Thursday, February 26, 2015

Rethinking Dog Research

In the not so distant past, people who focused upon domestic dogs as their favorite subject for academic research were viewed by the overarching animal behavior community as crazy dog lovers who were barking up the wrong tree. 

Image result for dog behavior research experiments

Okay, that is an exaggeration; I guess I was more referring to myself, back in the day, as a dog-obsessed, self-proclaimed dog trainer lacking an academic degree. The scientific literature pertaining to man’s best friend was out there; it just wasn't easy to find, and that reinforced my sense of loneliness and insignificance as one who desired to study, not just boss around or snuggle, dogs.

While investigating these matters, despite my fervent desire to see published dog behavior research juxtapose a breath of scientific reason into the library of entirely anecdotally-based dog nonfiction in my town's public library, I did not yet have a high school diploma (dropped out; long story). I was not in a position to break the ice and begin filling the void with accessible scholarly insights into the canine mind.

Luckily, other, more studious, disciplined individuals kept their noses to the academic grindstone and forged their way into just what was needed; modern scientific dog behavior research. Yea! This seems to have really caught on, along with the pet dog's rise from sort-of-subject status as a "pet" to family member/ surrogate child in most developed nations. Now universities around the world are rising to the occasion (and the more readily available grant money?), popping up with canine cognition laboratories where they perform dog studies and then publish their experiments and results.

Here are some awesome examples (I’d work for any of them if they begged me to). This list was put together by Julie Hecht and shared by Patricia McConnell on her blog:

Canine Cognition Research Groups 

Once lumped with the likes of snake charmers and dog whisperers, dog behavior researchers are becoming the rock stars of the animal behavior field. They get to interact with their subjects, and sometimes even engage with them in fun games posing as exciting experiments. They give Tedtalks and present lectures the public (nonacademic) actually care about; they get to publish crossover books that enlighten the average pet owner about the underpinnings of their research subjects, and people actually buy their books. (How many fairy wren researchers can say that!?)

Doing good animal behavior science requires respect for boundaries and a desire not to corrupt or compromise results. Besides being the way science is done right, perhaps this is because anthropocentrism is so attractive and full of whimsy. Despite the attraction to animals as not-quite-Others (“you are just like me!”), when people directly interact with nonhuman beings, things generally get weird/ bad. Applied behavior work with animals used to mean things like taming tigers for circus acts. 

My thoughts turn to a man named Roy, getting dragged away to a Las Vegas tiger’s den for snack time. According to Roy, in interviews from his near-death bed, this tiger, Mantecore, had purely altruistic, loving, “motherly” intentions; he simply wanted to extract Roy from the stress of the stage, the lights, and the thousands of staring audience members’ eyes, to whisk him away by the jugular—er, scruff of the neck—to “protect” him. According to Roy, Mantecore severed his artery as a deliberate, protective act of bloodletting, to relieve his brain of dangerously-building blood pressure. Stuff like this may impact the researcher contemplating the study of dog behavior as a hands-on science. On the one side, it sounds like fun: puppies! But then again it could also induce scientist-shame: interaction = meddling! Nobody wants to be the academic Roy.

But wait, there’s more! In this case, where we actually live with companion dogs in shared environments, academic meddling in the name of research is part of the bigger behavior-analysis picture. We NEED to be involved, in order to understand the ways dogs are impacted by, and respond to, us… so yes, PUPPIES!

Dog behavior researchers get to jump into the attractive gap between human kind and nonhuman others--that anthrozoological boundary area where most animal behavior research demurely, respectfully peers through a self effacing one-way mirror, or, where it looks for the deleterious impacts of us upon them. Dog behavior studies allow the researcher to (in a controlled manner) tear the membrane, step in, and engage with subjects in full, species-specific awareness of one another. They engage with their subjects (or have their assistants engage with their subjects) in search of understanding domestic dog behaviors and ways of responding to  human beings and the shared environment. The dog researcher basically is rewarded for getting right up into the nonhuman side of the anthrozoological divide, while still holding a position of academic respectability.

Despite getting to roll around with the puppies while enjoying the guilt-free leap into the limelight of academic acceptance and—dare I say it?—credibility, might empirical dog studies still get inadvertently bogged down by a muddy line drawn in the shape of a heart? People share a bond with dogs that transcends the feelings generated by bees, fairy wrens, and other creatures of interest to the animal behavior researcher. We name dogs (and occasionally tigers), consider them friends, and many of us sleep with them when we are not at work studying them; we care for, and accept care from, dogs. Does this set the stage for confirmation bias? If so, I guess confirmation bias in companion animal research is yet another area of study just waiting to be explored!

All of this thinking/ rethinking aloud has served to make my mind up; its time to start a dog behavior research program! 

Now accepting volunteers with all of the following: 
  • PhD in a related field
  • Access to an illustrious academic institution with an awesome lab
  • Must love dogs
  • Lack of distracting, competing animal behavior research interest specific to tigers or other animals that tend to eat people