Monthly Archives: January 2012

Born This Way?


This, from last Tuesday’s Washington Post: “Fido won’t sit? Blame his genes.” This slipshod article is loosely based on a study conducted at the Department of Ethology & the Department of Medical Chemistry at 2 separate universities in Budapest, Hungary, entitled “Polymorphism in the Tyrosine Hydroxylase (TH) Gene Is Associated with Activity-Impulsivity in German Shepherd Dogs.” Still paying attention?

For me, the most fascinating finding was that, regarding this herenow gene, there was great variance between different dog breeds. (Which wasn’t the point of the study at all, mind you. They were supposed to be focusing on within-breed differences. Seem to have gotten a little sidetracked, no?) “For example, the frequency of allele 2 is 31% in Groenandaels [Belgian Shepherds to you & me], 0.89% in German shepherds, and 0.73% in wolves.” Got wolf? Yes, I do, near as dammit.

Now, to the weakest link of the study: the operational definition of Activity-Impulsivity in dogs. First they modified the standard parents-kvetching-about-their-kids ADHD checklist to “apply” to owners-kvetching-about-their-dogs. No items from this questionnaire appeared in the article. Trust them, it had great inter-rater reliability. Swell. How about validity? What they call ADHD, I might call hypervigilance [which is what my wolflike German shepherd manifests, ja?]. Or, possibly, Separation Anxiety, which she also has.

Next they conducted a 4-task individual test for 104 dog & owner pairs, with a female experimenter present. (1)”Spontaneous activity.” Dog on leash with owner [not giving any commands] for 1 minute. [How many leg movements did the dog make?] (2)”Separation & play.” With owner “hiding” behind a nearby tree & dog tied to another tree, the experimenter tries to engage the dog in a game of tug-of-war. [How active was the dog?] (3)”Lying on the side.” Owner commands the dog to lie down, then has it lie on its side for 30 seconds. [Does the dog obey?] (4)”Approaching the owner.” While experimenter holds the dog on a leash, the owner “hides” behind a tree. Then the dog is let off the leash and given the command “Go!” back to the owner. Now, get a load of this! The more quickly the dog returns to its owner, the more “ADHD” it is! Seriously.

Who knew the Hungarians placed such a premium on taking your sweet time when summoned by “the boss”?

Ooh! So, would they then predict that wolves [with an even lower frequency of the TH gene] would return to their pack leader even faster than our dog Lili? [Which I would have thought had survival value…] Wolves must be “ADHD” as all getout.

Notice that nowhere in the study was “Sitting on command” assessed.

May I suggest that you henceforth take the “Science News” section of the WaPo with a grain of salt? As they sing in Porgy & Bess, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

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Filed under ethology, murky research, sharks and jets

Why the long face?

Chances are, if you are a horse or a human at an equestrian barn, that hang-dog look means you have just suffered a humiliation.

The other day my San Francisco daughter (who has been riding horses since she was 7, including, in better times, our magnificent 18hh Hanoverian, Owen) called to say, “Well, good. I finally met the Barn Bitch.” She had decided to reallocate her discretionary income, from hanging with 20-somethings at Frisco watering holes, to hanging with a 20-something horse in Oakland, name of Zachary. (Which is also her boss’ name, innit?) Until that day, everyone she had met at the barn had been helpful and welcoming.

I, too, began riding at the age of 7; and have never, in more than a dozen different barns, in the US and Europe, failed to encounter at least one trainer stuck in a permanent state of rage. There is also always at least one horse in a permanent Bad Mood. In the UK, where horses are not exotic, and mingle freely with motorists and pedestrians, such a “known kicker and/or biter” is likely to have a red ribbon tied to its tail. If only the Barn Bitch came with such a warning label!

Let’s do a bit of ethology, to try to figure out why “There’s (at least) one in every crowd.” Horses, it must be understood, are both pack animals and prey animals. In the wild, survival depends on being “well in” with the herd, whose members can better fend off predators. Yet, when forage is scarce, survival depends on being of high enough status to get first dibs on the food. Battles for supremacy involve biting and kicking; and size does not always matter. (Even a fierce little dog can growl a horse away from food which is of no nutritional value to the terrier, itself. Hence, the English expression, “to act like a dog in the manger.”) Indeed, at riding barns, it is most often a small mare or even a pony who wears the red ribbon.

And so, to the psychology of the Barn Bitch. It is rarely the owner of the establishment who snarls (at potential customers). It may not even be the head trainer, whose alpha status allows first pick of horses, tack, and students, making it more likely that they will win the on-going zero-sum-game, into which all human/horse endeavors [not just show events, or races, but even lessons] morph. It is the “Not Quites,” the Wannabe trainers, who are left with the nags, the old tack and the less promising students, who suffer humiliation, which they pass along, like the Old Maid card, usually to unsuspecting newcomers.

Once you know who should be wearing a red ribbon, it’s easier to put out your own subtext message, loud & clear: “I’m not your enemy, but I’m not your victim.” Now, jump out of the manger, and let my horse eat. An old hand at such scenarios, my daughter held her ground; and the erstwhile Barn Bitch morphed into a lap dog.

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Filed under aggression happens, ethology, power subtext, zero-sum-gaming