Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Genetically Poor Predators (except when it's a squeaky toy)

I was doing dishes this afternoon with the patio door open and the dogs puttering in and out, when I realized it'd been awfully quiet for a while.  I went into the backyard to investigate and found Daisy fussing over something in the grass.  It was a dead mole, its wet fur plastered to its fat little body on one side.  Once Daisy saw that I was just a passive observer, she went back to what she was doing: nibbling at its fur, then pawing at the mole and thrusting at its body with her nose.

Why didn't she eat it?  If she was playing with it, why didn't she rip it open and pull out all the innards, like she spends hours doing with her stuffed toys?

Ray Coppinger, in his book Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution, says that perhaps our domestic dogs have lost part of their genetic code, the part that says "chase prey, then grab prey, then bite prey, then eat prey."  More or less.  He postulates that certain elements of the sequence have been added or lost, depending on what humans wanted dogs to do.  For example, what good is a retriever that retrieves a half-eaten duck?  Not much...  Thus, hunters bred retrieving dogs who would "chase, grab" but not "bite, kill, eat."  Border collies and other herding dogs have a special sequence of genetic code that says "eye-stalk, chase," the eye-stalk being that special lowered-head glare they use to intimidate the flock.

So what does that mean for Daisy?  Maybe that, as a (very) mixed-breed dog, she's retained the entire predatory sequence...except for "eat"?

But why, then, does she rip apart (essentially, play-eat) her stuffed toys?  One answer might lie in the sometimes-bizarre, sometimes-hilarious area of genetic drift.  Some genes get passed on kind of accidentally--that is, by chance--not because they help the animal survive or procreate, or do much of anything important.  This phenomenon is what causes dogs to spend an inordinately long time scratching a "nest" in a smooth couch cushion before laying down.  It would make sense in a pile of leaves, grass, or snow, but what the heck good does it do on the couch?  It's just a mostly-useless genetic remnant of a behavior that used to be very important, maybe even life-saving, to dogs (or wolves, or a missing link between them), but nowadays doesn't hurt (or help) dogs' chances for survival.

We're still anxiously awaiting a lot more research in the field of dog behavior.  At this point, it's hard to say much for sure.  Except rest in peace, Mr. Mole.  And Daisy: please don't lick my face for a couple of hours.

Friday, January 14, 2011

New Shelter Standards of Care Guidelines

Finally, from the Association of Shelter Veterinarians, Guidelines for Standards of Care in Animal Shelters!

A few excerpts that resonated with me:

"(T)here can be a large gap between adequate care and deficiencies serious enough to prosecute under existing cruelty statutes. This leaves the possibility that substantial numbers of animals will live in substandard conditions within organizations expected to protect animal welfare. In some cases, the organizations that are at fault for providing inappropriate or negligent care are governed by the same entity that investigates animal cruelty, creating a conflict of interest.  ...

Many factors can alter the capacity for care. For example, loss of animal care staff, or malfunctioning enclosures, can temporarily decrease the capacity for care until such time as new persons are hired and appropriately trained, or enclosures are repaired or replaced. Operating beyond an organization’s capacity for care is an unacceptable practice.  ...

Ideally, shelters should maintain their populations below maximum housing capacity to allow for daily intake as well as more flexibility when choosing appropriate enclosures for each animal. Maximum housing capacity must not be exceeded. Even though enclosures may be available, it may be necessary to leave some empty due to other constraints on capacity for care (e.g., staffing levels and opportunities for enrichment).  ...

Organizations that develop their own evaluation should do so in consultation with a veterinarian or behaviorist familiar with the science and theory of behavior assessment.  ...

Enrichment should be given the same significance as other components of animal care, such as nutrition and veterinary care, and should not be considered optional (ILAR 1996). At a minimum, animals must be provided regular social contact, mental stimulation and physical activity (ILAR 1996). For some animals, social needs may be partially fulfilled through interaction with members of the same species.  ...

Training programs for dogs and cats (e.g., to condition or teach basic obedience commands or tricks) also serve as an important source of stimulation and social contact (Griffin 2009a; Laule 2003; Thorn 2006). For dogs, such training has been shown to increase chances for re-homing (Leuscher 2008). Training methods must be based primarily on positive reinforcement in accordance with current professional guidelines (APDT 2003; AVSAB 2007; Delta Society 2001). ...  Sufficient resources (e.g., trained staff, time for behavioral treatment, adequate housing and working space) must be available to provide appropriate care if behavioral modification is attempted. The techniques required are generally labor-intensive and time-consuming and must be applied consistently over a period of time in order to be successful."