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Your Bilingual Dog

Photo: Raúl Hernández.
Kun Kun has been participating in tests to tell if dogs can distinguish one language from another. Here is Kun Kun taking a break from the MRI machine.

Anyone who has ever been attached to a dog, talking to the dog and studying its reactions, must have wondered what dogs understand and how they understand it. Among the studies that have been done on the question is a recent one about being able to understand different languages.

Alejandra Marquez Janse and Christopher Intagliata present the story at National Public Radio.

“Imagine you’re moving to a new country on the other side of the world. Besides the geographical and cultural changes, you will find a key difference will be the language. But will your pets notice the difference?

“It was a question that nagged at Laura Cuaya, a brain researcher at the Neuroethology of Communication Lab at at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest.

” ‘When I moved from Mexico to Hungary to start my post-doc research, all was new for me. Obviously, here, people in Budapest speak Hungarian. So you’ve had a different language, completely different for me,’ she said.

“The language was also new to her two dogs: Kun Kun and Odín.

” ‘People are super friendly with their dogs [in Budapest]. And my dogs, they are interested in interacting with people,’ Cuaya said. ‘But I wonder, did they also notice people here … spoke a different language?”

“Cuaya set out to find the answer. She and her colleagues designed an experiment with 18 volunteer dogs — including her two border collies — to see if they could differentiate between two languages. Kun Kun and Odín were used to hearing Spanish; the other dogs Hungarian.

The dogs sat still within an MRI machine, while listening to an excerpt from the story The Little Prince. They heard one version in Spanish, and another in Hungarian. Then the scientists analyzed the dogs’ brain activity.

“Attila Andics leads the lab where the study took place and said researchers were looking for brain regions that showed a different activity pattern for one language versus the other.

” ‘And we found a brain region — the secondary auditory cortex, which is a higher level processing region in the auditory hierarchy — which showed a different activity pattern for the familiar language and for the unfamiliar language,’ Andics said.

“This activity pattern difference to the two languages suggests that dogs’ brain can differentiate between these two languages. In terms of brain imaging studies, this study is the very first one which showed that a non-human species brain can discriminate between languages.

“They also found that older dogs brains’ showed bigger differences in brain activity between the two languages, perhaps because older dogs have more experience listening to human language. Their findings were published this week in the journal NeuroImage.

“Amritha Mallikarjun is a researcher at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Philadelphia. She wasn’t involved in this study, but has been working on similar research about dogs and language. … While this work relied on brain imaging, Mallikarjun said it would be worth investigating whether dogs could differentiate between languages in behavioral studies, too…. ‘Because often with neural studies, you can find differences that don’t play out in the behavior.’ ” More at NPR, here.

Being curious about the choice of The Little Prince for the text, I went to the original study: “Our linguistic material consisted of a recording of the XXI chapter of The Little Prince written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry read by two different native, female speakers, with similar timbre, and vocal characteristics [one] in each language. … The text, as well as the speakers were unknown to all dogs and the text was recorded with a lively, engaging intonation.”

So then I looked up the passage, finding it described at a website call Shmoop: “The little prince tells the fox that he is unhappy and asks him to come play with him; but the fox says he cannot because he is not ‘tamed’ (21.8). He explains that ‘to tame’ means ‘to establish ties’ (21.16). Through the process of taming, they will come to need each other, and will become special to one another. The fox requests the little prince to tame him.”

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900
Photo: Zlatko Bala/Department of Archaeology/University of Zadar
Dogs’ sensitive noses are being used for an expanding array of searches. In the photo above, a dog provides assistance on an archaeological dig.

I keep hearing about new ways that the sensitive noses of dogs are being used to help humans. We know they can help people with disabilities and sniff out contraband drugs in airports. I’ve also heard they can detect certain diseases in people before doctors can. And in this story, they are used by archaeologists to find ancient tombs.

Joshua Rapp Learn writes at the Guardian, “The scent-tracking abilities of trained dogs have helped archaeologists discover iron age tombs in Croatia dating back nearly three thousand years. …

“Experts have said that using dogs could be a good way to identify archaeological sites, as it is less destructive than many traditional methods.

“ ‘Dogs’ noses obviously don’t make mistakes,’ said Vedrana Glavaš, an associate professor of archaeology at the University of Zadar in Croatia and the lead author of the study, which was published in the Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory.

“Glavaš had already found a few tombs in a necropolis near the prehistoric hilltop fort of Drvišica, which dates back to the eight century BC. Hoping to find more, she contacted Andrea Pintar, a trainer who works with dogs used for sniffing out graves in criminal investigations. …

“Glavaš first sent the dogs to graves they had dug up the previous year but which were not apparent, without telling the trainers the location.

“ ‘We always use at least two dogs to confirm the position,’ Glavaš said, adding that the second trainer and dog were not told where the first dog and trainer had indicated a grave.

“The canines discovered all three graves, even though the human remains, associated artefacts and surrounding soil had been removed. The area had also been exposed to wind, sun and rain since the excavation.

Glavaš said the porous rock around the excavated soil had probably absorbed enough of the aroma of decomposition that the dogs could still detect it.

“Glavaš then let the dogs loose in an area they suspected more remains could be found, and excavated six new tombs – five of which are described in the recent paper. The dogs were extremely accurate in every case.

“The tombs consist of small stone burial chests in the middle of walled stone circles, each about five metres in diameter. Each chest contained small bones such as the fingers and feet of several individuals – perhaps several generations from the same family – along with buckles and other artefacts.

“Glavaš said the people in the site were probably fairly poor due to the harsh, windy climate of the area and the difficulty of growing crops. …

“Angela Perri, a postdoctoral archaeology researcher at Durham University who was not involved in the study, said using dogs to sniff out burials [can] be used in situations where ground-penetrating radar or other techniques may not work. …

“Perri, who studies the ancient history of how humans first began to domesticate and use dogs, said the technique was just the latest in humans’ long history of using dogs as biotechnology. ‘We’re still finding new ways of having dogs help us,’ she said.”

More at the Guardian, here.

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Photo: YouTube/Field of Vision
Karollyne, who works at the dog-rescue nonprofit founded by Glenn Greenwald and David Miranda in Brazil, is shown with one of the homeless dogs she cares for in an abandoned building.

Nothing humanizes homeless people more for us than seeing them interact with a pet. The panhandler who used to set up a blanket with his dog near Providence’s Kennedy Plaza always seemed cheerful whether he got money or not, and many passersby stopped to pat the dog and exchange a few friendly words. I haven’t seem him lately and can’t help wondering if his dog helped him to get it together and move off the street.

Consider a couple articles I’ve been reading on homelessness and the power of a pet. In the first article, reporter Candace Pires gathered the stories of four homeless people for the Guardian.

Heather, 22, told Pires, “Before we found Poppy, I didn’t feel like I had anything to wake up for. I was going through a rough time in my life and didn’t care about myself. I’d been homeless since my parents told me to leave our family house in June 2016 and was so miserable in my situation. Everywhere I go people shun me and tell me to leave.

“Then, last March, I was walking around downtown Seattle with my boyfriend when we saw a group of guys with two dogs. They were yelling at one of them and she was shivering and obviously scared. I went into a store and when I came out my boyfriend had the dog. I was confused. He said to me: ‘I made a life choice without you; we’re keeping the dog.’ He’d paid the guys $5 for her. …

“We moved from sleeping in a doorway to a tent. I stopped stealing food from stores when we were desperate; I didn’t want to go to jail for something dumb and risk losing her. I’ve applied for food stamps and now have a case manager helping me get on a housing list and get Poppy registered as a service animal so that we’re protected from being split up. …

“She wakes up so excited every morning and gets so happy about the littlest thing, like rolling around in the grass or even just the weather being nice. Seeing her like that reminds me to stay happy for simple things too. In my mind she’s a little angel that saved me as much as I saved her.”

Pires wrote up three more stories by homeless pet owners in America here.

Meanwhile, the journalist Glenn Greenwald has written at the Dodo about the dog-rescue nonprofit he and David Miranda founded in Brazil, where homeless people who love dogs are hired as caregivers.

“In the last two years,” Greenwald reported, “our work with animals has taken on a new focus: working with homeless people who live on the streets with their pets. At first glance, this situation can seem grim and depressing: Many assume that animals who live on the street with homeless companions are mistreated or deprived.

“But, far more often, the truth is the opposite: The bond that forms between homeless people and their homeless pets is often [more] strong, deep and more profound than many can imagine. The mutual need, and resulting intense devotion, that homeless people and their animals develop for one another is inspiring and can be unlike what one might find in any other context.

Leslie Irvine, a sociology professor at the University of Colorado, has devoted much of her academic career to studying this unique relationship, and even named her book on the topic, ‘My Dog Always Eats First.’ ”

Greenwald wrote more here.

Did you ever see a person you thought you couldn’t relate to until you saw the person’s relationship with a pet? I’d love to hear stories.

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The website “The Dodo: For the Love of Animals” recently posted about a man who built a little choo-choo train to give dogs rides.

Stephen Messenger writes, “Eugene Bostick may have officially retired about 15 years ago, but in some ways that was when his most impactful work began. Not long after, he embarked on a new career path of sorts — as a train conductor for rescued stray dogs. …

“Over the years, Bostick has taken in countless abandoned dogs. But more than just keeping them safe, he’s found an adorable way to keep them happy, too.

“While the rescued dogs have plenty of room to run and play on Bostick’s farm, the retiree thought it would nice to be able to take them on little trips to other places as well. That’s about the time he was inspired to build a canine-specific form of transportation just for them.

” ‘One day I was out and I seen this guy with a tractor who attached these carts to pull rocks. I thought, “Dang, that would do for a dog train,” ‘said Bostick. ‘I’m a pretty good welder, so I took these plastic barrels with holes cut in them, and put wheels under them and tied them together.’ And with that, the dog train was born. …

“The dog train has come to attract a fair share of attention among locals who occasionally stop to ask if they can take a few pictures. But for Bostick, it’s all about bringing a bit of joy to a handful of dogs who had been through so much before finding themselves as his cheerful passengers.”

Bostick tells Messenger, “Whenever they hear me hooking the tractor up to it, man, they get so excited, they all come running and jump in on their own. They’re ready to go.”

More.

Photo: Tiffany Johnson/Facebook

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The BBC, having fun at our expense, has been measuring our snow depth in height of dogs. More recently, having passed what it calls “six dogs,” it is adding athletes as a unit of measure. See several illustrations here.

The unconventional measurement should work for Bostonians, who have  been accustomed since 1958 to measuring the length of a bridge over the Charles River in Smoots. (Oliver Smoot was an MIT student pledging to a fraternity.)

For a more realistic picture, see below. The first shot, from Sandra Kelly, is of New Shoreham, RI. It’s windy on the island, and snow usually blows right off. But it seems to be sticking this time. A poet out there tells me it’s “wild, white, and windy.” I can hear the wind whistling in that. I hope she writes a poem.

The icicles and front walk are from Massachusetts.

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