Chronicles of Athena – Lockout 2016

There I was, happily trotting off to the cinema to see ‘Spotlight’, when I heard an almighty yowl behind me.

Edinburgh tenements have a common stairwell, colloquially known as the ‘close’, with an exterior door at the bottom. I was at the bottom of my close, two neighbours had just passed me on the way up, when Athena decided to make her unhappiness known. Oh dear, I thought to myself, while my neighbours gave me an odd look. Athena has always been vocal and does call out to me when she hears me speaking in the close, but I always have a sneaking worry about separation anxiety.

Nothing to be done now, I think, and keep on going. Three and a half hours later I return, and funnily enough I don’t hear Athena calling out to me at the usual spot (where I think she must know the sound of my step on the stair).

No, because Athena is sitting huddled on the doormat outside my flat’s front door. And when she sees me she howls again.

Poor little Athena slipped out right on my heels when I left for the cinema and spent the better part of four hours in the close feeling miserable. We’ve now fed her plenty of treats (and she’s been tweeting about the experience . . . somehow). All is well.

But if Athena had been a different type of cat, one who’d decided to explore further, or was less sure of the close that she’s explored before, who knows what would have happened? Thankfully, she’s microchipped. It’s so important for responsible pet ownership for your animals to be traceable.

If you’re in the UK the RSPCA has a guide here. And for the US, the AVMA has their guide here.

Speak to your vets about keeping your pets traceable, make sure your records are always up to date, and double check your doors on the way out. Or your cat tweeting threats of negligence might just be the least of your worries . . .

 

Sorry Athena – will get right on that bacon for you.

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Fluffy Friday – Fluffy Gets Fluffier

I wasn’t sure when to post about this, but I’m much too excited to wait.

The Fluffy Sciences family is growing by one this month, as I prepare to adopt this little lady.

The Fluffy Sciences family grows
The Fluffy Sciences family grows

I will post more about her in the coming weeks, but suffice to say this is a decision I’ve been thinking about for a very long time now, and while I’m (overly) nervous about the responsibility (am I really ready to be a grown up?) I’m hugely excited.

She’s currently being fostered with her siblings by a friend of mine and I expect to pick her up round about the 21st. Currently she’s named Cleo, but I’m leaning towards ‘Athena’ as a more geeky handle that will fit the Fluffy Sciences world better. So stay tuned . . .

In Defence of Cats

During Badger Fortnight an amazing blog post by climber Craig Armstrong came to my attention – detailing the climbing exploits of him and his cat Millie.

I particularly love the comments that express amazement or defend the cats’ loyalty.

As you might have guessed by reading this blog, I’m a big fan of animals, but if you forced me to choose, I’d describe myself as a cat person.

Legend (or family lore at the least) tells that when I was a baby, our two cats were fascinated by the new arrival. They would sit on either side of the changing mat, and sneak into the cot whenever they could manage it. My mum clearly wasn’t a subscriber to the old myth that cats suffocate babies. (Unless she was and she was hoping they might . . . she’ll undoubtedly comment on this so check below for her thoughts).

John Bradshaw’s ‘Cat Sense’, one of my favourite popular science books, talks about how cats have always polarised people. More recently, I’ve been arguing with our MOOC cameraman about how cats are awesome (he disagrees – let us know in the MOOC forums if you note a distinct dog bias in our glamour shots). Lastly, even a climbing cat couldn’t convince my sister, climber extrordinaire, that cats are just as awesome as dogs, if not more so.

Buckle your seatbelt, kitten, we’re having a Caturday.

When I first started composing this post it devolved into a long series of memories about this little lady, Posie. Adopted from an SSPCA shelter when I was five she’s the kind of cat who might have stepped out of a Homeward Bound film (except her homeward journey took her four years to travel six miles, but never mind). She would walk with us to the shops, and was one of the most affectionate little animals I’ve ever met. Hers is a story I’ll save for a Fluffy Friday.

Posie snoring, possibly drooling on my knee.
Posie snoring, possibly drooling on my knee.

Instead let’s talk about the cat-human bond. I talk about dogs a lot and in fact they’re one of my favourite examples to use when I’m explaining why humans and animals have long histories. Despite this, dogs are pretty understudied in animal welfare and cats receive even less attention. So this post will be a very potted summary of what we know of the human-cat bond.

A 9,500 year old grave in Cyprus contains a man buried with a cat (Vigne et al, 2004), and there’s archaeological evidence in China dating around 5,300 years ago of cats living with humans, eating leftovers and eating the rodents around our grain (Hu et al 2014). Much like dogs, but considerably later, cats started exploiting humans by making use of our environment. Particularly when we started farming and lots of little rodents started preying on our grains.

Like dogs, cats true wild ancestor no longer exists. Instead, the cats which could tolerate humans became our domesticated cats, those who couldn’t stayed far from humans, and became something else. But cats are a few thousand years behind dogs in this domesticated tree. While dogs were a product of the hunter gather, cats are a product of the farmer.

One of the little titbits in John Bradshaw’s book absolutely fascinated me. A tenth century Welsh statue says

“The price of a cat is fourpence. Her qualities are to see, to hear, to kill mice, to have her claws whole, and to nurse and not devour her kittens. If she be deficient in any one of these qualities, one third of her price must be returned”

Good mothers, good mousers. This cat would fetch the same price as an untrained house-dog a sheep or a goat. Kittens were a penny, the same as a piglet or a lamb, and a young cat was two pence. And female cats were much more highly prized than toms (a strange quirk that I still buy into, I’ve always liked female cats more, for no real reason).

The good mother clause is interesting because cats are not, by nature, all good mothers. My old cat, Posie, had two litters of kittens. Her first litter she decided to have on my bed, in full view of the world, on a bedspread with a cat and kittens on it. I don’t think I was older than seven, and I remember being very touched that she chose to have her little little of black fluffballs in my bedroom. Looking back on it now, I still can’t decide if this was a demonstration of absolute trust and security, or simply a demonstration of her not quite having the right instincts during her pregnancy.

While she would feed them all, she was not particularly defensive of them. When they started to crawl, my mum and I experimented by taking one from her nest and taking it to the far side of the kitchen. Posie eventually came to get it after we called on her, evidently not greatly perturbed by the kitten’s plaintive mews.

Her second litter was born while we were temporarily living in a flat. We had only been in the flat for a few months and she seemed to need somewhere quieter to have her kittens. I opened my wardrobe not long before we were due to move back home and promptly informed my mother Posie had had kittens again, which was no small consternation considering it was a pet-free flat.

Being small and petite, Posie would drag her large fluffy kittens along the floor rather than pick them up. The only thing that ever seemed to arouse her mothering instincts was when they would get stuck under the bathroom sink and cry. Even years after she was spayed, the sounds of a crying kitten on the television would have her searching under the bathroom sink.

Related cats will happily share litters, and in a good environment, they’ll stay with their mothers for a long time. Girls are particularly social, staying with sisters for a long time. If this is reminding you of any other big cat structure there’s a reason – house cats and lions are the only felines which will typically naturally live in groups. Kittens which are socialised very early with humans, between 2 and 9 weeks, appear to give their owners more social support (Casey & Bradshaw, 2008).

So what is it about cats that makes them decide to pride-up with humans, in the same way dogs pack-up with us? I firmly believe that dog people are threatened by the cat’s ability to control. We understand that dogs get their way by being cute and adorable, but cats seem to be able to train us.

McComb et al (2009) did one of my favourite studies because it confirmed something I had long recognised in Posie’s relationship with me. She had a specific purr which incorporated a quiet, high pitched chirrup, a rolling r and a little uplift at the end. We used to call it ‘purring with excitement’ and it was given in anticipation of food, when she thought food might be included in Tesco shopping bags, when she was about to be let out of the door and when she was desperate for a cuddle (the ‘prrroing’ noise would escape as she leapt up onto the sofa or bed, soon giving way to a deep, rhythmic purring as she reached her goal).

McComb et al investigated how these solicitation purrs sounded to cat owners and non-cat owners. All identified these solicitation purrs as being more urgent and less pleasant than the same cat’s relaxed purr. But cat-owners were significantly better dentifying the same cat’s solicitation purr and relaxed purr than non-owners, suggesting that owners learn this. McComb et all went on to investigate the auditory properties of these solicitation purrs and the peak of the cry lies at around 300-600Hz, the same as a human baby’s hungry wail.

Yep, cats vocalise at the same pitch as our babies, a sound that we are incapable of habituating to, thanks to that pesky evolution.

Cats play their affection for us coolly. While we can use infant human attachment tests to measure a dog’s obsession with its owner, cats which are isolated from their owner do not respond to their owner’s voice with body language or vocalisation, but by a tiny ear swivel in the direction of their owner’s voice (Saito & Shinozuka, 2013). I haven’t found any evidence of people using separation tests in cats (let me know if you know of a study) but there is evidence of cats showing separation related behaviours when left alone, such as excessive grooming, vocalisation and defecation (Schwartz, 2002).

Dogs share a lot of traits with us, trained in ways we understand instinctively, motivated by affection and praise like we are, but cats have a different kind of intelligence, less comparable to ours.

Teach a dog and a cat to pull a string for a food reward. They both quickly take to pulling the string. Give them two strings and show them that food exists at the end of one string. Dogs are reasonably able to deduce that they want to pull the string attached to the food. Cats, not so much. Pull string, get food. Cats don’t understand they need to link the food to the string, whereas dogs seem to be able to grasp this at a rudimentary level. Finally, if you cross the strings, cats are still playing their little string games and the dog geniuses are entirely confused. Causal understanding is not a cat’s strong point (Whitt et al, 2009).  Dogs and babies can do object permanance tests, cats struggle (and some cats don’t even bother).

So, emotionally manipulative, intelligence alien to our own, and only barely able to tolerate other cats and humans if given the right amount of socialisation as kittens. Why do we love them?

What I love about a cat is its ability to be selective in its affection. I like to feel important in a pet’s life. My mum’s new cat, adopted from a friend who could no longer look after her, greets me with raised tail and chirrups when I walk up the road with an overnight bag. She sniffs my face and then promptly investigates all the bags and treasures I have brought. While I’ve known her for four years now, her affection for me has only recently developed. Earning the trust of a cat I see infrequently feels more rewarding for me than the instant love of a dog I’ve just met.

In my opinion its this small personality difference that distinguishes dog and cat people. Dog people are more extraverted, socialising easily and freely. Introverts value that socialness no less, but like it a different, more concentrated source.

Bradshaw finishes his book with a surprising statement that doesn’t come naturally from most animal welfare scientisits. He suggests that we start breeding for a truly domesticated cat, teaching people how to train their cats, and stop neutering the excellent housecats we have indiscriminately. He points to his 1999 paper which found that an area with a high population of neutered cats was producing moggie kittens that didn’t have particularly sociable genes.

Bradshaw argues that if we want the domestic cat to survive as a pet, we must use our knowledge of animal welfare to produce an animal more suited for its new environment. He suggests that we can avoid making the mistakes we made with dogs and take a scientific approach to producing the animal we want, affectionate, relaxed, and with little hunting motivation.

 

I find that an interesting idea, and it has certainly affected my thinking about any future cats I will own.

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.

 

LolCats and Doge, YouTube and Animal Behaviour

In 2013 Nelson & Fijn published an absolutely brilliant paper in Animal Behaviour. It’s called ‘The use of visual media as a tool for investigating animal behaviour‘ and it’s about watching animals on YouTube.

I watch a lot of animals on YouTube so I love this paper. It provides a methodology for using YouTube videos in animal studies, all very simple rules, like not using videos with editing and the like.

Why is this important? How can YouTube contribute to the study of animal behaviour? Well have you seen this video? It was doing the rounds on the internet recently.

The video’s description says that the dog has become protective of the unborn baby, going so far as to defend the baby bump from the soon-to-be-dad. It’s a cute story and makes for good internet memes. I have to be honest that as a behaviour scientist my immediate reaction was to roll my eyes.

How does a dog know what pregnancy is, or that it will result in a baby that will be part of the family? How does a dog even know that a baby is a thing to be protected?  But as I thought about this I remembered our old cat who became fascinated with my mum’s belly when she was pregnant. According to my mum all her cats have been fascinated by her pregnancies. I’m sure they hear the second heart beat and it must be a fascinating thing for them.

This dog, I thought, is probably just responding to some weird behavioural cue that its owner is giving it. Like the well known story of Clever Hans, the horse who could count by reading its owner’s behaviour. This is actually a well known behavioural phenomenon, and is blamed for things like your dog looking guilty when its done something wrong (Horowitz, 2009).

Oh if only in this age of connectivity, I could somehow ask the owner if she might be aware of any cues . . .

It turns out the protective dog in this video is called Tebow, a 2 year old dog owned by Mekesha and her partner Justin. 3 weeks from her due date, Mekesha found the time to answer some of my questions.

As it turns out, Tebow is fascinated with Mekesha’s belly at the moment, just as I remember my cat being fascinated by my mum’s. Tebow will sit beside Mekesha with his head on her belly, or will lick it if he gets the chance. He’s also devoted to Justin’s young nephew and their younger dog, also in the video.

Something I thought was really interesting is that Mekesha wanted people to know Tebow isn’t an aggressive or mean dog. In fact she’s pretty upset that people think he might be. In the video you can see she’s laughing and she says everyone found it funny. As for whether she might be anxious in some way that Tebow is picking up on . . .

We have found it hilarious ever since, not threatening. I have no anxiety about my belly being touched and I actually don’t mind people doing it, I do know that certain pregnant woman who hate it, I am not that way.

I think that seems pretty certain! Of course, you can always argue that perhaps there’s some subconscious anxiety, that perhaps the anxiety is coming from Justin and not Mekesha – there are a hundred ways to interpret this video. But it’s interesting that most people who view it go with the ‘anthropomorphic’ one. That Tebow is protecting his family, even the ones he might not quite understand.

It might be easy to say “well this is somebody and their pet, of course they’re going to think the best of them”, but for another video doing the rounds this week:

National Geographic photographer describes a leopard seal’s attempts to feed him, graduating from live prey, to hurt prey, to dead prey, to partially eaten prey, as the seal becomes more and more convinced the photographer was incapable of feeding himself.

We should never forget that animals don’t think like we do. They don’t process the world like we do. But that doesn’t mean we should dismiss the similarities we do have in common. Videos like this get to the very essence of animal behaviour science – why do animals behave in the way the do? YouTube, and the internet, will help us by showing us more and more examples of these strange behaviours. What was once an odd story about something your friend’s dog did, becomes something an animal behaviour scientist might be able to analyse.

Plus I just want to get some funding to sit around on YouTube all day. Ethologists of the world, who’s with me?!

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!