Monday, September 26, 2016

Fall travel is really my favorite - cool weather, beautiful leaves and vistas. Thinking of the Berkshires? Try Clover Hill Farm: Take a walk around the 50 acre property or the adjoining fields and enjoy all the views. WALKING DISTANCE from....
Williams College, Williamstown, Theater Festival, The Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute.
Clover Hill Farm

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A Man's Best Friend

A man’s best friend: Study shows dogs can recognize human emotions

January 12, 2016
University of Lincoln
Dogs can recognize emotions in humans by combining information from different senses -- an ability that has never previously been observed outside of humans, a new study published today reveals.

For the first time, researchers have shown that dogs must form abstract mental representations of positive and negative emotional states, and are not simply displaying learned behaviours when responding to the expressions of people and other dogs.
Credit: Image courtesy of University of Lincoln
Dogs can recognise emotions in humans by combining information from different senses – an ability that has never previously been observed outside of humans, a new study published today reveals.
For the first time, researchers have shown that dogs must form abstract mental representations of positive and negative emotional states, and are not simply displaying learned behaviours when responding to the expressions of people and other dogs.
The findings from a team of animal behaviour experts and psychologists the University of Lincoln, UK, and University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, are published in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters.
The researchers presented 17 domestic dogs with pairings of images and sounds conveying different combinations of positive (happy or playful) and negative (angry or aggressive) emotional expressions in humans and dogs. These distinct sources of sensory input – photos of facial expressions and audio clips of vocalisations (voices or barks) from unfamiliar subjects – were played simultaneously to the animals, without any prior training.
The team found the dogs spent significantly longer looking at the facial expressions which matched the emotional state (or valence) of the vocalisation, for both human and canine subjects.

The integration of different types of sensory information in this way indicates that dogs have mental representations of positive and negative emotional states of others.
Researcher Dr Kun Guo, from the University of Lincoln’s School of Psychology, said: “Previous studies have indicated that dogs can differentiate between human emotions from cues such as facial expressions, but this is not the same as emotional recognition.
“Our study shows that dogs have the ability to integrate two different sources of sensory information into a coherent perception of emotion in both humans and dogs. To do so requires a system of internal categorisation of emotional states. This cognitive ability has until now only been evidenced in primates and the capacity to do this across species only seen in humans.”
Co-author Professor Daniel Mills, from the School of Life Sciences at the University of Lincoln, said: “It has been a long-standing debate whether dogs can recognise human emotions. Many dog owners report anecdotally that their pets seem highly sensitive to the moods of human family members.
“However, there is an important difference between associative behaviour, such as learning to respond appropriately to an angry voice, and recognising a range of very different cues that go together to indicate emotional arousal in another. Our findings are the first to show that dogs truly recognise emotions in humans and other dogs.
“Importantly, the dogs in our trials received no prior training or period of familiarisation with the subjects in the images or audio. This suggests that dogs' ability to combine emotional cues may be intrinsic. As a highly social species, such a tool would have been advantageous and the detection of emotion in humans may even have been selected for over generations of domestication by us.”

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Japan's Pet Rental Service! Check out this business cashing in on the bonds people have with man's best friend...

Apartment not big enough for a dog? Too busy for walkies? In crowded Tokyo you can rent a mutt for a few hours of wet noses and unconditional loving from Man's Best Friend.
Having a pet can really cheer a person up, but it can also have a much deeper impact than you might realize.
For seven-year-old Rino Kakinuma, surrounded by toy poodles and beagle pups, it is the perfect solution -- a fortnightly chance to play with her four-legged friends.
"She really likes dogs but our home is not suitable for pets," her father Shinji Kakinuma tells AFP.
"I was a bit sad for her so I looked for places where she could hang out with dogs."
Rina and her father are not alone.
The tightly packed Japanese capital can be a challenging place to keep a pet; even if your building managers allow animals, the average apartment is just 60 square metres (650 square feet) -- barely enough room to swing a cat.
That is where places like Dog Heart come in.
Just a few minutes' walk from Yoyogi Park, one of Tokyo's main green lungs, Dog Heart is part petting zoo and part rental shop.
Visitors can choose between sitting and stroking the more than 20 animals, or taking them for a walk around the park.
Half an hour of play-time costs 950 yen ($8), while 60 minutes of dog-walking will set you back 3,600 yen. Both can be extended for additional cost.
Since opening in 2012, owner Yukiko Tsuchiya, 50, says her business has been growing, with some clients coming in weekly.
Having a pet can really cheer a person up, but it can also have a much deeper impact than you might realize.
"In the suburbs, it is easier to get in contact with dogs, but in Tokyo, there is a demand for a places like this," she says.
"People bring their kids here, couples come for dates, men and women come on their own... and elderly people as well, because they feel too old to have a pet at home.
But not everyone is impressed.
The Japanese Coalition for Animal Welfare (JCAW), a campaign group, says dog rental shops subject animals to possible physical and psychological risks, such as mental stress from poor handling.
"The animals will no doubt be confused or frustrated with the wide variety of people that will come to the facility," JCAW head Koichi Aoki said.
"If any interaction is unacceptable to the animal they will display avoidance behaviour and may even be traumatised."
Dogs that go out for walks with paying clients might be forced to perform beyond their physical limits, possibly resulting in fatigue, lameness or inflammation of joints, he says.
Dog Heart's Tsuchiya says she is very careful to look after her animals, all of which, she says, are happy to be walked, petted and picked up.
"Some people worry that the dogs are exposed to too many people... but they were born in this environment so it is not a problem," says Tsuchiya.
"People say that it is stressful for the dogs, but when the weather is bad and no customers come, the dogs get bored.
"They are actually less stressed when the customers are here."

Sunday, March 1, 2015

What Makes a Great Sled Dog? Breed, Ambition, Tough Feet

What Makes a Great Sled Dog? Breed, Ambition, Tough Feet

A mixed heritage gives sled dogs their love of running, a desire to work, and a need for wild places.

Jane J. Lee
Picture of sled dog named Spur
Spur, Sultana’s brother, is a reliable leader who’s a pro at spotting bad ice.
Like many top athletes, Sultana trains hard and has no time for the shenanigans of younger teammates. But you won’t find her in a stadium.Sultana is a sled dog born and bred to work in the punishing winters of Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve, and she’s gearing up for another season on the trail.

Like Sultana—a trailbreaker who moves supplies for researchers and park staff—the animals competing in these races are a cut above your normal dog.
Right now, sled dogs around the world are busy preparing for the upcoming racing season or for jobs hauling equipment or tourists. Premier events like theIditarod, the Yukon Quest, or the International Pedigree Stage Stop kick off over the next couple of months, drawing as many as 1,300 dogs and thousands of people to frozen places from Alpine, Wyoming, to Nome, Alaska.
Contrary to popular belief, Siberian huskies or Alaskan malamutes are not the most popular sled dog breed. That spot belongs to the Alaskan husky, an unofficial breed with a hodge-podge heritage that’s custom-made for the rigors of racing and hauling.
Don’t let their scrappy looks fool you. Generations of breeding have produced animals that love to run, are capable of pulling hundreds of pounds through the snow, and that work together like a well-oiled machine.
Picture of sled dog named Sultana
Eight-year-old Sultana is one of the best lead dogs at the Denali National Park kennels.
The Crucial Ingredients
To breeders, sled dogs’ looks don’t matter as much as performance does. No matter the breed or whether they’re racers or freight-haulers, all these dogs have an insatiable need to go. Howard Thompson, a former racer who now breeds sled dogs near Mondovi, Wisconsin, calls it wanderlust. It’s the idea that “somewhere else is better,” he explains.
A healthy appetite is essential, Thompson adds. Long-distance sled dogs—those competing in events over 300 miles (483 kilometers) long—or freight-haulers like Sultana are out for days or weeks at a time. They can’t be finicky about their meals or prone to digestive issues, he says.
Sled dogs also need tough feet, says Charlotte Mooney, a racer and breeder in West Yellowstone, Montana. Racers can use booties to protect a dog’s paws, but the footwear slows the animals down, she says. Not ideal for sprint races—events less than 30 miles (48 kilometers) long—where dogs run full blast for the duration.
Leaders, Swing Dogs, and Wheel Dogs
Teamwork is also key. Attach a pack of “normal” dogs to a sled, and they’re not likely to go far before chaos ensues.
Lead dogs—the ones out in front—help maintain order. They execute a musher’s commands, set the team’s pace, and ensure everyone’s going in the right direction.
A good lead dog can also think for itself, says Jennifer Raffaeli, manager of Denali’s kennels. They must have the confidence to disobey if a musher’s commands will send them over bad ice or off a cliff. And it helps if they can keep the others in line. Sultana is part of the Denali kennel, and she’s one of Raffaeli’s best leaders.
She’s tough enough to keep the young males focused on work, Raffaeli says, and smart enough to take advantage of inexperienced drivers, or mushers.
When the blue-eyed, eight-year-old Alaskan husky wants a break, she’s been known to stop on a trail, turn around, and come back to the driver while dragging the rest of the team behind her. When Sultana is with an experienced driver, though, she’ll do whatever is asked of her, the kennel manager says.
Backing up lead dogs like Sultana are the swing dogs—positioned right behind the leaders. They help to turn the team left or right. Wheel dogs may be last in line, but they help to steer the sled. The good ones know to go wide on turns to guide the sled around trees and other obstacles, says Thompson.
The dogs in between the swing and wheel positions are called team dogs; they provide the muscle. Their job is to keep pulling until it’s time to stop.
“A Strong Dash of Greyhound”
That willingness to work is a hallmark of sled dogs. But Raffaeli, who breeds all the dogs the park uses, also looks for a sociable personality. The animals interact with visiting tourists during the summer months, so aggressive dogs just won’t do. (Watch how the park raises its puppies.)
A tendency toward aggression is likely one reason why Alaskan malamutes—historically used as sled dogs—have fallen out of favor with many racers, says Thompson, who used to use them. “They have a bad reputation in the sled dog community.”
They’re also slow. “If you want to come in last, race malamutes,” he says.
Siberian huskies, another iconic sledding breed, have also been overtaken. The Alaskan husky, which owes a good portion of its heritage to Siberian huskies and malamutes, are now the “premier” sled dog breed, Thompson explains.
The American Kennel Club doesn’t officially recognize the group, but Alaskan huskies are genetically distinct from purebreds, research has shown.
Breeders looking to boost speed mixed Alaskan huskies with German or English pointers, says Thompson, and added “a strong dash of greyhound.”
The “marathon” runners—including dogs running in the Iditarod—have some border collie, hound, or pointer mixed in, says Stuart Nelson, Jr., head veterinarian for the Iditarod.
Picture of summer sled dog demonstration
Denali’s sled dogs shift gears during the summer months, giving demonstrations and interacting with visiting tourists.
No matter the breed, though, most sled dogs seem happiest when out on the trail. And somehow, they’re able to communicate that love to the people they meet, says Raffaeli. “These dogs, even though they don’t speak, manage to communicate to our visitors about the importance of wild spaces.”

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Man's Best Friend: Photos From Around the World

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Rats Remember Who's Nice to Them—and Return the Favor

Rats Remember Who's Nice to Them—and Return the Favor

It's the first time scientists have found direct reciprocation in the animal kingdom.

Picture of brown rats emerging from a hole in a suburban yard
Norwegian rats emerge from a hole in Oregon.
Ralph Martins
Rats can remember acts of kindness by other rats—and treat them accordingly, a new study says.

While rats are known to cooperate and assist one another
, rewarding another rat for no immediate gain wasn't thought to be common behavior. (Also see"Rats Show Regret After Wrong Choices, Scientists Say.")In experiments, Norwegian rats were most helpful to individuals that had previously helped them—perhaps to try and secure their assistance again, scientists suggest.
In fact, a rat rewarding a fellow rat for help—an act called direct reciprocation—is a first among nonhumans, said study co-authorMichael Taborsky, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Bern in Switzerland.

Bananas, Please
The study was based on female captive Norwegian rats' preferences for two types of food: bananas and carrots. For these wild-type rats, bananas are a favorite—carrots, not so much.
In the experiment, each of a pair of rat helpers could deliver one of these tidbits to a rat in another enclosure by pulling on a stick. (Watch a video of rats at night.)
Eventually, the receiving rat would recognize each helper as either a high-quality helper (if it delivered bananas) or a low-quality helper (if it delivered carrots).
Then, scientists switched the rats' places, so the rats on the receiving end were now able to pull on a stick that would deliver cereal flakes to a certain helper.
The rats that had given bananas generally received cereal more quickly and more often than carrot-givers. In the same vein, the rats that had given carrots got cereal less often than the banana-givers did.

Brainy Rats?
But are the rats really rewarding helpers for their generosity?
Researcher Taborsky thinks so, adding that the rats are making a simple association.
"Two elements are involved: recognizing an individual, and responding to the quality of service," Taborsky says.
The latter, he says, is evident from previously known behavior—rats will flock to good feeding spots, for example. And recognition, he points out, is widely documented in many species, including rats. (See "Rat Made Supersmart-Similar Boost Unsafe in Humans?")
Since Norwegian rats exchange favors, a desire to reward others—and perhaps to ensure more exchanges in the future—"might not be as complex as we think," says Taborsky.
An even simpler explanation is that the rats simply "associate the [helper] with the preferred food," Thomas Zentall, an animal behaviorist at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, said in an email.
That is, the rat associates bananas with the presence of the banana-giver, and thinks pulling on the stick when the banana-giver is present might bring bananas.
But Taborsky argues this isn't the case, since it's known that rats can tellthey're delivering food to another rat, not themselves.
In his view, rats clearly use the quality of service they receive to determine how much they give back.
Wonder what that says about their tipping habits?

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Saturday, February 14, 2015

Many Animals—Including Your Dog—May Have Horrible Short-Term Memories

National Geographic Article:

Picture of a girl with a dog on a farm in Australia
Dogs may be glad to see an old friend, but they won't remember when they last saw her—they forget events within two minutes.
James Owen
The next time your dog happily greets an old friend, remember this: Your pup likely can't remember the last time they met.
A recent investigation of short-term memory suggests animals don't remember specific events much at all—instead, they store away useful information about what could help them survive.We often say someone has "a memory like an elephant," or, if it's a forgetful person, "a goldfish." But in comparing our memory with that of animals, what's the truth? (Read "Animal Minds" in National Geographic magazine.)
Covering 25 species that ranged from dolphins to bees, the study found the average short-term memory span of animals was 27 seconds (which was the midway point before the memory is lost), according to a team led by Johan Lind, an ethologist at the Centre for the Study of Cultural Evolution at Stockholm University, Sweden. (See "Dolphins Have Longest Memories in Animal Kingdom.")
Dogs forget an event within two minutes. Chimpanzees, at around 20 seconds, are worse than rats at remembering things, while the memory spans of three other primates—baboons, pig—tailed macaques, and squirrel monkeys—exceeded only bees (the sole study participant that wasn't either a mammal or a bird).
Since chimps are our closest living relatives, Lind said he was surprised by their poor performance. It suggests human capacity for memory evolved after we branched from the most recent shared ancestor with chimps, over six million years ago.
Reported in late 2014 in the journal Behavioural Processes, the findings drew on data from almost a hundred studies of captive animals that used a memory test of recent random events known as the delayed matching-to-sample (or DMTS) method.
In this test, an animal is typically shown a visual stimulus such as a red circle. The red circle disappears, then, after a delay, it's shown again with another sample stimulus—a blue square, say. The animal, usually with the incentive of a food reward, has to select the original sample it saw.
Compared with animals, humans find this type of test a breeze—we pick the correct sample effortlessly after 48 hours or more, studies have shown. (Also see "A Message From Your Brain: I'm Not Good At Remembering What I Hear.")
"The data tell us that animals have no long-term memory of arbitrary events," Lind said. Based on the new study, "we think humans' ability to remember arbitrary events is unique."

Memories Not Created Equal
This ability is also called episodic memory, and it allows us to remember almost any occurrence, however trivial, for long periods.
"We experience this daily when we remember where we parked the car or that we have to pay a bill next week," Lind said.
While there are plenty of examples of animals with long memories—elephants never forgetting a face, the cat that's scared of the pet carrier after a past visit to the vet, swallows returning to last summer's nest—they aren't using episodic memory, according to Lind.
Such cases "are due to associative memories," he says. They're not based on "memories of specific events. In the second case, the cat associates the carrier with danger. Such memories are very robust and will stay for a long time—for life—in animals."
That's because animals may have specialized memory systems hardwired to remember certain "biologically relevant information" (such as where to find food), the study authors proposed.
Take the example of the western scrub jay, a food-caching bird whose ability to remember and choose between its buried stores has been reported as evidence of episodic-like memory in animals. (See "Bird-Brained Jays Can Plan for the Future.")
But, said Lind, "if these scrub jays had an episodic memory, as humans do, they would have no problem solving the matching-to-sample experiment."
The scrub jays' performance in the experiment is really no different than that of other birds, however. Their "memory will decay within half a minute," he said. (See pictures of animals that are smarter than you think.)
Picture of a western scrub jay
Scrub jays like the one above can remember where they hid their food, but their short term memories aren't great, according to researchers.

Mental Time Travel
Scientists see this memory distinction as key to trying to understand what mental skills we share with other animals and what's unique about the human mind. (Read about the amazing human memory in National Geographic magazine.)
"The study of episodic memory is crucial, since it is still under debate whether other animals can retrieve memories of personal past events in the same way humans do," Gema Martin-Ordas, who studies animal and human cognition at Newcastle University's Institute of Neuroscience in England, said in an email.
"For example, I remember that I went for a run to the park yesterday, and I am perfectly aware that this memory is part of my personal past experience," said Martin-Ordas, who wasn't involved in the new study.
Given our current knowledge, however, "it might be too early to argue that humans are the only ones who are able to mentally travel back and forward in time," she added. (See this interactive: "Mapping Memory in 3-D.")
Martin-Ordas's own research has found evidence that great apes do remember episodic-like details for days and even years, noted Victoria Templer, a psychologist at Providence College in Rhode Island.
Both researchers urged caution in interpreting the results of the new study.
As the study authors themselves observed, "some species or individuals might adjust well to a laboratory environment, and some may not," Templer said.
For instance, it could be that chimpanzees recollected worse than rats in the DMTS experiments because the rats had more training in the memory task.
But if the short-term memory spans of chimps and other primates really are as mediocre as the DMTS tests indicate, "the study reminds us that evolution is not a unidirectional ladder of improvement with humans at the top and apes close behind," Templer said.
That's something for us humans to remember—we might not be as smart as we like to think.

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