Kai: The Case of Paddington Ayr

Scotland’s been abuzz with the story of Kai, the Shar-Pei cross abandoned at Ayr railway station with a suitcase of his belongings. Buzzfeed has more information here.

The SSPCA has taken him in and the attention his story received has meant he has literally hundreds of homes offered to him. I’m sure his story will have a happy ending, the SSPCA are spoiled for choice, they’ll find him a good home, I am sure. The SSPCA are also fixing his eyes (the eyelids are turning inwards, meaning his eyelashes scratch his corneas – a simple surgery to fix), so he’ll find his new home, with good health.

But the ‘why’ of the story truly confuses me. If you’re giving up an animal, why not take it to a shelter? What pride stops you from taking a clearly loved animal to where you know it will be safe? Or is it some way of trying to take it back at the last minute? To return in half an hour to collect the dog you’ve ‘forgotten’, except someone makes the final choice for you? Again, Buzzfeed has an account from the alleged abandoner. I don’t buy it at all.

But the story has raised an interesting side issue. Kai was sold on Gumtree, and quite a few people have come out to say that this is why buying and trading animals online is a bad idea.

I’m not sure I agree.

In some ways, Athena was traded online. My friend Leigh was fostering Athena and her siblings and posting photos of them on Facebook. I remember, distinctly, being curled up under a thin sheet in Bellevue, Seattle, very hungover and trying to ignore the snores of my fellow geeks around me. I saw a picture of Athena cuddled up with one of her sisters. She was the cat of my idle fantasies. You know when you picture yourself as a ‘grown-up’, in a Victorian farm house with a green aga, copper pots hanging in the kitchen, a kitchen island with a sofa on one side of it . . . in my version of that classic middle class dream, there was always a little silver tabby cat sitting on the kitchen island, watching the goings on. While I had been looking for a cat for a year, seeing the perfect kitten in a picture prompted me to message Leigh and the rest is history (history currently sitting on my knee waiting for an opportunity to catch at my earring again).

What’s the difference between Athena’s story and Kai’s? Both were spotted over the internet, after all.

The difference is duty of care. Leigh and the shelter she volunteered for had duty of care of Athena, and when I messaged them hungover, fragile and on the other side of the world, I was still vetted by Leigh. I have every confidence that she would never have recommended me to the shelter if she didn’t believe I could take care of Athena. In fact, in our early days, Leigh had more confidence in me than I did!

This is perhaps where the comparison between Athena and Kai falls apart completely. Athena is lucky enough to have been under the care of people who saw pet owning as a responsibility her whole life. We don’t know what Kai’s owners were thinking. We don’t know what brought him to Ayr Station, although we may wish he had been relinquished in a more responsible manner, and we may wish his previous owners had taken more responsibility for passing him on.

None of these problems come from the medium by which he was traded.

Now if you were to ask me if dog licensing would have helped, there you might find me sympathetic.

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Clone-O-Matic

I imagine it won’t come as a surprise to most of you when I reveal I am a fan of science fiction. I love the future in all its forms, dystopian, utopian, post-apocalyptic . . . and the future got a little bit closer with some recent news.

In the UK. Channel 4 recently ran a documentary on  Sooam Biotech’s competition to clone a British dog. Spoilers! The Guardian reported that the winner was a dachshund and gave a little summary of all the picky little ethical issues surrounding dog-cloning.

Dear readers, I have watched this documentary for you. If it’s still up you can find it here. This is how much I love you, my readers, I watch Channel 4 documentaries for you. Although I was also making some tea and checking emails at the same time, this is the hobby after all.

It’s . . . it’s interesting. The people in the documentary love their dogs, I would characterise them as ‘novelty seekers’, and there’s definitely an element of natural science ignorance on show.

Now I’ll never penalise someone for general ignorance, there’s plenty in the world I don’t know. I think it’s perfectly acceptable for people to love their pets – in fact the winner, Rebecca Smith, talks about how her dog helped her to recover from bulimia. Seems pretty relevant after last week’s post (which you guys seemed to love by the way – thanks!). And finally, as a sci-fi fan, I’m attracted to the idea of cloning as a sort of intellectual exercise, what will this dog be like, etc., but I still have a great deal of ethical discomfort surrounding this.

The Roslin researcher featured on the show tells the Korean scientists he doesn’t think it will work because genetics are not the be all and end all of behaviour. The show then invokes the phrase ‘nature versus nurture’ which explaining that the Korean scientists have brought two dogs with them, one of whom is a clone and is affectionately referred to as the ‘evil’ one because she’s so spoiled.

My darling readers, if I ever catch any of you using the phrase ‘nature versus nurture’ the force of my rage will manifest in my instant apparition to your side and a swift scolding of the like you haven’t had since you last tracked mud in over your dad’s clean floors.

It’s an outdated phrase which means nothing, puts you into a binary mindset that the outcome of the complexity of biological life is dictated by one trait. If you find yourself in a situation where you wish to express the concept of underlying biology and psychology having different effects on behavioural outcomes, I give you permission to use a much better phrase instead: Genetic and Environmental Interactions. It even boils down to a cool little equation:  GxE Interactions. Please use this phrase. Please banish Nature Vs Nurture from your minds. It’s one of my biggest bugbears.

What Iove about GxE is that it innately implies that both the genetics and the environment come together to produce the behaviour of interest, but it does miss a very important part of the overall picture, one which we scientists are only beginning to understand ourselves. There are elements of your genetic material which can be changed by your environment and you can pass these changes along to the next generation. Epigenetics is a relatively recent scientific field but explains a lot about how evolution can move so quickly. I’m currently working on a project that involves some background reading on epigenetics so I’ll try and do a post on it in the next few weeks, but for the purposes of today, it’s enough to recognise that even though these two dogs started with the exact same genetic material, even smoking more around one of them will start to change certain elements of that code.

So it’s no wonder there is an ‘evil’ clone of these little dogs the Korean scientists are toting around. They’re not the same animals. Identical twins are different people, after all, and they share masses of genetic and environmental information.

So again we come back to the ethical iffiniess around this whole show. They’ve cloned a dog for a woman who clearly relies upon the first animal for support, and the show doesn’t specify whether they’ve really explained the variation inherent in cloning to her. But at the end Rebecca did seem completely smitten by her little puppy. The problems inherent with spoiling a pet not withstanding, I’m sure there’ll be a lot of love there.

But what about the utopia part of this post? Well the EU has recently launched their Code EFABAR, a voluntary code of good practice for responsible animal breeding. This is great news and I hope all breeders seriously take into consideration what this code represents and what traits they’re breeding for. Responsible breeding takes the animal’s health and welfare, along with food chain sustainability and transparency into account. I’d hope all this seems deeply obvious to my readers and I look forward to seeing people sign up to this code (and perhaps the code’s being extended to domestic breeding too?)

So with all that being said, I think I’m going to go search for ‘Sci-Fi’ on Amazon Prime and see what I can rustle up. Live long and prosper, my friends.

The Black Dog

In the last twelve months one of my little sisters has struggled with depression. I think she’s coping remarkably well with it and I’m really very proud of her. Recently she got some bad news and in one of my weekly ‘putting the world to rights’ calls with my mother, I said that if she looked like this might set her back we should encourage her to get a cat.

Mum laughed and agreed, and then the next day phoned me frantically to exclaim: you should blog about that!

So here is the blog about pets and depression!

I have good reason to suspect a pet would help my sister, as well as other people with certain kinds of depression. And it’s not just because of this Eddie Izzard sketch.

There are two many theories regarding why we keep pets, and I’ve spoken about them before. They boil down to this: either pets take advantage of us, or pets give us some advantage in life. Much of what I’m going to talk about today falls under this second theory, but remember – it could just be a way our little social parasites have evolved to keep us sweet.

Pets Matter to People

One of the most interesting (and sadly unpublished) pieces of research I’ve ever done was investigating how online pet obituaries represent owners feelings about a pet passing away. Pets are very dear to their owners. People often say they love their pet ‘like a child’.

Interestingly, when people have been asked to rate how the loss of a pet makes them feel, they’ll say it’s analogous to losing touch with an adult child (Gage & Holcomb, 1991). Therefore the loss of a pet is a stressful event – just what I want for my blue sister, right? The inevitable loss of an animal.

What I find really interesting about that comparison is that it talks about children, but doesn’t directly compare the loss of a pet to the loss of a child. Part of me wonders if there’s not a little bit of cultural bias in there. You’re not allowed to say that losing a pet is as bad as losing a child (and personally I can’t imagine that it is), but that language seems to put it as close to the worst possible feeling as is socially acceptable.

Pets Are Good For People

If I was to put on a white lab coat and force you to do a mental arithmetic test, you’d get stressed out. This is a pretty common psychological stressor. If I made you do it in front of a friend, you might even get more stressed out, your heart rate would rise. However, if I made you do arithmetic at home, you’d feel calmer.

What’s really interesting about all this is if I made you do arithmetic at home in front of your best friend, and then made you do arithmetic in front of your dog, and lastly all by yourself,  you would be even calmer with your dog than by yourself. (Allen et al, 1991). Animals have this amazing ability to calm us down.

Blood pressure (and heart rate) go up with mental stress. Allen (who seems to have enjoyed making people do mental arithmetic in their home, I can only imagine she creeps up on neighbours with multiple choice tests) tested the presence of a dog against ACE inhibitors, drugs designed to lower blood pressure, and in the presence of mental stress, the dog helped people to cope better than the drug (Allen et al 2001).

This doesn’t mean dogs are natural anti-depressants. Karen Allen (unfortunately, not this one) uses a great phrase to describe how we view dogs: nonevaluative social support.

Which is a scientific way of saying ‘dogs are awesome because they don’t judge me when I’m eating Nutella out of a jar’. As an aside, I’ve heard some people complain that cats are more likely to judge than dogs, but I’ll point out cats have this weird fascination with accompanying you to the toilet, and like to make eye contact with anyone in the vicinity while they themselves are defecating, and so I’ve never felt too judged by any of my cats.

Don’t go to down the road of thinking that pets, or dogs, can ‘cure’ depression. But what they can do is alleviate stressful states (Wilson, 1991).

Pets and the Vulnerable

I have this belief that a child should have a pet. It’s probably one of my strongest child-rearing beliefs (apart from the whole ‘feed them, love them, clothe them’ idea). But I also believe that the elderly should have pets too.

My stepmother recently passed a significant birthday (I hasten to point out she’s not elderly). Her and my dad’s beautiful dog Rosa is entering old age however. At the  significant birthday we talked about retirement and I pointed out that after Rosa passed, they’d have to get a new dog at retirement. I couldn’t imagine them filling their days without a dog, for all there will be a long period of grieving after Rosa’s death.

My dad tells a story about his family. He, his sister and his mother conspire to get their dad a new dog after the old one dies. My Grandpa insists he doesn’t want a dog, can’t stand the thought of another dog, that their old dog was the only one for him. Newly retired, he sits in his living room and sulks.

My dad, my aunt and my grandmother go to a breeder who has some highland terrier puppies. They select a tiny white ball of fluff and take him home. They open the door to the living room and send the puppy through, waiting in the hallway for the reaction.

The puppy’s name was Angus, and he is the first dog I remember. He was my grandpa’s companion through my grandmother’s death, and helped me and grandpa chase flies with the hoover.

My Grandpa and his terrier Angus on the shores of Loch Lomond
My Grandpa and his terrier Angus on the shores of Loch Lomond

This is the essence of non-evaluative social support. When there are bad times, or particular stresses, they somehow help us cope. Elderly people require more social support, this manifests in reports of feeling lonely, of multiple visits to the doctors, etc. However elderly people with pets report visiting the doctor less often (Siegel, 1990, Knight and Edwards, 2008). And given the physiological changes that Allen recorded, I’m happy to assign this difference to the act of owning pets (as opposed to pet owners being less likely to visit the doctor because of some internal difference), but it should be pointed out that there are lifestyle benefits to pet owning.

But one of my absolute favourite papers about the benefits of pets to vulnerable people (yes, I have a favourite), is one by Kaminski et al (2002) [someone hosts a pdf here].

What’s more vulnerable than a hospitalised child? It’s a horrible thought. We have all sorts of therapies to help children adjust to being in hospital, and these include pet therapy. In this simple little study, the authors asked kids to rate their emotions before and after a play therapy session and before and after a pet therapy session. Pet therapy had a bigger effect on their positive interactions than play therapy did. Pets made sick kids feel good, and it wasn’t even their pet.

We Know The Effect, What’s the Reason?

This is the kind of scientific question I love – we see a nice measurable effect, but the why of the question is something intangible. It’s not a ‘real’, ‘quantifiable’ thing, and I think this is why I love animal personality. I love the difficulty of wrestling with non-linear qualities and multidimensional space. No one tell my old maths teacher.

Archer (1997) [a pdf here] wonders ‘why’ people love their pets. I love the part of this paper that talks about how often people show such an attachment to their pets that they do something ‘odd’, such as make the pet the best man at a wedding, fight for legal custody, etc. He talks about the commonly held idea that people own pets to make up for a deficiency in their human relations. If you can’t make real friends you go out and become a cat lady. (Here I’ll point out I’m currently considering getting a cat of my own). Ultimately Archer dismisses this, in part because in Western society we are very influenced by a particular line of thought which gives humans “ dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Genesis 1:26), and in part because many studies show that pet-owning correlates with a lot of personality traits we consider desirable in our society.

In the end Archer is a proponent of the social parasite theory and says these advantages are not enough to provide an advantage to human survival. I’m not sure I agree, but that’s a topic of another post. The point is that whatever the mechanism, people feel a very strong attachment, undeniably love, to an entity which does not judge or present them with the kind of social contract that we engage in with other humans.

Back to the Sister . . .

I think my sister is doing fine. I hope she continues to do well. Do I think that cat would ‘fix’ her? No, not at all. But I do appreciate the phrase ‘unconditional love’. This next statement I have no reference for, but I think you’ll see it for what it is . . .

In films, tv shows and stories, there’s often a moment where somebody with little else to value in their life has their precious pet taken from them. We’ve named a trope for this effect: ‘kick the dog’. Who didn’t cry the first time they watched Kes? We know this feeling of love for our pets so well that when someone hurts a pet, we know it is immediate short-hand for ‘this person is so evil they have removed the last remnant of support from a person’s life’.

I don’t recommend dogs to combat the black dog in general, but I do think there’s something to be said to coming home to a pair of brown eyes.

 

Edited to add:

I thought I’d link to some depression resources for anyone in need of support. And I want to point out I sought my little sister’s permission to share her story. If you are feeling depressed, I really hope you find the support you need. xxx

NHS Depression Support Groups

Samaritans

AACAP Depression Resource

Hyperbole and a Half – Not a resource but a truly insightful look into what it feels like to be depressed.

 

Grooming

Last week the drains in my flat were badly blocked. On Friday night I came home to the plumber triumphantly climbing out from underneath the bathtub, looking distinctly harrowed and proclaiming that he’d spent two hours sandwiched between my bath and the toilet, fixing the problem. I adore my plumber. Having a shower in my own flat, without the water lapping at my ankles, was a truly glorious feeling.

It got me thinking about personal grooming and fastidiousness, particularly in our domestic pets:

 

Head-directed self grooming, thank you Tumblr!

Eckstein and Hart, in 2000, decided to investigate exactly how cats clean themselves. It’s probably more remarkable that for such an adorable behaviour, they were one of the first to sit down and categorise it. When they weren’t sleeping, cats spent 8% of their day grooming. Which means they spent approximately an hour each day grooming. My long showers, in comparison, take less than half the time, and there’s a lot more of me to wash. And they spend a lot of time grooming their head and face.

This head-focussed grooming can lead to momentary lapses of concentration like this:

This happens.

For much of my life I had a beautiful little Tuxedo cat named Posie. Posie was a delicate flower in the wasteland and would groom herself obsessively, with all her paws neatly tucked beneath her body, one white pawed leg raised to anoint the back of her ears. She rarely got distracted mid session and would sometimes seem preoccupied with grooming the little black smudge on an otherwise white paw. In fact she liked grooming so much that it became a problem when she developed arthritis. Her redirected grooming to her stomach resulted in a bald patch which always grew worse in winter.

Posie couldn't abide wet paws
Posie couldn’t abide wet paws

By contrast, mum’s new cat, a little black and white girl, has only the vaguest notion that she should groom herself. She sits with legs splayed, hind leg pointing in the air, a slightly confused expression on her face as she gets distracted by somebody walking across the room. She even explored a cow pat once, though she came home quickly after and was appreciative of being bathed:

Post cowpat exploration, quite content with her cuddles
Post cowpat exploration, quite content with her cuddles

Over half of cats which live together will frequently groom one another (Voith and Borchelt, 1986). Mutual grooming, or allogrooming, as I prefer to call it, is a behaviour which builds social bonds. Why is this? Well imagine yourself a cat, being groomed by another cat. You may be held down by the groomer, you’re in close contact with the groomer’s teeth and claws, all the pointy bits that could hurt you. And yet the groomer is expending energy on your behalf. You would groom yourself if you weren’t being groomed. It’s a nice thing to do for someone.

Purr, purr, purr

Grooming is also a behaviour which reassures cats. Cats which spend time in stressful situations, such as a high density cat shelter, will spent more time grooming themselves than usual (Ng Yi Hui, 2011). This can lead to bald patches, like what happened to Posie, even in otherwise happy cats. Excessive grooming in any animal is a concerning sign.

Last week I was staring at a datasheet, trying to understand why a farm had gone missing between two questions in a survey. I was reclining back in my office chair and I had pulled my ponytail high up above my head. A colleague walked past and tugged on it, asking if I was stressed. We know intuitively that when we play with our own hair, we’re probably stressed by something. I have my own distinctive stereotypy when I’m feeling under pressure. I continually run my hand through my hair until I’ve pulled out all the knots, and then I pull it all around one side and brush the ends against my hand. And yet in the playground, I’m sure we’ve all seen lines of little girls braiding one another’s hair. Do boys have their own version of this allogrooming?  But I’m getting off topic . . .

So that’s cats – let’s turn to their natural enemy: the dog. Any pet owner knows that dogs are not quite so fastidious as their feline friends. Instead they would much rather anoint themselves with fox poo (or badger poo – always preferable in my dogs’ experience, for the extra muskiness component), and they never understand why we don’t want to rub our shoulder blades all over such a wonderful smell.

Dogs often show us a particular kind of allogrooming, affiliative licking, particularly directed to the mouth which for dogs is a sign of “I love you and respect you” and for us is more a token of disgust. There’s some evidence to suggest that stroking dogs produces a physiological change in us (Charnetski et al 2004) , but interestingly, dogs’ heart rates also drop while they’re being stroked (McGreevy et al 2012), possibly showing a reduction in stress. Mutual grooming works both ways it seems.

Grooming serves a multitude of functions. For cats, it keeps them from smelling too much, from giving themselves away to their prey. Dogs take the opposite tact, hiding their smell behind something stronger and marking their own smell on their territory. And for group living animals, grooming one another is a sign of relaxation, peace and comfort with one another. I’m not sure if this is what cats are thinking when they’re so determined to come in the shower with you, but as someone who has her shower back, all I can say is that a little self-grooming is blissful.

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!

FameLab 2014 – The Mystery of Pets

Earlier this year I entered FameLab 2014, a competition where scientists speak for about 3 minutes on a topic of their choice. The scientists have to be engaging, to speak in an understandable manner, and most importantly – they have to teach their listeners something about science.

I entered the Edinburgh heat and it was hugely enjoyable. The public speaking training at the start was some of the most valuable I’ve ever received and listening to the talks was also great fun. I didn’t succeed in that heat, but the organisers were very keen for me to submit a video entry.

Being the kind of prideful Scot whose nose gets put out of joint quite easily, I wasn’t going to submit a video entry until I started this blog. Since you have to enter via YouTube, I figure you guys might like to see my entry even if it doesn’t get any further.

Without further ado, I present: Pets Are Weird!