Thursday, January 15, 2009

Answers to questions you never thought you'd ask #3

How come you can hypnotise a chicken?

Many of you who grew up with chickens (I mean chickens as pets/egg factories of course; I am not suggesting that anyone here was raised by actual chickens...) will be familiar with the interesting phenomenon of hen hypnosis, by which one may reduce a flapping fowl to a quiescent and glassy-eyed Gallus gallus. I have heard of varying techiniques, including holding them upside-down, tucking a head under their wing, or- my personal favourite- placing them on the ground and drawing a chalk line from the beak (it has a certain mystical flair!). But how come this works?

For the record, I am not advocating anyone lining up large numbers of hypnotised chickens, but the technique could actually be useful if you wanted to easily administer medication to the feet. Do chickens get foot mites anyone?

Anyway, in search of a quick and easy answer, I consulted our resident psychologist, and we came up with a number of half-baked theories, including
1. The possibility that the technique somehow activates the circuitry that would normally cause the bird to fall asleep (plausible, since birds do sleep with their heads under their wings)
2. the bird's brain is like a very simple computer (you know, like the ones you used in primary school that ran on MS-DOS and had green font on a black screen), so simple in fact that the unusual input proves too much for the simple circuitry and the system, with no programmed response to this stimulus, crashes. (Also plausible, since you would not expect chickens to often encounter chalk lines too often in nature).
3. The 'hypnotic state' is actually a manifestation of tonic immobility, ie a defence response to a perceived predator (would a chicken hanging upside-down from a fox's mouth have a greater chance of survival by playing dead?).

The webbernet also had a number of far-out theories, my favourite being that the chicken "sees the line and visualises itself at both ends of the line simultaneously" or some such.

I also had a look for some papers (I have to admit, a very cursory look, since at this juncture I am probably better off researching things that are actually related to my thesis), and found one by some Russian researchers about hypnotising rabbits (incidentally, this is done by placing the animal in the prone position and gently pressing on the upper thoracic and sacral vertebrae). They found a difference between electrical activity between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, coupled with a general cooling. This is also a feature of human hypnosis.

So, if chicken hypnosis does indeed occur by the same mechanism as rabbit hypnosis, the reason that your mesmerised rooster is out for the count is that you have somehow managed to get it to cool its brain slightly and reduce the electrical activity in its right brain hemisphere. Aren't you clever?!


Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A guide to choosing a good dog

Each year, a number of Labrador and Golden Retriever pups enter the guide dog training program. At around 14-16 months of age the hard work starts, when a 5 month intensive training regime begins. During this time each dog has their health and temperament assessed, and this is where my work begins. Not all dogs entering this training program are suitable to become guide dogs, and through the use of a number of temperament and lateralisation tests, my project aims to identify unsuitable dogs. Training a guide dog costs around $26 000, so identifying unsuitable dogs is very important to ensure that resources can be focused on dogs with a higher potential.

I’m now in my second year of study and love it! So far I have assessed three groups of dogs, totalling 72 individuals, and have had the pleasure of watching two groups graduating (the third is still in training).

One of the main areas of my project is looking at motor and sensory lateralisation. I assess whether the dogs have a significant paw preference, so if they are left or right pawed, or if they are ambidextrous. As well as paw preference, I am looking at eye biases. This is of relevance to the program since nearly all dogs are trained to exclusively walk on the left of their handler. The importance of this may come into effect if the dog has a right eye bias, since the handler may block partial vision in that eye whilst walking, subsequently affecting the dog’s overall ability to assess the surrounding environment, and hence influencing their working performance.

The temperament tests employed aim to identify dogs that are fearful of loud noises or sudden objects appearing, are distracted by other dogs, or will not settle and rest in a quiet environment.

As well as lateralisation and temperament tests, I am also looking at kennel behaviours, salivary immunoglobulin A (sIgA) concentrations (as an indicator of stress), and hair whorl characteristics as potential predictors of success in the Guide Dog Program. The relationships between these additional variables will also be assessed in an endeavour to establish the suitability of dogs for guide work at the earliest possible age. By identifying early predictors of success and failure, unsuitable animals can be removed from training, allowing time and resources to be utilised more efficiently on dogs that have greater potential.

By Lisa Tomkins