If Everybody Thought the Same

As a researcher with an interest in personality, I have been accused of anthropomorphising animals in the past. I argue that personality is an outcome of predictable behaviour patterns and statistical distributions. To me this is a perfectly formed argument that has emerged from years of PhD work, but PhDs never made anyone sane. That being said, there’s something in these warnings of anthropomorphism, particularly when we’re interacting with animals.

First off ‘anthropomorphism’ is when you assign human characteristics to non-human objects or animals. (Now, I’ll point out that the traditional definition of this doesn’t specify that it has to be a unique property of humans. For example, having eyes is a characteristic of humans. Is it anthropomorphic to say dogs have eyes? The rant about the definition is for another time). Sometimes, when we interact with animals, we assume they are interpreting the interaction in the same way we are. In essence – that we all think in the same way.

This week a few different posts crossed my virtual desk, all on the subject of different ways of thinking, and it got me thinking (I think).

Firstly: a friend shared this interesting blog post from dog trainer and blogger Michael Blough. It talks about how ‘hugging’ can be unpleasant for dogs and it reminded me about the press surrounding this paper, which came out as ‘stroking is stressful for cats’ and greatly worried my mother.

The advice I gave my mum, and the advice Blough gives his followers, is the same: listen to what your animal is saying. But of course there’s an inherent contradiction in this! How can you listen to your animal when I’m also telling you it doesn’t think like you? How are you supposed to interpret what your pet is saying to you when it’s fundamentally speaking a different language?

I will be the first to say it’s hard and I don’t interpret my animals’ behaviour correctly 100% of the time. I’d argue that anyone who says they’ve never gotten it wrong with an animal is fooling themselves (let me know in the comments if you’re sure you’re a regular Dolittle). However, I’d say I’m right a good 95% of the time and hey, I’m blogging on the internet right? Listen to me, and I’ll give you some tips.

Blough starts with a pic of him hugging his dog. The dog is looking away, eye white is just visible, and you can clearly see the dog is about to leap from his arms. In this case it’s obvious the dog wants to end this form of physical contact.

Now have a pic of me and my dad’s dog receiving a hug.

Me and Rosa
Me and Rosa

This is Rosa and me a few years ago. We’re sitting at the kitchen table and Rosa (the size of a border collie) is sitting upright on my lap while my younger sister is sitting opposite us talking animatedly about her impending departure to uni. I happen to remember this because this pose would be classed a ‘nervous’ hug for Rosa. My sister’s animation worried her so she sat upright. Normally she’d be lying on her back like a baby, tongue lolling out one side of her face, a small glob of drool descending onto my t-shirt.

Rosa is not a typical dog. The difference between this photo and Bough’s is pretty clear, Rosa doesn’t look like she’s about to leap from my arms, her eye whites are hidden (even from this angle). She’s not leaning in any particular direction.

If we were being very critical we could say my arm is clearly restraining her and it is – it’s restraining her from falling off my lap as she’s a little too big. I’d hold a child in the same way.

So these are all the visual cues I’m using to assess this situation and come to the conclusion Rosa is happy in this situation. And Rosa frequently requests hugs (sometimes a little too eagerly – she’ll be half on my lap before I’ve sat down and has cracked my chin with her thick skull). If a pet requests something, it’s a safe bet that it likes it. Now occasionally owners will say the infamous line “Oh they like it!” of their clearly unimpressed pet, the pictures of cats with hats on the internet are proof enough of that. In this case I’m saying Rosa has a particular, unique set of behaviours which are unambiguous and precede her attempting to sit on my lap. It involves eye contact, gaze direction towards my lap, and pawing. Sometimes I will sit and invite her up with a similarly unambiguous signal where I’ll pat my knee repeatedly and call her name. If she chooses not to come up, there’s no penalty. So here when I’m saying Rosa ‘requests’ a hug, I’m saying she initiates the contact with signals that have developed over the course of our relationship.

But what is Rosa thinking here? This is a fascinating question for me. And coincidentally I came across a blogpost on PopSci about this video. In essence it appears that the baby is reacting to the emotional content of the song the mum is singing. I like the expert PopSci have consulted who says:

…the baby’s facial expressions are more consistent with a conflict between sociality and fear – perhaps a positive social response to her mother’s face, and fear in response to her mother’s low and loud singing voice, which is not like her speaking voice. Babies at this age often react negatively to unfamiliar things, including new people, and familiar people with something out of whack (e.g., wearing a hat)

Which I think is a great interpretation of what’s happening in that baby’s mind. It takes into account the baby’s behaviours, its expressions, and prior knowledge of how babies process things. I wonder, can I interpret Rosa’s thought processes?

I really enjoyed reading John Bradshaws ‘In Defence of Dogs’ and the companion book ‘Cat Sense’ which gives a brief natural history of our most common pets and talks about their behaviour. In it, Bradshaw points out the common fallacy of believing dogs are simply wolves – they’re not. They’re the wolves who chose to associate with humans, who’ve been with us for 20,000 years (Sablin & Khlopachev, 2002), and who are capable of understanding us and interacting with us in ways that even hand-reared wolves can’t comprehend (Gacsi et al 13, Viranyi et al 2008). And yet we don’t know if our dogs love us. In fact there is a paper out there which suggests that the closeness between dog and owner, as perceived by the owner, has no relationship with how attached the dog appears to be to the owner (Rehn et al, 2014). In essence, you may like your dog, but your dog might not like you.

But before you get too depressed about this – I have hope. And it doesn’t come from the fact we use the same social separation test to judge attachment in dogs as we do in babies (Rehn et al 2013) or that individual personalities in dogs and humans changes the attachment (Zilcha-Mano et al 2011) in the same way unique human friendships have different levels of attachment. It’s not even that, as the PopSci article shows, we’re just as good at misunderstanding our own babies as we are dogs (and babies aren’t hugely scarred by that).

So I’m going to give some interpretation a shot, just as an exercise. Rosa, like the baby, isn’t verbal. She doesn’t think in language (and while she might understand words like ‘walk’, ‘out’, ‘dinner’, ‘dad’, I doubt she’s capable of putting these things into sentences). What is Rosa thinking when she asks for a hug?

I don’t believe she’s thinking about ‘love’ or abstract concepts like that. I think her thought processes run more along the lines of “It’s she-who-is-sometimes-here-and-smells-like-and-talks-like-my-daddy-and-who-gives-me-food-lots [Jill, for short]. She lets me sit on her, which is comfortable and maybe she will scratch my ears or rub my belly”. And then I think she initiates the interaction she wants, she approaches me, she gets to sit on my lap, and usually I will arrange her so she can lie back and observe everybody else in the room because I know she likes to keep an eye on what they’re doing. Now I think her mind is going along the lines of “there is my pack, here it is comfortable, I can smell food, my ears are being nicely scratched, my daddy is happy”. I’m sure much of her contentedness relies on the fact she adores my dad and when I visit my dad we’re usually laughing and talking and enjoying ourselves.

In essence I think dogs, cat, other animals, babies and even drunk people live in the moment for the most part, with only a vague understanding of consequence at the very best. As the only sober ones at the party, the onus is on us to make sure they’re all okay, and not to take advantage of them by hugging them when they don’t want it.

Put like that, it seems simple enough to me!

Conferences and Questions

Wednesday was the International Society for Applied Ethology‘s UK regional conference. We tend to do these every other year and it was my second regional conference.

I absolutely love this society. It’s incredibly friendly and supportive. In fact the worst questions at this conference were asked by me, as one of my friends pointed out the next morning. I may have been a little harsh in some respects, so I went and apologised to one speaker the next morning.

Regional conferences are often popular with student presenters who have finished a masters project, or are starting their PhDs, and want to present results to a friendly audience. There’s a ranking of published results: papers, obviously, are best. They are peer reviewed and, in theory, tell a complete story. Next comes international conferences. Most of these are peer reviewed, but you only present a short abstract so tell a less complete story. Regional conferences can be reviewed but sometimes aren’t and are generally more accepting of non-significant results and short projects.

I tend to use the ISAE regional conference as a sounding board. This year I spoke about an analysis I tried but had ultimately gone nowhere, and the conference before I reviewed the personality terminology in the literature. The really interesting thing about conferences is the negative results you hear. For example, one student presented a small study that found chronically ill dogs had no associated cortisol rise compared to healthy dogs. It could be an issue of statistical power, or that cortisol is not a biomarker of stress in the case of well-cared for and health-managed dogs. Either way, it sparked some discussion. Another talk which stuck out in my mind was one looking at the activity budget of captive elephants. I had no idea elephants were capable of ventral lying, but apparently so!

The only real complaint I have is that I was still nursing my terrible manflu, which has slowed my posting on this blog, my work, and had me coughing like a smoker for two weeks now.

Normal service shall resume . . .

Orcas at the Olympics

The Sochi Winter Olympics have been troubling me for some time now. They begin on the 7th February and continue through to the 23rd of February. I haven’t decided if I will watch them or not. I usually very much enjoy the Winter Olympics (figure skating and the ski jump are my particular favourites), but I’m not sure if I feel comfortable watching when the hosting country has behaved in a way so contrary to my personal beliefs.

What does this have to do with animal welfare? Well there are reports that Russia have captured two Orcas specifically to display them at Sochi. That link makes the point that the IOC insists that the hosts and the Olympic event ‘respect the environment’.

I don’t know about you, but I have never heard of the Sochi Dolphinarium. I have not heard about their contributions to conservation, how they enrich pens, the massive pools they use to house their animals. After googling I’ve discovered its the largest in Russia, and that they train their animals to do the kind of tricks we criticise SeaWorld for. Apparently their performance pool is a whole 20m long. My goodness, such luxury.

This is of course the action of a private company, not the host city. But that it’s being allowed just adds another layer to my great and growing discomfort about the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Will I really boycott it in my own small way? I guess I’ll let you know.

 

Accelerating our dragon R&D program

Well this is just adorable.

When we get around to it, my dragon will be called Ramoth of course

News @ CSIRO

We’ve been doing science since 1926 and we’re quite proud of what we have achieved. We’ve put polymer banknotes in your wallet, insect repellent on your limbs and Wi-Fi in your devices. But we’ve missed something.

There are no dragons.

Over the past 87 odd years we have not been able to create a dragon or dragon eggs. We have sighted an eastern bearded dragon at one of our telescopes, observed dragonflies and even measured body temperatures of the mallee dragon. But our work has never ventured into dragons of the mythical, fire breathing variety.

And for this Australia, we are sorry.

This came to our attention today when we received the following letter:

Hello Lovely Scientist

My name is Sophie and I am 7 years old. My dad told me about the scientists at the CSIRO. Would it be possible if you can make a dragon for me. I would…

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Personalities – Part One

One of my all time favourite topics is that of animal personality. In fact my PhD was centred around animal personality, using some nifty new technology to explore the phenomenon. Most of my papers are about how personality affects the lives of cows.

Don’t laugh. That’s genuinely what my PhD is in.

There are actually plenty of production and welfare reasons to study this in cattle, but today I want to talk to you about one of the basic concepts of personality.

Let’s Talk Science

You’ve heard people talk about personality traits or dimensions (I’ll use traits for the rest of this article), but what do you know about personality traits? I’m going to give you a very complicated sciency sounding sentence here, and by the end of this article, I think you’ll understand it.

Are you ready?

Are you sure?

Personality traits are a statistical construct based on the behavioural variation displayed number of individuals sampled.

Let me explain . . .

Continue reading “Personalities – Part One”