Friday, January 10, 2014

Whooza good gurrrrrl? Whoozmai bayyyy-bee boy?

I think we should stop feeling sheepish about treating our dogs like kids. After all, blurring the line between dogs and people is not exactly new to just the sickos of our modern world.
One of these sickos with @ElroyBeefstu
Many cultures, across space and time, made wolves and dogs the stars of their origin myths. Their human origin myths. Canids weren't just nursing the infant founders of Rome, they were actually part of some peoples' conception too. [For more check out a great read by Marion Schwartz.]

Sure, sometimes the same people that lifted dogs up chowed down on them too. Long the fate of Chow Chows, dog meat's been a big hit on myriad ancient menus. We could even make the case that Paleo Dieters should put Spot on a spit. [Aside: Paleo Dieters should also try second harvest if they're earnest, but that's even less likely to catch on than literal hot dogs.]

Anyhow, this dog-crazed world that's gone to the dogs, head over heels for the dogs, didn't just poof out of the blue.

Without a legacy of dog obsession we wouldn't have them as they are now. Even if the first tens of thousands of years of their domestication was mostly unintentional, our enduring relationship with dogs was a natural precursor to this:

Evolving right alongside the pop culture popularity of dogs is the flourishing scientific interest in them. Part of that has to do with the simple fact that they're built to cooperate with human experimenters, like with this dog swimming study going swimmingly. And this reminds me of a story I read a while ago (not here but this is where I relocated it) in which a dog that's so eager to please lifts her paw to shake with the human carting her off to be vivisected.

Aw. Sorry. Let's pause and shake out those bad thoughts....
source, with so many more
OK. Much better.

It's thanks to the enthusiastic dissemination of the increasing amount of dog research that, for example, I could learn about the dog visual spectrum when I was curious and googled for it:
Source and here too
See? All those red chew toys for Rover are much more visually appetizing to the primates who purchase them.

Also, not too long ago, I learned via Twitter...
... that when the magnetic fields aren't obscured by clouds, pooping dogs seem to align with the north and south poles. Creates a great opportunity to use "polar vortex" on a daily basis.

It's the behavioral studies that seem to get so much play in the media, especially the cognitive ones and the ones that speak to our relationship with dogs. And I'm a sucker for all those but I'm an even bigger sucker for the evolutionary ones. The ones that do all that but also try to help tell our co-evolutionary tale.

And one of these that really sucked me in is, "Paedomorphic Facial Expressions Give Dogs a Selective Advantage" by Waller et al.

It's such a well-written piece and so simple... too simple, perhaps, but they acknowledge it well and they don't overstate their findings.

The group of researchers wanted to know whether dogs make faces* that are more or less attractive to humans. They were particularly interested in any facial expressions that might enhance the already paedomorphic faces of many dogs--a trait traditionally blamed on selection for cuteness and selection against aggression that's supposedly genetically linked to dog face, head, and ear morphology.

They developed a tool to objectively observe doggie facial musculature changes on film, based on one already in use for humans (FACS --> DogFACS). To collect the data on their dog sample, they stood fairly neutrally outside each enclosure at an adoption shelter and filmed each animal under these conditions for two minutes. To minimize the confounding effects of vastly different dog breed craniofacial morphology, they stuck to one group: the bulls and bull mixes. This was probably also the breed group with the biggest sample size at the shelter. Just a hunch.

Then, they waited to see how long these dogs had to wait to get adopted. That was the measure of human preference or "selection." It's not perfect; one could think of many things that could factor into the time a dog stays in a shelter. But the authors make a strong case for how this is as close to a proxy for selection in our co-evolutionary history as we might get as humans interested in reconstructing that history. We're talking about all that history where we weren't actively breeding short-legged corgis, but instead just co-existing with dogs.

Lip pucker, lip corner puller, nose wrinkler, eye closure, blink, mouth stretch, jaw drop: These are some of the expressions they captured but none so much as the inner brow raiser. It's the face you make when you flex your medial frontalis and that a dog makes when flexing its levator anguli occuli medialis. This trait was the focus of the paper. The authors say that by raising the inner brow, a dog's eyes appear larger which is more puppylike, more paedomorphic. This simple maneuver also reveals their white sclera--tissue that's long been assumed an important signal for non-verbal communication among our kind.

Elroy's doing it more, but we're both raising our inner brows and showing our sclera.
Therefore, you want to adopt us. 
The code for inner brow raise is AU101 and here's how the data per dog plot out.  X-axis shows AU101 frequency during filming and y-axis is the length of time on the adoption market.
Figure 2 from Waller et al.
"Relationship between frequency of AU101 and days before re-homing in the dog shelter.
Curved line shows the power estimation."
A quick glance shows an apparent pattern in which dogs that make this facial expression more frequently are adopted faster. And that could be the case, but with this small sample it's not a strong case. If we remove only those five dogs in the blue circle that I slapped on there, it's not much of a relationship at all. Still, the paper acknowledges this in so many ways and the whole paper just makes so much sense I can't even be mad about the sample size.

You might not be mad either if you ever adopted a dog from a shelter or if this passage from the end of the article speaks to you:
In humans, the equivalent facial movement to AU101 is AU1(inner brow raiser), which features heavily in human sadness expressions [20]. It is possible, therefore, that human adopters were responding not to paedomorphism, but instead to perceived sadness in the dogs looking for adoption.
Guilty as charged. This is the sad, pensive face I saw standing behind the bars at the shelter. All the other dogs were hurling themselves towards me and this little girl stood back and did this:

My sweet sad-faced Murphy.
Sure I could have been homing in on her paedomorphic expression and only overlaid my perception of her sad, thoughtful nature which was also so appealing, but they could be all part of the same phenomenon.

Here's the rest of that paragraph from the paper, to round out the discussion about other explanations besides a preference for straight-up cuteness or paedomorphy with this facial expression:
However, it is also possible that the human sadness expression is itself derived from paedomorphism, and that sadness is attributed to this specific facial movement because it enhances paedomorphism and thus perceived vulnerability. Another possibility is that humans are responding to the increase in white sclera exposed in the dogs as the orbital cavity is stretched through AU101 action. Visibile sclera is a largely unique human trait [27] (which likely contributes to our extensive gaze following abilities) and people are more likely to cooperate or behave altruistically when exposed to cues of being watched [28], [29]. It is unclear, however, whether it is the sclera specifically or simply the presence of eyes per se which has such a powerful affect on human behavior and attention, and so this is more a complimentary hypotheses as opposed to an alternative.
So her white sclera guilted me into taking her home. Maybe that's what it was. The Eckleberg Effect.
Something tells me I'm using this symbol wrong here. But forgive me, I didn't read this with a teacher to tell me how to interpret it.

Whatever it is, it worked then and she still looks like this and it still works on me. 

In closing, I'm wondering whether these expressions are simple and genetic, or are enhanced by positive conditioning during life. It's unclear from this paper, but that's a whole other paper (or career). I wish this paper included a survey with the study, asking the humans who adopted these particular dogs, Why? And, of course, the tiny elephant in the room is that all these dogs were taken home by somebody eventually... so is this as good a proxy for selection over evolutionary time as we're tempted to think it is? I'm not sure. I haven't let this sit with me for long enough and clearly I'm way too excited about how it explains my own adoption story, with Murphy, at least with so many related options. I feel psychoanalyzed. It's thrilling! I'm just glad I wasn't asked to review this paper. What a conflict of interest!

On a final note. It's often said that humans are self-domesticated, or just plain domesticated, animals. And within that discussion we talk about how we're cute and have especially cute babies because we preferred them and cared for them and hence they were able to survive and replicate their cuteness. But doing that to dogs, which are without a doubt domesticated, is a bit different from doing that to ourselves don't you think? 

Taking credit for dog cuteness--be it their facial expressions or the way their structures scream squeeee! when they're puppies and into adulthood--seems not unreasonable given what we've  untinentionally and then intentionally done to dogs recently, happily encouraging breeding in some and snippily discouraging breeding in others. 

But to take credit for our own cuteness the way some of the just-so stories answer 'why are babies cute'... that's a little harder for me to fathom. Instead the best explanation for why babies are cute seems to be not that they are inherently so, but that our perceptions of their cuteness are inherently so. If we didn't behold them as adorable, lovable little creatures, we might be in trouble given how long they depend on us before they make cute little adorable creatures for themselves. And it's these perceptions that we can redirect as preferences onto other creatures, spreading our love all over the wild kingdom, but mainly, for now, all over dogs.

*If you misread "dogs make faeces" here you're not alone. That dog-poop-polar-alignment story really sticks!**
** If you read that as "really stinks!" then you and I need to find the same shrink.


Anne Buchanan said...

Beautiful tribute to Elroy and Murphy. (And, yes, I think I want to adopt you!)

Holly Dunsworth said...

Thanks Anne :) :)
I let my freak flag fly a little higher than normal with this one and I justified it to myself, totally post hoc, as a literary device--the effect of the article on me nicely mirrored the effect that dog faces have on us.

Ken Weiss said...

Arf! Arf! Rrrrraaaarf!
{Translation: thanks, Holly. We like the way you raise your eyebrows and wiggle the tip of your nose. Not all humans do that }

Ken Weiss said...

Apparently this was sent by some of our kennel friends (not by me, despite the apparent source).

Holly Dunsworth said...

It was so kind of them to chime in!