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    Study sheds light on how dogs recognize their favorite toys / ArsTechnica · Wednesday, 27 July - 21:44 · 1 minute

A new study found that dogs form a “multi-model mental image” of their toys.

Specific breeds of dogs, like border collies, can learn the verbal names of their favorite toys, but what is going on in the dog's mind when it's told to fetch a given toy? According to a recent paper published in the journal Animal Cognition, these dogs store key sensory features about their toys—notably what they look like and how they smell—and recall those features when searching for the named toy.

"If we can understand which senses dogs use while searching for a toy, this may reveal how they think about it," said co-author Shany Dror , a biologist at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary. "When dogs use olfaction or sight while searching for a toy, this indicates that they know how that toy smells or looks like."

Prior studies suggested that dogs typically rely on vision, or a combination of sight and smell, to locate target objects. Few dogs can also identify objects based on verbal labels, which the authors call "gifted word learner" (GWL) dogs. "Just like humans, GWL dogs not only recognize the labeled objects—or categories of objects—as stimuli they have already encountered, but they also identify them among other similarly familiar named objects, based on their verbal labels," the authors wrote. They wanted to investigate whether GWL dogs have an enhanced ability to discriminate and/or recognize objects compared to typical dogs.

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    Ancient wolf genomes indicate an East Asian origin for dogs / ArsTechnica · Wednesday, 29 June - 23:43 · 1 minute

Image of a single wolf.

Enlarge / An Eastern Gray Wolf is a mix of Siberian ancestry and coyote DNA. (credit: Michael Cummings )

Man's best friend was the first of many animals humans have domesticated. But there was no clear before-and-after moment where dogs were suddenly a distinct population of wolves. While some ancient skeletons are clearly dogs, there are a lot of ambiguous skeletons earlier than that. It's possible to get a sense of what happened using the genomes of modern and ancient dogs. But this analysis depends heavily on what you think the wolf populations dogs were derived from look like.

Now, researchers have generated a much clearer picture of the last 100,000 years of wolf evolution. The picture it paints is a population that remained a single unit despite being spread across continents in the Arctic, with the population sporadically refreshed from a core centered in Siberia. Many breeds of dogs seem to have been derived from a population of East Asian wolves. But others seem to have also received significant input from a Middle East population—but it's unclear whether that population was wolves or dogs.

Wolves around the north

The ability to sequence ancient DNA was essential to this new work, which involved obtaining DNA from 66 wolf skeletons that collectively span about 100,000 years of evolution, including most of the last ice age. Wolves are found in the Northern Hemisphere, and the skeletons used here tend to be closer to the Arctic (probably in part because DNA survives better in cooler climes). But they are widely distributed, with Europe, Asia, and North America represented. The researchers also included five ancient wolf genomes that others had analyzed, along with some genomes of modern wolves.

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    Genetics goes to the dogs, finds there’s not much to breed behavior / ArsTechnica · Thursday, 28 April - 20:51 · 1 minute

Image of a white dog with a smile.

Enlarge / In the case of the samoyed, selection for physical characteristics produced a dog that sure looks happy. (credit: Zhao Hui )

Many dog breeds are purely about appearance—think poodles and the Pekingese. But plenty of other breeds, like racing greyhounds, are devoted to specific tasks. For many of these tasks, physical appearance isn't enough; behavior also matters, like herding by sheepdog breeds or fetching by various retrievers.

It's not surprising that many people ascribe these behaviors—and a wide variety of other, less useful ones—to their dog's breed and its underlying genetics. Now, a large team of US-based researchers has looked into whether this belief is accurate. And, with a few exceptions, they find that it's not. With a huge panel of volunteer dog owners, they show that the genetics of dog behavior is built from lots of small, weak influences, and every breed seems to have some members that just don't behave as we expect.

Dogs, meet Darwin

The work is based on a citizen science project called Darwin's Ark . Participants were asked to give details about their dog, including whether it belonged to an established breed (either certified or inferred). They were also asked to fill out short surveys that collectively asked about 117 different behaviors. Overall, they obtained data on some 18,000 dogs, about half of them purebreds.

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