Q- Do rats dance to music?
A – Yes, sort of.
Q – Is my dog a racist?
A- Yes and no. The precise answer to this question is complex and requires further elaboration.
Dancing with the Rats (please note the clever semordnilap)
People of a certain age, mine, for example, will remember the now non-existent dance shows on television. American Bandstand, hosted by the iconic and seemingly ageless Dick Clark, ran from 1956 until its final episode in 1989.
Most of the half-dozen dance shows played tunes from the Top 40.
By design, dance shows were attended exclusively by teenagers. Through American Bandstand’s three decades of weekly shows, one could see the fashion change from matching skirt and sweater sets and shirts with collars of the late 50s and early 60s, bell bottoms and flashy disco garb of the late 1960s and 70s to the lycra and Spandex of the 1980s.
The show’s TV commercials offered medicines that reflected the dermatological problems unique to that particular demographic. That’s acne, for those too old to remember teenage angst.
One of the features of American Bandstand had Dick Clark asking a participant, usually a teenage boy with a pronounced Adam’s Apple and a scratchy voice, to rate the song just played.
My most salient memory of that part of the show was that the answer was almost always something like, “Well, it’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it.” Teenagers, then, were far less nuanced and articulate than today’s youngsters.
According to some recent research coming out of the University of Tokyo in Japan, rats also enjoy a musical piece that has dancing potential.
Imagine all those teen-agers “strutting their stuff” on the dance floor of the American Bandstand set while the rats under the stage were also swaying and bobbing their little rat heads to Chubby Checker’s hit song The Twist.
Most humans physically respond to music – the feet automatically start tapping, or we start bobbing our heads to the beat. We are likelier to do so when the piece falls into the range of 120 to 140 beats per minute.
And, as it turns out, so do rats, whether it is Lady Gaga’s Born This Way or a Mozart sonata.
University of Tokyo researcher Gyorgy Buzaki says, “The auditory system of a human is wired to your legs. You can’t help (yourself) when the beat comes in.”
His research demonstrates that rats are similarly wired. They, too, respond to music in that same 120 to 140 beats-per-minute range.
How do scientists determine this?
Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) was employed to track the rat’s brain activity when exposed to music. And, indeed, the rats responded much as we do – they swayed and bobbed their heads – the abstract mentioned no foot-tapping.
However, scientists generally do not cross that sacred threshold into anthropomorphism without indisputable evidence.
To do so is taboo in the world of science, even though they may privately feel that the rats were reacting in the same way we do.
Let’s face it, you can’t help but get up and dance in the aisles when the beat is right – maybe it’s universal.
Future research at the University of Tokyo will expose rats to harmony and melody. So, don’t be surprised if some day soon you manage to snag a ticket to a Taylor Swift concert and Ratatouille is sitting in the seat next to you.
Why your dog will never wear a robe and hood – at least not willingly!
A media story from 2019 describes two women colleagues from a cleaning service, one black and one white, knocking on the door of a mid-western church.
Both women were housekeepers. As a courtesy, the white woman, who was leaving her job at the cleaning service, intended to introduce the black woman as her replacement.
The church secretary refused their entrance, saying the reverend’s dog was racist. The black woman filed a complaint with the church administrator, claiming discrimination.
The response stated that the refusal of entry was necessary for the black woman’s safety. In this case, the church felt that the dog was racist and, as they stated, “Specifically hostile to blacks.”
A dog, like an infant, is not born with racial prejudices. Unlike instinct, racial discrimination is either developed within peer groups or through parental conditioning, both explicit and implicit.
Racism has numerous definitions that include slavery, subjugation and political methods of controlling “others.” The very heart of racism is the belief that some races are inferior to others and the behavior resulting from this unfounded belief.
Racism requires a certain conscious or unconscious culpability, an ability that dogs simply do not have. Puppies, by nature, love everyone.
Dogs can no more be racist in the human aspect than they can be Buddhist. To believe otherwise is diving into the deep end of the anthropomorphism pool.
Yet, anecdotal stories of people claiming to have racist dogs abound. This belief is found to be true in both black and white guardians.
The issue of racist dogs has lately become a subject of behavioral research at the Psychology Department at the University of Illinois, Springfield.
The research consisted of Internet-based studies, sampling black, and white dog owners. The first study looked at explicit views toward people with different skin color. The second and more extensive study examined the subtler aspects of bias by gauging reactions to photographs on a screen, either positively or negatively.
Results indicated that some prejudice occurs in most races of people, be it known to the individuals or not.
The most challenging and separate study assessed a dog’s predisposition to prejudice. This study tested the canine subjects to determine their reactions to either neutral images or those that caused alarm or fear responses in the dogs.
The bottom line of this study is that dogs can be racialized by training them to be prejudiced or by subtle biases they sense from us.
It didn’t surprise me that dogs could “learn” to fear those people who do not match the prototype of white people if they have a white guardian or black people if they have a black guardian.
This canine discrimination is particularly so when the guardian fails to socialize the dog to people who look different. The critical thing here is that, as the study results suggest, dogs are masters at picking up subtle cues from us.
Dogs spend their lives studying humans; they should be granted a Ph.D. in anthropology. If someone from the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine happens to be reading this, I suggest you give some thought to this proposal.
I didn’t need the studies on dogs to tell me how well they know us. My dogs clearly pick up my moods; they know when I am frustrated or in a foul mood, even when I try my best to hide it.
So, it makes sense that if I harbored a fear of the “others,” which I don’t, my dogs would also dislike them.
On the other hand, dogs will often exhibit fear responses from those things that appear threatening.
Postal deliverers, UPS, and Fed Ex drivers know better than most of us that some dogs don’t like uniforms. Other dogs have a fear of men with beards, sometimes even fearing men in general. Again, these fears may arise from an instinctual fear of something that looks out of place.
I was hiking across a long volcanic ash field to a mountain’s base some years ago. A large brown bear followed my climbing partner and me for three solid days. Every time we glanced over our shoulders, she was cautiously walking several hundred yards behind us.
We could see her following us because of the lack of vegetation in the Katmai Valley of Alaska.
On the third evening, we pitched our tent on a hillock of volcanic ash. The following day, we stepped out of our tent to find her tracks going all the way around the tent.
It was pretty evident to us that the bear was just curious. Animals instinctively know when someone or something looks out of place in their environment.
Had it been a polar bear, the outcome might have been quite different.
Also, remember that from a historical perspective, dogs have been trained and used to control and inflict violence on people of color. Such was the horror inflicted on black people in South Africa and the American South.
Dogs have been trained to be prejudiced, but it does not connote racism as generally understood in human terms. Dogs are trained to hunt many species of animals and criminals on the run, regardless of hair or skin color.
Beth Little, a frequent contributor to this column, offers her own experience with dogs that naturally fear the various subsets of people, not based on race or ethnicity.
“When I was living in Philadelphia, our mail was delivered by a walking postman with a leather bag filled with the mail.
“One day I was standing on the street in front of my house talking with the postman, and a neighbor came walking along the sidewalk. We were on a slight hill, and the neighbor was walking down the hill with his dog, a large German shepherd.
“From about 50 feet away, the dog took off toward us and leaped through the air at the postman, who calmly turned to face the dog, held up his leather bag and warded off the dog. He repeated this as the dog made more lunges until the owner got there and put it on a leash. I was right there, but the dog was clearly not interested in me, and I don’t remember being afraid.”
As for me, I bid you adieu until next week.
P.S. Bongo and Daisy have never met a person or fellow dog, regardless of their skin color, creed, breed or religion, that they didn’t like. Squirrels, on the other hand, are a different matter, Grrrrrrrrr!