Is your dog right or left handed?  A factor could determine their dominant hand

Is your dog right or left handed? A factor could determine their dominant hand

Is your dog right or left handed?  A factor could determine their dominant hand

The large majority of people use one hand or the other for most things – and for nearly 90% of the human population, it’s the right hand. About 10-13% of humans are left-handed, with men three times more likely to be left-handed than women, although very few people are ambidextrous.

Until relatively recently, it was assumed that ‘laterality’ was unique to humans, but animal studies suggest that ‘laterality’ may be a fundamental characteristic of all mammals. What’s less clear is how it manifests in animals and whether it’s the same as the human hand.

A wide range of tests have been developed with the aim of determining whether the domestic dog shows signs of preferred paw use. Tasks included stabilizing a toy, reaching for a treat placed inside a container, or removing an object – such as a blanket or a piece of tape – from the animal’s body.

Other indicators include recording the first step taken down stairs or the paw given to a person on request.

The easiest way to find out which paw your dog prefers is to ask him for a handshake.Westend61/Westend61/Getty Images

The results of studies using these tasks differ to some extent, although a recent meta-analysis concluded that, overall, dogs are more likely to prefer legs than ambilateral (what we call ambidextrous when we talks about humans) – or showing no favored paws.

But, unlike humans, the preference for legs seems to be about evenly distributed. Laterality in dogs is therefore individual rather than population specific.

Importantly, studies indicate differences in leg use between tasks, with limb use depending on factors such as task complexity. For example, the commonly used “Kong ball” task, which requires the animal to stabilize a conical ball, typically yields approximately equal numbers of left-paw, right-paw, and ambidextrous responses.

In contrast, the “give a paw” task, an exercise that involves a training and repetition component, generates significantly more paw-preferential responses than ambidextrous responses.

Several studies suggest that female dogs are more likely to have right paws, while males are more likely to have left paws. This difference has been found in other non-human species, including the domestic cat.

Why male and female animals should differ in the use of their legs is still unclear, although explanations include hormonal factors and differences in brain anatomy.

The right side of a dog’s brain focuses more on negative emotions, such as fear or anxietyThai Liang Lim/E+/Getty Images

The link with animal welfare

While it can be a lot of fun trying to figure out if a companion dog is left-handed or right-handed, establishing an animal’s lateral preferences can also be important from an animal welfare perspective. Indeed, paw preferences can give us insight into the emotions an animal experiences.

As with humans, the left side of a dog’s brain — which controls the right side of their body — is more concerned with processing positive emotions. In contrast, the right side of a dog’s brain—which controls the left side of the body—focuses more on negative emotions, such as fear or anxiety.

Assessing which paw a dog is using can therefore give us insight into how that animal is feeling. A dog that uses its left paw to undertake a task, for example, may experience more negative emotions than an individual that uses its right paw.

Studies have recently uncovered a relationship between paw preference and emotional reactivity in dogs. Our research indicates that left-legged dogs are more “pessimistic” (in this case, they are slower to approach an empty food bowl placed in an ambiguous location during a cognitive bias task) than straight-legged or ambilateral animals.

Meanwhile, dogs with weaker paw preferences have been shown to react more strongly to recorded sounds of thunderstorms and fireworks than animals with stronger paw preferences.

We also found evidence of a link between canine paw preferences and personality, with ambilateral dogs scoring higher on aggression and fearfulness traits than animals with strong paw preferences.

This may have implications for animal training. Indeed, there is evidence that paw preference testing could be a useful predictor of which dogs will become successful guide dogs.

A dog’s dominant paw could help determine if he is suited to be a guide dog.fotografixx/E+/Getty Images

Paw preference assessment can also be used to identify vulnerable individuals in stressful situations. For example, left-legged dogs have been found to display greater signs of stress in rescue kennels than right-legged animals.

At this point, it would be unwise to rely solely on paw preference testing as a measure of animal welfare risk. However, it has the potential to be a useful tool, particularly if considered alongside other tests of well-being or used in conjunction with other measures of asymmetry, such as wagging, sniffing behavior and hair direction.

For example, dogs typically wag their tails to the left (indicating more positive emotions) when seeing their owners, but to the right (suggesting more negative emotions) when seeing an unfamiliar dominant dog. Further work in this area will not only help expand our understanding of canine cognition, but will allow us to better care for and appreciate man’s best friend.

This article was originally published on The conversation by Deborah Wells at Queen’s University Belfast. Read the original article here.

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