Here’s a brief post from one of the many fascinating talks at IFAAB… brief because I’m afraid I came home with a killer influenza, couldn’t even stand up on Tuesday, much less sit up. So boring to be sick, seems like I’ve been sick that too much this winter. Enough already.
One of the best talks at IFAAB (Interdisciplinary Forum on Applied Animal Behavior) was from Dr. Anneke Lisberg whose dissertation was on scent marking and urine investigation in dogs. [And was also my Teaching Assistant for several years, a truly great house sitter and now a dear friend and colleague, so am I objective? Not even close. But based on the comments after her talk, I’m quite sure the rest of the group concurs with my assessment.]
Anneke and I talked long and hard about what she should study for her dissertation, and I suggested she look at scent marking, because it seemed we know so little about it. She looked at the literature and was stunned to discover how little research has actually been done on it. Dr. Ian Dunbar did work years ago on scent marking, and found that females did little marking and showed little interest in the urine of others–at least compared to males. However, this work was on beagles who were familiar and housed together. It was a great start, yeah for Ian for doing it when most people didn’t consider dog behavior to be of any interest at all. (I actually had a scientist tell me, immediately after I passed my dissertation defense, that he previously didn’t think you could actually do research on dogs. I replied: “Well, Darwin thought so. Who are we to quibble?”)
Anneke presented urine-soaked, short wooden stakes to all 4 categories of dogs: intact male, intact female, neutered male and spayed female, and recorded the behavior of the same 4 categories of dogs allowed to investigate the stakes. Her results will be published soon in Animal Behavior, but in brief, she found that females indeed spent a lot of time investigating the urine of unfamiliar dogs (we are not surprised, are we!), that males investigated the urine of unfamiliar males most, while females were interested in urine from both sexes.
Individuals with the highest base of the tail position (more on that later) spent the least time sniffing the scents, while those with low tail positions spent the most time (risk assessment?). However, dogs with the highest tail base position (which correlated with the dogs most likely to get a tossed food-stuffed toy in a group of dogs) did the most overmarking, or urinating directly over the urine of another dog. In her study, females never overmarked, they did what she terms “adjacent marked” or urinated directly after sniffing the urine of others, but a good 4 to 5 feet away. I’ll tell you more next post about another one of her studies that suggests that ‘overmarking’ and ‘adjacent marking’ are different responses based on different motivations.
I should add here, that haven’t not read Anneke’s dissertation, my old Lassie girl still over marks the urine of one other dog in the house. Right now there’s just Willie, and she literally waits for him to pee, then goes over and urinates directly on top of it. When Pip was alive she did it over Pips’. When I say “Go Pee,” Lassie turns her head toward Willie to track where he is going to go. And yet, if you dropped a chunk of chicken between the two of them, Lassie would defer to Willie.
What does that mean? Got me, but I’m thrilled that someone is finally doing good science on a very, very interesting and important aspect of canine behavior. I’m so curious about your own experience… tell me what patterns you’ve observed. If you have a multi-dog household, is there a pattern about who goes where and when?
I’ll write next post about the second phase of her research, and more about some of the other interesting talks. I’ll catch up on answering your comments someday, I promise. Gotta go now to give my students their exam, and then go home to collapse. (But hey, I’ve read every magazine in the house.. a rare event!)