Thursday, September 29, 2011


Thinking Doggie-Style
Has our long shared history with dogs shaped their brains - and ours?
By David Hambling
December 2010

Photo by Etienne Gilfillan


A common – if unlikely – claim made by dog owners is: “He understands every word you say.” But scientists are increasingly finding that it might be truer than you think. The evidence suggests that the two species have moulded each other over a long period of co-evolution, and have developed sophisticated communications in the process.

Arch├Žological findings show that dogs were first domesticated at least 10,000 years ago, with one find at the Goyet Cave in Belgium recorded in 2008 possibly pushing that back to 30,000 years. Genetic studies indicate that the process of domestication that split dogs from wolves may date as far back as 100,000 years. And the relationship may have started long before that, as some arch├Žological finds put humans and wolves in the same place 400,000 years ago.

The aptly named biologist Wolfgang Schleidt suggests that the two came together in Northern Europe at a time when humans – either Homo sapiens or the earlier H.erectus or H.heidelbergensis – existed in small nomadic groups. Humans joined wolves in their following of migratory reindeer, and the two races of hunter-scavengers started working together.

The success of the wolf pack hinges on the members’ ability to work together without conflict and share the kill. Recent work with dogs shows that they have a sense of ‘fair play’, previously thought to be limited to primates. The experiment at the University of Vienna involved training dogs to extend a paw. The dogs were happy to perform this trick with or without a reward when on their own. But if they were with another dog which received a reward when they did not, the dogs quickly refused to play.

We don’t know yet whether wolves share this attitude. Some have suggested that dogs became attuned to fairness as an adaptation for living with humans. This seems questionable: the phrase “a dog’s life” dates back to the 17th century, meaning “a life of misery, or of miserable subservience”.

Perhaps humans gained their own notions of fairness from their companions during the period when the two worked together. Wolfgang Schleidt sugg­ests that “wolves and dogs, with their remarkable capacity for co-operation and loyalty, were both role models and companions on this long trek toward humanity.”[1]

Sherlock Holmes once noted the curious silence of a dog, which failed to bark in the night (clear evidence to the great detective that an intruder was known to the dog). However, what is really curious is that dogs bark at all. Barking is rare among wolves, whose vocal commun­ications are generally howls or growls. Barking appears to have been evolved to talk to people.

Barking is more effective at getting human attention than growling. Peter Pongracz, a behavioural biologist at Eotvos University in Budapest, has shown that the pattern of barking is different for aggression, loneliness and happiness. Pongracz’s team recorded hundreds of different barks from different situations. Not only were the barks consistently differ­ent depending on the dog’s emotional state, but even people who had never owned a dog were able to correctly interpret them. Our long association with them means that understanding dogs is hardwired into the human psyche.

Humans and dogs also share the ability to follow a gaze or gesture to see what someone else is looking at or indicating. This is very unusual in nature – even chimpanzees have trouble with pointing tasks. However, the same team at Eotvos University also showed that dogs are capable of following both gaze and pointing. This should not come as any great surprise when you consider what Pointers are bred to do. Wolves are also capable of learning the same tricks, but it is much harder for them: unlike dogs they are not used to looking at humans.

Again, it would be interesting to know if pointing or gaze-following is a natural skill in wolves that humans – being mere primates and a bit slow – gradually acquired over time.

Dogs also read human facial expressions. A team at the University of Lincoln has found that dogs show what is termed ‘left gaze bias’. This is the tend­ency, when looking at a human face, to look left (i.e. at the right-hand side of the face) first, and to spend more time looking at this side. Left gaze bias has already been established as a human trait and only occurs when looking at faces. The reason for it is that emotions register more clearly and more intensely on the right side of the face. And dogs have been around humans long enough to have face-reading in their genes.

However, while it might seem that dogs and humans have evolved to understand each other very well, there is one huge gap. Children under the age of five have very little understanding of dog body language or barks and can’t tell a happy dog from an angry one. An excited child may try to hug this big fluffy toy, with disastrous results. Dogs and small children should always be supervised; possibly ancient humans didn’t leave children alone with dogs the way their modern descendents are prone to. Or perhaps evolution still has some work to do.

So far, research into dog-human communication has only scratched the surface; but the indications are that, even if they don’t catch every word, dogs understand us very well indeed because they shaped our brains as we shaped theirs.

1 WM Schleidt: “Apes

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Do dogs recognize death?

Last night as I was walking the two hounds, Xerxes and Emmy, we happened upon the corpse of a raven. This is the story of what happened during that 4 minute adventure.

Xerxes was the first to spot, approach and sniff the carcass. The bird was laying prostrate on it's back, talons clenched. Xerxes approached with apprehension and gingerly sniffed, ready to spring back at a moments notice. He sniffed the dead bird an moved on.

Emmy, on the other hand, showed a great deal of apprehension and caution. She crept over carefully, ready to spring back...but with even greater fright, as if she was approaching something quite dangerous. Finally she sniffed the corpse once and that's when the surprise kicked in. Emmy started nosing pine needles over the body in a very delicate and ginger manner. She very carefully and thoroughly covered the bird in pine needles, maneuvering herself all the way around the critter to do so. Only after the bird was completely buried did Emmy walk away from the raven.

Why is this event unusual, one may ask. It stood out in my mind because I have been reading a great deal about self-awareness, consciousness, language and even the recognition of death among different species of animals. So this event leads me to the questions:

What was the purpose of this burying behavior?

Was Emmy saving this bird for a future meal?

Did Emmy recognize that the bird was dead and in decay, thus needing to be covered to prevent other scavengers from entering the area?

Why was Xerxes reaction completely different than Emmy's reaction?

Were her actions altruistic? Was she showing some sort of inter-species respect for this animal? (She has encountered dead and dying squirrels before and never performed this behavior.)

Thursday, September 08, 2011

What teachers really want to tell parentS

What teachers really want to tell parents

(CNN) -- This summer, I met a principal who was recently named as the administrator of the year in her state. She was loved and adored by all, but she told me she was leaving the profession.
I screamed, "You can't leave us," and she quite bluntly replied, "Look, if I get an offer to lead a school system of orphans, I will be all over it, but I just can't deal with parents anymore; they are killing us."
Unfortunately, this sentiment seems to be becoming more and more prevalent. Today, new teachers remain in our profession an average of just 4.5 years, and many of them list "issues with parents" as one of their reasons for throwing in the towel. Word is spreading, and the more negativity teachers receive from parents, the harder it becomes to recruit the best and the brightest out of colleges.
So, what can we do to stem the tide? What do teachers really need parents to understand?
For starters, we are educators, not nannies. We are educated professionals who work with kids every day and often see your child in a different light than you do. If we give you advice, don't fight it. Take it, and digest it in the same way you would consider advice from a doctor or lawyer. I have become used to some parents who just don't want to hear anything negative about their child, but sometimes if you're willing to take early warning advice to heart, it can help you head off an issue that could become much greater in the future.
Trust us. At times when I tell parents that their child has been a behavior problem, I can almost see the hairs rise on their backs. They are ready to fight and defend their child, and it is exhausting. One of my biggest pet peeves is when I tell a mom something her son did and she turns, looks at him and asks, "Is that true?" Well, of course it's true. I just told you. And please don't ask whether a classmate can confirm what happened or whether another teacher might have been present. It only demeans teachers and weakens the partnership between teacher and parent.
Please quit with all the excuses
The truth is, a lot of times it's the bad teachers who give the easiest grades, because they know by giving good grades everyone will leave them alone.
Ron Clark
And if you really want to help your children be successful, stop making excuses for them. I was talking with a parent and her son about his summer reading assignments. He told me he hadn't started, and I let him know I was extremely disappointed because school starts in two weeks.
His mother chimed in and told me that it had been a horrible summer for them because of family issues they'd been through in July. I said I was so sorry, but I couldn't help but point out that the assignments were given in May. She quickly added that she was allowing her child some "fun time" during the summer before getting back to work in July and that it wasn't his fault the work wasn't complete.
Can you feel my pain?
Some parents will make excuses regardless of the situation, and they are raising children who will grow into adults who turn toward excuses and do not create a strong work ethic. If you don't want your child to end up 25 and jobless, sitting on your couch eating potato chips, then stop making excuses for why they aren't succeeding. Instead, focus on finding solutions.
Parents, be a partner instead of a prosecutor
And parents, you know, it's OK for your child to get in trouble sometimes. It builds character and teaches life lessons. As teachers, we are vexed by those parents who stand in the way of those lessons; we call them helicopter parents because they want to swoop in and save their child every time something goes wrong. If we give a child a 79 on a project, then that is what the child deserves. Don't set up a time to meet with me to negotiate extra credit for an 80. It's a 79, regardless of whether you think it should be a B+.
This one may be hard to accept, but you shouldn't assume that because your child makes straight A's that he/she is getting a good education. The truth is, a lot of times it's the bad teachers who give the easiest grades, because they know by giving good grades everyone will leave them alone. Parents will say, "My child has a great teacher! He made all A's this year!"
Wow. Come on now. In all honesty, it's usually the best teachers who are giving the lowest grades, because they are raising expectations. Yet, when your children receive low scores you want to complain and head to the principal's office.
Please, take a step back and get a good look at the landscape. Before you challenge those low grades you feel the teacher has "given" your child, you might need to realize your child "earned" those grades and that the teacher you are complaining about is actually the one that is providing the best education.
And please, be a partner instead of a prosecutor. I had a child cheat on a test, and his parents threatened to call a lawyer because I was labeling him a criminal. I know that sounds crazy, but principals all across the country are telling me that more and more lawyers are accompanying parents for school meetings dealing with their children.
Teachers walking on eggshells
I feel so sorry for administrators and teachers these days whose hands are completely tied. In many ways, we live in fear of what will happen next. We walk on eggshells in a watered-down education system where teachers lack the courage to be honest and speak their minds. If they make a slight mistake, it can become a major disaster.
My mom just told me a child at a local school wrote on his face with a permanent marker. The teacher tried to get it off with a wash cloth, and it left a red mark on the side of his face. The parent called the media, and the teacher lost her job. My mom, my very own mother, said, "Can you believe that woman did that?"
I felt hit in the gut. I honestly would have probably tried to get the mark off as well. To think that we might lose our jobs over something so minor is scary. Why would anyone want to enter our profession? If our teachers continue to feel threatened and scared, you will rob our schools of our best and handcuff our efforts to recruit tomorrow's outstanding educators.
Finally, deal with negative situations in a professional manner.
If your child said something happened in the classroom that concerns you, ask to meet with the teacher and approach the situation by saying, "I wanted to let you know something my child said took place in your class, because I know that children can exaggerate and that there are always two sides to every story. I was hoping you could shed some light for me." If you aren't happy with the result, then take your concerns to the principal, but above all else, never talk negatively about a teacher in front of your child. If he knows you don't respect her, he won't either, and that will lead to a whole host of new problems.
We know you love your children. We love them, too. We just ask -- and beg of you -- to trust us, support us and work with the system, not against it. We need you to have our backs, and we need you to give us the respect we deserve. Lift us up and make us feel appreciated, and we will work even harder to give your child the best education possible.
That's a teacher's promise, from me to you

Why some Languages Sound So Fast


Slow Down! Why Some Languages Sound So Fast
By Jeffrey Kluger Thursday, Sept. 08, 2011

Read more:,8599,2091477,00.html#ixzz1XMPaNWb8

Here's one of the least-interesting paragraphs you've ever read: "Last night I opened the front door to let the cat out. It was such a beautiful night that I wandered down to the garden to get a breath of fresh air. Then I heard a click as the door closed behind me."
OK, it becomes a little less eye-glazing after that, with the speaker getting arrested while trying to force the door back open. Still, we ain't talking Noel Coward here. All the same, this perfectly ordinary passage and a few others like it are part of an intriguing study just published in the journal Language — a study that answers one of the longest-standing questions about human speech.
(Read why speaking more than one language may delay Alzheimer's.)
It's an almost universal truth that any language you don't understand sounds like it's being spoken at 200 miles per hour — a storm of alien syllables almost impossible to tease apart. That, we tell ourselves, is simply because the words make no sense to us. Surely our spoken English sounds just as fast to a native speaker of Urdu. And yet it's equally true that some languages seem to zip by faster than others. Spanish blows the doors off French; Japanese leaves German in the dust — or at least that's how they sound.
But how could that be? The dialogue in movies translated from English to Spanish doesn't whiz by in half the original time, after all, which is what it would have to do if the same lines were being spoken at doubletime. Similarly, Spanish films don't take four hours to unspool when they're translated into French. Somewhere among all the languages must be a great equalizer that keeps us conveying information at the same rate even if the speed limits vary from tongue to tongue.
To investigate this puzzle, researchers from the Universite de Lyon recruited 59 male and female volunteers who were native speakers of one of seven common languages — English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin and Spanish — and one not so common one: Vietnamese. They instructed them all to read 20 different texts, including the one about the housecat and the locked door, into a recorder. All of the volunteers read all 20 passages in their native languages. Any silences that lasted longer than 150 milliseconds were edited out, but the recordings were left otherwise untouched.
(Read about the death of a language.)
The investigators next counted all of the syllables in each of the recordings, and further analyzed how much meaning was packed into each of those syllables. A single syllable word like "bliss," for example, is rich with meaning — signifying not ordinary happiness but a particularly serene and rapturous kind. The single syllable word "to" is less information-dense. And a single syllabile like the short i sound, as in the word "jubilee," has no independent meaning at all.
With this raw data in hand, the investigators crunched the numbers together to arrive at two critical values for each language: The average information density for each of its syllables and the average number of syllables spoken per second in ordinary speech. Vietnamese was used as a reference language for the other seven, with its syllables (which are considered by linguists to be very information dense) given an arbitrary value of 1.
For all of the other languages, the researchers discovered, the more data-dense the average syllable is, the fewer of those syllables had to be spoken per second — and the slower the speech thus was. English, with a high information density of .91, is spoken at an average rate of 6.19 syllables per second. Mandarin, which topped the density list at .94, was the spoken slowpoke at 5.18 syllables per second. Spanish, with a low-density .63, rips along at a syllable-per-second velocity of 7.82. The true speed demon of the group, however, was Japanese, which edges past Spanish at 7.84, thanks to its low density of .49. Despite those differences, at the end of, say, a minute of speech, all of the languages would have conveyed more or less identical amounts of information.
"A tradeoff is operating between a syllable-based average information density and the rate of transmission of syllables," the researchers wrote. "A dense language will make use of fewer speech chunks than a sparser language for a given amount of semantic information." In other words, your ears aren't deceiving you: Spaniards really do sprint and Chinese really do stroll, but they will tell you the same story in the same span of time.
None of that, of course, makes the skull-cracking business of trying to learn a new language any easier. It does, however, serve as one more reminder that beneath all of the differences that separate Tagalog from Thai from Norwegian from Wolof from any one of the world's 6,800 other languages, lie some very simple, very common rules. The DNA of speech — like our actual DNA — makes us a lot closer to one another than we think.

Read more:,8599,2091477,00.html#ixzz1XMPGjmF2