Thoughts on “Dogs Decoded”

Dogs Decoded, PBS Nova documentary

The other night, Guion was out for a poetry gathering and I didn’t really feel like reading Muriel Spark, so I decided to watch the PBS Nova documentary, “Dogs Decoded,” which is conveniently on Netflix instant view.

Because I’ve done so much reading about recent dog research, I’d already heard about many of the studies and stories included in this 53-minute documentary (like Betsy the border collie, the fox breeding program in Siberia, and the research of Duke University professor Brian Hare). But it was really exciting to get to see some of these dogs in action, meet the Siberian foxes, and watch Hare and other researchers demonstrate how dogs followed humans’ visual cues–in a way that chimpanzees couldn’t.

In short, I LOVED this documentary. I want to watch it again right now and I especially want Guion to watch it with me. There were four stories in particular that grabbed my interest.

First, the discovery that dogs look to the left side of our faces. This seems like an uninteresting detail. Yet, scientists have found this to be incredibly significant. By studying the facial expressions of humans, researchers concluded that we do not show our feelings symmetrically on our faces. Rather, the left side of our face tends to show a more accurate depiction of our emotion. (Sounds really odd, but the film shows composite photographs that demonstrates how this is true.) The connection that is fascinating is that when dogs look at a human’s face, they almost always tend to look at our left side first. What’s so unusual about this is that dogs don’t do this with other dogs, other animals, or objects: it’s just with people. This indicates that dogs have developed a unique ability to read the emotions of humans–an ability that surely advanced the dog’s ascent as one of the oldest and most trusted domesticated animals.

Second, Betsy, OMG, Betsy. Betsy the unbelievable Austrian border collie. Betsy got worldwide attention before Chaser, the South Carolina border collie who was trained to recognize an astounding 1,000 words. Betsy’s verbal repetoire is perhaps not as advanced as Chaser’s, but we found her first. “Dogs Decoded” visits Betsy’s home in Austria where her owner, a woman who prefers to remain anonymous, shows us Betsy’s ability. Like Chaser, Betsy can correctly identify objects by name–much like a 2-year-old human child–without any verbal or physical cues from her handler. I’ve seen dogs do this before and it still blows my mind every time–but what absolutely knocked my socks off was what the visiting researcher asked Betsy to do. The researcher wanted to know if, like a toddler, Betsy had the ability to understand that a photograph of an object was a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional thing. Betsy’s owner said she’d never tried this before with Betsy and didn’t think it would work. The researcher holds up a picture of a black-and-white chew toy to Betsy and the dog looks at it intently. She gives her a command to find it and off Betsy goes–and brings back the object from the picture. That’s amazing. I think I cursed out loud when I saw it; that’s how impressed I was.

Third, I was fascinated by the study done by eastern European (Hungarian?) researchers who raised puppies and wolves from infancy. Drawing from the premise that dogs and wolves are 99.98% genetically similar, the scientists wanted to know if you raised a baby wolf as a dog if it would then become like a dog, i.e., domestic. First, the scientists hand-raised puppies. The puppies lived in their homes, slept in their beds, etc. After they raised a litter of puppies this way, the researchers raised a litter of wolf cubs in the same way. At first, the wolves didn’t seem much different from the puppies. The wolves snuggled up to them when they took them outside, their play seemed to resemble the play of puppies, and so forth. But by the time they hit seven or eight weeks, it became clear that these wolves were not going to magically become dogs.

One of the most striking examples of this difference was a test with puppies and wolf cubs of the same age in a controlled environment. In separate rooms, the puppy and the wolf cub are both introduced to a foreign object (a robotic toy dog that barks). The puppy is curious and goes up to sniff it; the wolf cubs shrink back in fear and try to claw their way out of the room. Next, the researchers test to see if the puppy and wolf cub will respond to a human’s physical cues. The puppies make eye contact with the humans and seem to easily follow the human’s hand signal to a cup on the floor. The wolves, however, never make eye contact with the humans and try to run away. Later, the film jumps to one of the researchers with an adolescent wolf in her home. This animal is a total menace–leaping on counters, trying to knock her over, totally unresponsive to her correction–and can hardly be trusted indoors, even though he was raised in the home with this woman. Wolves are not dogs and dogs are not wolves; don’t try to treat one like the other (ahem, Elizabeth Marshall Thomas!).

Fourth, I’ve read many times about the decades-old silver fox breeding program in Siberia. I loved being able to actually see these foxes and the dramatic changes in their appearance over time. I think this is one of the most fascinating studies ever. When the program started, researchers decided to selectively breed foxes for friendliness toward humans. In the first few litters, only 1% of the fox cubs didn’t react aggressively or fearfully toward humans. This 1% became the foundation of the “tame” breeding program. Tame foxes were bred to other tame foxes and so on.

By the eighth generation of tame foxes, some very interesting changes started to occur. Coat colors began to change dramatically. The originally black and dark gray foxes started developing white patches, spots, and stripes. Some cub’s ears never perked up but stayed floppy. Limbs were shortened. The foxes were physically adapting to domestication; they were evolving to be cuter, more appealing to humans–just like the domesticated dog. This totally blows my mind. If you’re interested, you can now apparently order your own tame fox from this Russian breeding program for a mere $6,950.

I loved this film and I highly recommend it to anyone with even a basic interest in dogs. It will make you look at your dog in a totally different and appreciative way. If you don’t have Netflix and you want to watch this film, mark your calendar for November 15, 2011, when it’s airing on PBS.

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