Monday, February 29, 2016

Dogs and Pitches

This video pops up every so often, as new groups find it and, um, chime in:

The claim is, this is a demonstration that dogs have “perfect pitch”. If that were true, the dogs would have to be choosing which keys to press based on which notes the trainer is playing. This would make playing the keys an instance of social learning.

Is this what’s happening? Probably not. The trainer is making a noise before she plays the note, and moving her flute to point at the keys. These are cues for the dogs to strike the keys. Also, there are elements of the tune that repeat, which means the dogs could have learned them in chunks, as a chain of behavior. Between the visual and verbal cues, the repetition and the cut in the video at 0:54...nope.

If you still need convincing, here’s a video of the same kind of performance, but without the flute: 

The concept of overshadowing suggests that it’s not likely that this time, the salient cue would be the pitched note, but other times the salient cue is the gesture and voice. 

So, it’s not "do as I do", so much as "do as I cue." Still an adorable feat, but not quite as advertised. 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

You're So Cute, I Could Just Eat You Up

Here’s a dog showing a “heartwarming bond” with an infant:

He's supposedly tucking the baby in, out of love. What would have to be the facts if this were really what was going on? 
  1. I love this tiny, smelly human that’s taking up all my owner’s time and attention. 
  2. I know that tucking in a baby is a way to show I care.
Is it likely that dogs have an intimate knowledge of the care of infant humans, and a comprehension of swaddling techniques? Not so much. This dog is indeed trying to cover the baby, but not out of love. More likely, he sees the baby as a high value resource and is trying to bury it using whatever’s nearest. This is caching. 

Caching behavior doesn’t necessarily mean the dog is consciously deciding he’s going to eat the baby. Caching is an instinctual reaction; once the dog has been triggered to perform the pattern of behaviors, he’ll do them right through to the end. Dogs can bury their toys as well as bones and chews; anything that’s worth saving for later is a possible candidate. Including, apparently, delicious babies. 

A Serious Note: Mistaking this kind of behavior for “nannying” is super dangerous. Babies and young children are disproportionately victims of bites from the family dog, and most of the time the parents never see it coming. Dogs should not be allowed to interact closely with babies and young children. Just don’t. 

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Dogs Don't Cry

This dog is supposed to be showing "tears of gratitude" after being rescued along with her puppies: 

Is this likely? I mean, I’d cry too if I were covered in demanding puppies and some dude shoved a camera in my face. But…biology says nope. Normally a dog’s tear ducts drain into the mouth, not down the faces. Even if they did cry when they were sad, we’d never notice, and all they’d get would be a mouthful of saline. 

The only reason a dog would have watery eyes - a condition called epiphora - is if there’s something medically wrong. Usually epiphora is caused by a something irritating the eye and blocking the tear ducts, whether that’s a foreign body, allergies, or an underlying medical condition like entropion. 

A Hump in the Road

Here’s a dog that’s supposed to be protecting his fallen comrade from vehicular danger: 

At first glance, this doesn’t seem too unlikely. After all, dogs do form relationships with one another, and have even been known to guard each other. That would kind of make this video true, right? 

However! If we look more closely, it becomes clear that this dog isn’t guarding at all. He’s humping. Right at the start we can see the tell-tale way he’s moving his hips. He’s not entirely got the whole “what goes where” question sorted, but that’s really a side-issue. 

This doesn’t necessarily mean the dog is actually trying to mate with roadkill, although it is a possibility. It could also be that dog is feeling really anxious and confused; something scary just happened, and now his companion isn’t moving. 

Humping is one of a suite of displacement behaviors we see when dogs are stressed about something they can’t escape from.  They’re the canine equivalent of picking our nails or chain smoking before a job interview. Not exactly noble, but understandable. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Distempo: The Saddest Dog on the Dancefloor

This video suggests that the laid-back Caribbean lifestyle even extends to dogs: 

Sadly, we’re not witnessing the birth of the first cross-species breakin’ crew here (if that’s ever going to happen, it’ll probably be with cockatoos, not dogs). This dog has myoclonus, a painful neurological condition that causes constant muscle spasms. The most common cause of myoclonus is the distemper virus, which is why pet dogs are vaccinated. Street dogs in Jamaica, not so lucky. Here’s another example, showing it for what it is. 

Even with that funky ragga music, the dog is having no fun at all. Its ears are pinned, it’s backing away, and despite the video quality you can see the whites of its eyes - all clear signals of stress. Chances are the dog wants to get the heck away from this weird pulsating man, but can’t because of the spasms. Just in case you weren’t miserable enough, y’know. 

Red Light, Green Light...Yeah, Right

In…a country, somewhere, there’s a street dog who can apparently follow traffic laws. 

This is an obvious nope. Traffic lights come in red and green. Dogs can see neither:

But wait! What if the dog is responding to the different position of the light, not the different colors? Still nope. Look at 0:42 - the dog gets up and starts to cross the street when the light is still red, but then a vehicle drives past. The light actually turns green immediately before the bus goes past, while the dog is still standing. This suggests it’s the flow of traffic that’s the salient cue here, not the light. Our hero is being eminently sensible, following the Muted-grey-with-a-bit-of-blue-and-yellow Cross Code, and waiting until there’s no traffic before crossing the street. 

Still pretty smart!

Original post: 

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Momma Chihuahua Buries Her Puppy

This chihuahua and her deceased puppy are being touted as examples of motherly love. 

Is momma chi paying respects to her dearly departed little one? Well, if that were true then…
  1. I am sad that my puppy has died.
  2. I believe the dead deserve respect.
  3. I'll show respect to poor lost puppykins by affording the little tyke a proper burial.

Likely? Observation says no. Mother dogs often eat their puppies that don't survive long after birth, sometimes when they're sick, and sometimes for seemingly no reason at all. Dogs don’t pay respects to the dead. Heck, my dog doesn’t even respect my desire not to be stared at while eating pizza.

Even if (1) and (2) were true, why would we think dogs would “respect” their dead by burying them? Do we see little doggie funerals, with little doggie pallbearers and bone-shaped wreaths? Nope.

The chihuahua is caching her puppy, not burying it. Caching means she is storing it for later. The video shows each phase of caching - first she carries the puppy around, looking for a good location, then she paws at the ground and drops the puppy there, then finally scoops and tamps the earth around it. This same pattern of behavior is observed in all canids. Cannibalism is also common in wolves. 

Dog Cries Over Grandma

Lockwood Animal Rescue Center, based in Ventura County CA, posted this video back in April 2013. It's still doing the rounds.

The dog’s name is Wiley, alternately described in the media as a malamute, “service wolf” and wolf-dog. He’s supposedly making that commotion because he’s sad that Gladys, a dear friend, is dead. This would mean:

  1. I understand that my Grandma Gladys is dead, and this makes me sad.
  2. I know this is where her memorial is, and this is triggering me to get upset.
  3. I’m expressing my sadness by weeping and crying.

We don’t know for sure whether dogs feel grief, but they almost certainly do. So (1) is okay. We also don’t know whether a dog could know their dead owner is in a cemetery - it’s a possibility, given their amazing sense of smell -  although there’s no way to know whether Gladys was buried or cremated. And, there’s the possibility that the dog’s handlers are giving him cues that this is the place, maybe they’re acting sad themselves. These unknowns are irrelevant, however, because we do know that dogs don’t cry and weep when they’re sad. They whine, pace, howl, refuse food, sleep excessively and bark, but they don’t need a Kleenex. 

What’s more likely is this dog is having some sort of breathing difficulty. It could be reverse-sneezing, or the aftermath of a seizure, or overheating, or a neck trauma. If dogs expressed their emotional torment in this way, chances are we’d see it all the time (especially in my dog, who becomes distraught when her favorite toy isn’t where she left it…). 

Can’t blame an animal shelter for exploiting an opportunity to go viral, but still: nope. 

Dog Tries To Save Fish Out Of Water (For Later)

A dog in Thailand was filmed splashing water over a large fish:

According to the Internet, the dog is trying to save the fish from a terrible fate. Such a heroic effort. The dog must understand that:
  1. Fish need water to live 
  2. This fish is dying 
  3. Fishie deserves to live! 
  4. I can save the fishie with this water! 

Does this sound reasonable? What does your dog usually do when confronted with a small creature? Offer it a helping paw, maybe? Contribute to its Kickstarter? Or chase it up the nearest tree, barking like a maniac? Yeah…nope. 

Rather than showing Dalai Lamaesque levels of compassion, this dog is performing a natural behavior called caching. Fish are tasty, albeit pungent morsels and this has caused the dog to go into a pre-programmed pattern of scooping and tamping, despite there being nothing to actually cover the fish with. 

The dog is trying to bury the fish with the water, and it’s probably very confused about why fishie is still right there where anyone can see. “Aren’t I doing a good job of burying fishie? I’m doing the thing with my nose and everything!” 

Not too smart, really. But very cute.