are birds’. Which is the scientific statement?

To answer the original question, yes, of course we can and must trust the scientists – after all who else is there?……………….to be continued.

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Thomas Kuhn in 1972

 

It’s official: the sixth mass extinction is here.

The following is reported by The Guardian:

Scientists have found evidence that the disappearance of wildlife is occurring at a rapidly increasing rate – renewing fears of a human prompted ‘sixth mass extinction’ (named the Anthropocene Extinction) which will endanger our survival. When researchers looked at 29,400 terrestrial vertebrate species for which population data is available, they found that of 543 extinctions that occurred since 1901, 173 took place between 2001 and 2014. The trajectory is set to continue climbing. 515 species are are now classed ‘critically endangered’ by the IUNC; that is with populations fewer that 1,000. Examples include the Sumatran rhino and the Hainan gibbon.

Here I digress from the article:

So much of this loss is as the result of human activity, for example an increasing population forcing towns and cities to expand into nature’s habitat. The forcing together of wild animals, especially in meat markets of eastern Asia, often in appalling conditions, means that disease and viruses are more easily transmitted between species.

This was the case in Wuhan, when COVID-19, it is thought, passed from bats – which have a natural immunity – to pangolins. From here it jumped to humans. It appears not to jump the other way as the virus seeks a healthy and hardier species to invade; it is not in its interest that the host should die. The fear now is that it will pass to hitherto unaffected regions of the world, higher primates and, who knows, elephants, dolphins and whales……the list goes on!

In spite of fears of a second peak and subsequent peaks in COVID-19 cases, the UK and other governments have to balance the risk of relaxing the recent punitive measures against a severe and continuing downturn in their economies. This has the potential to prove fatal to human existence on earth. A vaccine has not yet been developed. The common cold, another form of coronavirus, is still endemic. Could cases worldwide exceed those of the bubonic plague of 1347 killing an estimated 475 million people, 20% of the, then, world’s population and taking some 200 years to recover? Well, this may or may not happen; the current crisis could, if we are lucky (!), prove to be a mere stutter towards the inevitable extinction of life as we know it.

A previous blog examines this question in more detail:
https://volatileplanet.blog/2020/04/03/a-planet-in-crisis-is-this-the-beginning-of-the-end/

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The Hainan gibbon found in Hainan island, China

 

BBC News reports the killing of a Ugandan silverback mountain gorilla!

One of Uganda’s best known mountain gorillas, Rafiki, has been killed. Four men have been arrested and face the possibility of a life sentence under a wildlife protection law that was passed last year. They are claiming self defense!

There are just over 1,000 mountain gorillas in existence in parts of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Uganda. The Ugandan Wildlife Authority (UWA) described Rafiki as 25 years of age and the leader of a group of 17 mountain gorillas within the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park (ironically). The group was further described as being habituated to human contact, but that the group is now unstable and may now disperse without a figurehead! Failing that, the group could be taken over by a wild silverback gorilla and revert to the wild. Potentially this would have an impact on tourism to the park with loss if revenue, upon which the Ugandan government relies.

In 2018, the mountain gorilla was removed from the list of ‘critically endangered’ species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), after intensive conservation efforts, including anti-poaching patrols. It was downgraded to ‘endangered’.

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Rafiki

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Dogs, now goats understand pointing!

Not only do dogs, higher primates, African elephants and horses understand pointing, but research now shows that so too can goats. Goats, of course, are usually associated with their gluttonous eating habits rather than their brain power! At a goat sanctuary in Kent, scientists conducted research by placing two buckets apart, one empty and one containing food, in front of the experimenter. When pointing to the full bucket, more that half the goats from the herd would approach the full one. This was further challenged when the experimenter sat in front of the empty bucket whilst pointing to the full one. The results were similar. This indicates that the goats are able to ‘generalise’ the gesture.

Of course further research would be needed due to the relatively small number of goats involved.

Reported recently in The Guardian

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What exactly do we mean by the ‘science’ of dog training?

A science or an art? The dog training industry in the UK is unregulated – though most would agree it is actually ‘self regulated’. There are many successful dog trainers who, through their own dedication and experience, have achieved success and high regard without necessarily understanding the ‘science’ behind it all. For example, they may not be aware of the psychology involved in how dogs learn. Conversely, a canine behaviourist will be concerned with the dog’s mind, as opposed to the brain, and why the dog behaves in a certain way. Historically, the industry has been bifurcated though, thankfully, with greater awareness by professionals, this is changing.

In a blog of this length it will be impossible to go into depth, rather to highlight, what I consider to be the three main criteria of dog training. These are the ‘intangible debate’, the ‘tangible debate’ and the ‘philosophical debate’. I use the word ‘debate’ as I’m sure we will be discussing these long into the future!

The intangible debate concerns things that we cannot actually see, for example, how a dog learns, the psychology of training, intelligence, his mind and his soul. So, how does a dog learn? Actually it’s no different to bringing up a human toddler up to about the age of three years. Psychology plays a big part here – there are a number of names that, historically, have played a big part in the study of animal psychology and behaviour. These include Ivan Pavlov, B F Skinner, Edward Lee Thorndike, Konrad Lorenz, J B Watson and many others. Dogs and other mammals will learn by association (classical conditioning) and consequence (operant conditioning). This is described in ‘How Dogs Learn’ (Burch & Bailey, 1999).

Whole books have been written on the subject of dogs’ intelligence. This is where science truly comes in – measuring an intangible! In ‘The Intelligence of Dogs’, Stanley Coren describes adaptive intelligence (learning and problem solving), working or inherent intelligence (breed specific) and instinctive intelligence (individual specific). (Coren, 2006). Basically, adaptive intelligence is the ability to learn from experience and adapt to the environment. For a human this could mean learning how to drive a car down the road, how to be a better salesman and so on. For an animal this could mean learning to be a better hunter from previous bad or good experiences. For example wolves may form into larger packs when times are hard and there are fewer prey animals. They learn that the sum becomes greater than the parts and are able to bring down large ungulates. On the other hand a lone wolf may decide, from experience, he would be better off hunting smaller prey on his own. It depends on the personality of that particular individual; loner or socialite! Either way, they have adapted to the environment and have learned after one or two gained or missed opportunities.

Anyway, I digress – back to dogs. Coren, in his blog posted online on July 15th 2009, describes how he compiled his list of canine intelligence criteria comprised of 133 breeds. He contacted all the registered dog obedience judges in the US and Canada. 199 responded which was roughly half of those contacted. One criterion was that at least 100 judges provided assessments of the various 133 breeds. Breeds not recognised by the American Kennel Club or Canadian Kennel Club were not included in the list. The results were amazingly consistent with 190 of the 199 judges ranking the Border collie (BC) in the Top 10 with Afghan hounds consistently marked in the bottom 10. It was further discovered that, of adaptive intelligence, a dog may perform well in learning and ability, but only average in problem solving and vice versa. The Border collie – of the pastoral group – is good at learning and memory aspects, responding well to rote learning but slow at problem solving – in spite of appearing in the top 10 – as are many others of the this group. The reverse appears to be true of terriers and working breeds. My own observations confirm this when a BC, at a recent event, was stranded on the wrong side of a river. He waited for instructions from his handler. A Border terrier alongside, however, dived straight in and fearlessly swam to the other side (some may say foolhardy!).

The tangible debate centres on things we can observe, for example the conformation and physiology of a dog, behaviour, emotions (assuming these are shown), how he responds to training, what he likes to eat and how often, what his favourite toys are – the list is almost infinite. Alas, kennel clubs around the world put much emphasis on the conformation and appearance of dogs – oftentimes to the detriment of their health. In spite of the Kennel Club’s Breed Watch initiative there appears little evidence of any improvement in dogs’ health overall (if any vets are reading this I am open to discussion on this point).

The importance of a basic understanding of a dog’s biology, in particular the digestive system and the limbic system is, I believe often underestimated by owners (and trainers alike). Likewise, the importance of a balanced diet. An imbalance of protein and the production of serotonin plays a huge part in a dog’s behaviour, ability to concentrate and learn, aggression, hyperactivity and general physical health. For more detailed information, this was discussed in a previous blog.

The smell, texture and taste of food, in that order, are important to dogs. There is no evidence that dogs prefer a variety – though feeding tidbits under the table may well produce a fussy, overweight dog.  The feeding of our pet is almost a science in itself as much so as training. Learning to read and interpret dog food labels is essential as these can be misleading, though perhaps not intentionally so. The ratio of moisture will vary between dry and wet food and also between brands giving a false perspective of the nutrient content. For example, a label of dry food may state 30% protein which may actually be lower than a canned food label stating 10% as the latter has a higher proportion of moisture which should be deducted from the calculation. That said, which represents better value as we do not want to pay for moisture which has no protein?

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association discovered that dogs prefer canned meat to fresh meat, cooked meat to raw meat, and meat over cereal. There are two schools of thought regarding the feeding of raw food with little tolerance on either side. It is a decision for the owner knowing what the dog prefers; raw food may well require additional nutrient balancing for a healthy diet. The modern dog, being a scavenger at heart, has a high tolerance to a variety of foods including a degree of vegetable matter, though certain foods, such as chocolate and some fruits, are strictly off the menu!

I touched on canine personality. Any pet owner knows that there are as many personalities as there are dogs, cats etc. But what about emotions? Do our pets have emotions and if so to what extent and are they comparable to humans’ emotions? Much research by eminent scientists such as Jaak Panskepp, Gregory Berns, Becky Trisco and Evan MacLean – to name but a few – have discovered that dogs’ brains release hormones, as with humans, that are responsible for certain emotions. These include vasopressin linked to aggression, oxytocin, often referred to as the ‘love hormone’ and dopamine known to enhance the experience of pleasure. Berns, the first neuroscientist to use MRI scans on dogs, showed that they do react to humans’ facial expressions and will react accordingly. The ‘cow like’ eyes we all recognise are a result of selective breeding, but the cocked head, cute expression may be utilised, after many thousands of years of domestication, to gain our attention! (NB – the dogs underwent months of training to stay still whilst in the scanner. The dog was free to walk away from the experiment at any time). So, yes, our dog is capable of falling in love and does not necessarily bond with you simply because you are the source of food and shelter! Furthermore, we have a responsibility towards our pet dogs as they were specifically bred with socialisation in mind; they are capable of feeling acute separation anxiety unless trained from an early age how to cope with this.

The philosophical debate centres on the ethical treatment of animals. For example, is it OK to kill and eat an animal by virtue of our superior intellect? We just happen to be top of the food chain and animals below us eat each other so, it must therefore, be OK. Or is it? This is discussed fully in ‘Animals in Translation’ by Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson. Written in an authoritative way, without jargon, and aimed at the layperson. Grandin was the designer of many farming aids consulting with farmers and abattoir operators alike. To our knowledge, animals are unable to anticipate death so, therefore, I would suggest a good life and a good death! Industrial farming is, alas, becoming the norm and is an ethical problem as well as a wider environmental problem.

On a more positive note, man has come a long way in the last couple of thousand years, and even further in the last four hundred years, with regard to the treatment of animals. In the early 17th century, the philosopher and scientist René Descartes philosophised that human beings were fundamentally different to other animals. He believed that humans have a soul that interacts with the physical body. Both act in the same mechanical way but as animals don’t have souls they are incapable of feeling pain. If we step on a dog’s toe he will yelp as a mechanical response, not because he was in pain. He therefore, had no qualms about performing vivisection on live animals!

Some would argue that it is morally and ethically wrong to be showing dogs, tied round the neck, in dog shows. My blog ‘Crufts: The Greatest Show on Earth or Animal Exploitation?’ discusses this. Given another four hundred years, will we be looking back on this with our anti Descartian hat on?

Perhaps of greater immediate relevance are the questions, ‘what is the difference between a fear and a phobia?’ or ‘how does de/sensitisation versus socialisation differ to habituation’? Theo Stewart discusses the latter in her excellent blog here. Are these actually philosophical questions? Well actually no; thinking about it, it all becomes obvious. But isn’t that what philosophers do; think?

René Descartes: manic depressive or a genius?

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On a happier note, Dr Berns shown here training a dog to feel comfortable inside the MRI scanner.

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Current lockdown; a boon for hedgehogs, deer, whales and wolves!

Recently, the UK has sighted significantly more hedgehogs, deer and other wildlife due to fewer people and less traffic, giving them the confidence to come closer to our homes. Further afield, whales are also benefiting due to less stress being caused by the low frequency rumbles from shipping.

Furthermore, a lone wolf has been spotted in Normandy for the first time in a century! Wolves were hunted to extinction in France in the 1930s (and in the UK in the late 1700s). They started to reappear in the 1990s, having crossed the Alps from northern Italy, and a population of more than 500 is now concentrated in the south east and east of the country.

Wolf aficionados would like to see them reintroduced to the British Isles. Tony Haighway of Wolf Watch UK, Shaun Ellis of The Wolf and Dog Development Centre in Lostwithiel and Dr Isla Fishburn of Kachina Canine Wellness are amongst them. The Cairngorms National Park in the north east of Scotland seems the obvious place. Critics say, unsurprisingly, that their reintroduction would pose a danger to livestock, ramblers and upset the biosphere. There are humane methods around this problem as Ellis demonstrated whilst living in Poland and the United States. Tourism could actually be encouraged by way of wolf safaris though sightings may be rare as the wolf is generally shy and retiring!

An area of further study and we watch with interest.

In perfect unison – the wolf is truly a pack animal!
Photo by Richard Jarrold © CybernetImages.com

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The link between serotonin and dog behaviour in a low vs high protein diet.

Dogs are of the taxonomic order Carinvora but are not obligate carnivores and may be described as omnivores, indeed, being able to tolerate a diet high in carbohydrates. However, in March 2019, Dr Emma Bermingham et al of AgResearch at Massey University, New Zealand, conducted a study into dog nutrition. The researchers said: “Up until now science has looked at studies on nutrient digestion in humans, mice and rats and assumed the same to be true of dogs………………..much more needs to be done to understand the digestive system of dogs and the long-term health consequences of feeding different diets”. Dr Bermingham goes on to say: “We already know dogs have no nutritional need for [added] carbohydrates in their diet, so this study looked at the role different bacteria, and its production of serotonin, play in a dog’s digestive system to help us work toward a clearer picture of what is the optimum diet for dogs” (Bermingham, 2017).

Serotonin, an amino acid, is one of the constituent molecules of proteins, involved in sleep, memory, mood, depression, aggression, pain, anxiety, temperature regulation, eating behaviour and other neurological processes. It is manufactured in the brain and the intestines the majority of which, between 80-90%, can be found in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract. It is also found in the blood platelets and the central nervous system (CNS) as a neurotransmitter – though is not classified as a hormone. It is synthesized from tryptophan (trp). Tryptophan in the body has to compete with large neutral amino acids (LNAAs) found in protein, too much of which can, therefore, be potentially  detrimental to a dog’s behaviour. However, using a two pronged approach the ratio of tryptophan to LNAAs can be increased in order to enhance good mood (and potentially behavioural issues in dogs). Firstly by increasing, in the diet, food rich in tryptophan such as turkey, chicken, salmon, certain red meats, oats, beans, lentils, pineapple and others. Secondly, whilst these foods alone will not boost serotonin levels and, indeed, may upset the balance causing a shortage of serotonin, the addition of certain carbohydrates in the diet will aid its absorption. These include brown rice, whole grain, fish, eggs, wheat flour, sweet potatoes, peas, carrots, beet pulp, chia seeds and oatmeal.

Nicholas Dodman, along with Drs. Richard and Elizabeth Wurtman of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, conducted studies in 2000, the results of which were published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA). The objective was to “evaluate the effect of high and low protein diets with or without tryptophan supplementation on behaviour of dogs with dominance aggression, territorial aggression and hyperactivity” (Dodman et al 2000). Given that the research is now 20 years old and only 33 dogs were tested it is most certainly not conclusive. The results were that dominance and territorial aggression scores were highest in dogs that were fed unsupplemented high-protein rations. Significantly lower results were obtained by feeding a low-protein tryptophan supplemented diet rather than low–protein diets without tryptophan supplements.

The results for hyperactivity appear less conclusive. In a report by Dr Karen Becker at HealthyPets-Mercola.com, she points out that hyperactivity and/or ADHD is rare amongst canines and that often, reported cases are misunderstood and may be age or breed related (Becker, 2017). The report also points out that low-protein diets for young and growing dogs should only be given under strict medical supervision.

In conclusion, protein, a macronutrient and source of slow release energy, should ideally not exceed 25% of total diet. Nicholas Dodman et al have concluded that there is a correlation between high protein diets and fear based territorial and dominance aggression. Conversely, the behaviourist and author, William E Campbell, found, in another study, that feeding more protein and fewer carbohydrates improved learning and reduced hyperactivity.

A well balanced diet, therefore, is essential for our dogs, containing, I would suggest, primarily high quality meat based protein, including organs – heart, kidney, liver – for optimum ‘performance’ whether this be dry, wet or ‘natural’ home cooked or raw food. As a treat, oily fish and cooked eggs are an excellent source of fatty acids and protein respectively along with green vegetables, certain fruits and cereals which may help boost serotonin levels (as discussed). Dogs (and cats) will sometimes forage for grass, even berries, possibly as a form of ‘self medication’. Commercial pet food manufacturers have an obligation to domesticated animals, but alas also have an obligation to their share holders and the ‘bottom line’. Learning to read the label is important as cheap meat derivatives, water, vegetable and cereal ‘fillers’ are invariably included. It is clear the ‘jury is still out’ regarding a dog’s ideal diet!

You’ve drawn the short straw this time!

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Does your dog ‘hump’?

There are several reasons why a dog may hump. This can occur from early puppyhood, through to adolescence and adulthood. A playful pup, either male or female, may become over excited when playing and cannot decide between two choices – for example to run away or chase – so in the heat of the moment will decide to mount in sheer frustration. This may be any object; cushions are a good example, but usually another dog or the leg of a convenient human! The answer here would be to offer the dog a distraction – anything other than food as this may be interpreted as a reward – and calm him/her down before this escalates into nipping and biting. Alternatively, a firm ‘leave’ may be appropriate, depending on the level of training acquired and the dog’s understanding of this cue, but this must not be allowed to escalate to outright confrontation and the ‘fight-or-flight’ response kicking in. However, the dog has self taught a pleasurable experience which may soon become a pleasurable habit if not resolved at an early stage.

In the case of an adolescent dog or a bitch in heat this behaviour may be more to do with hormones and/or the onset of puberty. Veterinary advice should be sought and neutering may resolve this. If the habitual cycle has onset then further training, as described above, is necessary. Exceptionally this may the onset of Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) sometimes known as Canine-compulsive disorder (CCD).

Is dominance at play here? Dr Becky Trisko, recently of the University of Michigan (Datta, 2017), states that dog on dog and dog on human relationships are far more complex and nuanced than simple dominance, though this appears to play a part when playing or fighting. Recent studies have shown that dogs are capable of complex social emotions such as love, loneliness and jealousy and benefit from forming close friendships and the subsequent release of Oxytocin – “…..they worry about things not essential to their survival” (Campbell, 1999).  She studied three forms of agonistic behaviour – dominance, submission and aggression. These communicate status and are unidirectional. A dominant dog will have an upright, stiff posture and may hump the head or lick the muzzle of a submissive dog. If humping has been left to escalate and the dog is dominating, or become overly attached to the owner, then expert help may be needed!

As dogs are clearly not pack animals (as discussed in a previous blog) it is unlikely that the behaviour is dominance related per se. (A study of wolves would suggest otherwise). Furthermore, the fact that a dog may attempt to hump the head of another dog is, put in its simplest terms, a perverse act that he simply enjoys – dominance lead, sexual or otherwise!

Puppy play?

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