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Do you Believe in Dog? (2018). Powered by Blogger.

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It started when two canine scientists decide to become pen pals in an era of digital media...


1 November 2018

Women are thriving in canine science - tell a girl you know!

Women are thriving in canine science - tell a girl you know!

When we learned why girls aren't pursuing futures in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, we wanted to help.

At Do You Believe in Dog? we're enthusiastic about canine science for lots of reasons. Clearly - dogs are awesome. So is science! Since starting the blog in 2012, we've noticed that dogs offer a wonderful way to get others interested in science. People who might not have thought it was for them. Canine science is also fantastic because of its inherent diversity. 

Whether you are interested in evolutionary biology, statistics, genetics, human psychology, animal behaviour, wearable tech, nutrition, anatomy, ecology, urban design, communication, biochemistry, exercise physiology, animal-technology interactions, bio-monitoring, science communication or animal learning - canine science offers a way to be involved! 

To showcase how females are thriving in science, we reached out to a selection of the amazing group of woman succeeding in canine-related science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) globally. 

They wanted to help too.

Thanks to their support, we'll be featuring one of these fabulous women each day on our social media channels in November, so be sure to keep track on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn or Instagram.

Here's why we're doing this...

Fewer girls than boys study and work in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, and the gap between girls and boys is growing. Research into biological factors, including genetics, brain structure and development, neuroscience and hormones, shows that the gender gap in STEM is not the result of sex differences in these factors or related to any type of 'innate ability'. 

When young, girls and boys show the same level of interest and abilities in STEM. They may demonstrate different approaches to solving the same issue - exactly why we need both in these fields as diversity offers strength and flexibility in solving problems. Sadly, social, cultural and educational discrimination and biases are leading to girls losing interest in STEM. The ages between 10-15 have been identified as most critical, with many 15 year olds having already lost interest in STEM subjects. 
Several recent studies have explored this trend across Europe, the US, Canada and Australia, surveying tens of thousands of girls and women.


  • Having visible female role models almost doubles the number of girls interested in STEM careers and helps them to picture themselves pursuing these fields. 
  • There is a clear link between role models and an increased passion for science, technology, engineering and maths subjects, with more interest in careers in these fields, and greater self-confidence. 
  • Perhaps surprisingly, celebrities are considered to be the least influential role models for driving girls’ interest in STEM, while women working in STEM fields are the top drivers, with the most impact.
  • Increased interest in STEM isn’t limited to a single subject. On average, across maths, physics, biology, chemistry and computer science, having a STEM role model results in a 12 percent increase in interest.
  • Equally as important, results show that if a girl has a role model for a particular subject area, such as maths, a corresponding positive effect is still seen across all other STEM fields.
Girls also become more interested in STEM once they’re able to conceive what they can do with these subjects in real life situations and how relevant they are to their future.

The women in canine science want to help inspire the next generation of girls to know that STEM is accessible, fun and waiting for them. And importantly - SO ARE THE DOGS!

Do You Believe in Dog? are honoured to help share insights to the exciting work in this field and the advice today's women would like to pass on to girls considering a future in STEM. 

So tell a girl you know that females are thriving in canine science. Today, please!

Mia and Julie
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18 September 2018

How active is the average dog? And do extreme weather events affect their activity? 

Researchers are appealing to dog owners around the world for help.

How active is your dog? Emily Hall wants to know, and needs your help to find out! Emily Hall is a vet and PhD student investigating risk factors for canine heatstroke and how environmental conditions affect dog’s ability to exercise.  Together with Dr Anne Carter (Senior Lecturer in Animal Biology) and Dr Mark Farnworth (Associate Professor in Animal Welfare) at Nottingham Trent University, Emily is asking dog owners around the world to share information about their dog’s normal exercise routine via an online survey. Dogs of any age, any breed and any health status can participate. Live with more than one dog? Simply re-start the survey to add additional dogs’ details too. 

Please share the survey link here, open until 31st December 2018:

What did your dog do today? How about your neighbour's dog? From the moment they woke up, to the point at which they curled up in their bed (or perhaps your bed), how did they spend their day? Did they go out for a walk, or a run? Did they chase a ball, or a cat? Did they compete in a canicross race, or train for an agility competition? Did they do as much as they were doing this time last year? Do you know what they will be able to do this time next year?

Surprisingly, we don’t know very much at all about dog activity levels.

Google “how much exercise does a dog need every day”, and one site will tell you this varies from dog to dog. Another site goes as far as to provide breed specific information on just how much your dog should be doing. For example, a Beagle apparently needs over two hours of exercise daily to keep them physically and mentally fit. A canine charity suggests how many walks a dog should ideally have a day. So who do you trust, and which one is right for your dog?

None of these popular, well-respected websites list any evidence base, such as references or sources of information to support these statements.

Go a step further with a search to Google Scholar. Search “dog OR canine AND activity levels”. The results explore how dog ownership impacts human activity levels, walking and general health. The only results relating to the dog’s activity levels, explore the use of wearable technology for measuring step count and distance travelled. We just don’t know how much exercise the average dog is getting, so we have absolutely no idea how age, breed, health status or external factors such as location or weather, impact the dog’s ability to exercise.

Amongst the articles on how dog ownership impacts human health, we see at one point the British tabloids reported the National Health Service was prescribing dog walking to help people keep fit, following a study showing that older people walked more if they own a dog. Sounds good? Perhaps, until you explore the study design. Participants were required to confirm their ability to walk unaided for a minimum of 10 minutes continuously. Ok, sounds reasonable? For the dog owning participants, they had to confirm the same criteria applied to their dog. So sadly, this study is flawed because it excludes all the dog owners who don’t have an active dog. 

The key problem with suggesting dog ownership to improve human health and physical activity levels, is the lack of evidence for normal canine activity levels. Confounding that, we also have no idea how canine factors such as breed, age or health impact activity levels. To complicate things further, increasingly frequent extreme weather events such as record breaking heatwaves like those seen in parts of Australia in 2017 — and the UK, Canada and Japan in 2018 — may also impact a dog’s ability to exercise. We just don’t know. 

In planning our next research project, we hit this wall. To get past it, we need to know: how active are our dogs? What affects their ability to be active? It’s always interesting when some of these really fundamental questions have been overlooked in the field of canine science, and we’re excited to learn more.

Participate in the online survey

Through our online survey we are investigating activity levels in dogs of every age, every breed, from all over the world. We are asking owners to share their dog’s health status so we can investigate if certain health problems impact a dog’s ability to exercise. It may sound obvious that a dog with a painful hip won’t want to walk as far as a healthy dog, but what about a dog with long-term itchy skin, or epilepsy? Does their disease impact their exercise routine? 

We also want to know how the weather affects dogs. How are the heatwaves affecting dog’s activity levels? Are they exercising at all, or is the risk of heatstroke too great? At the other extreme, what happens when it snows? Do some dogs love the snow and exercise more, or do they get too cold and refuse the leave the house!
We would like all dog owners to complete the survey, no matter how old, young, or healthy your dog is. The survey can be completed as many times as required, so if you have more than one dog, re-start the survey for each individual dog. If you feel a question doesn’t apply to you, leave it blank, or leave a comment. 

Please access and share the survey using this link: 

The results

The survey doesn’t close until the end of 2018, so you’ll need to be patient while we crunch the numbers, but all results will be shared via the project blog, at 

Any questions, please get in touch via

Emily Hall
Nottingham Trent University, UK

Images via Flickr: froderamone / carterse / blumenbiene
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10 August 2018

The importance of studying free-ranging dogs, and what we learned about Bali dogs

The importance of studying free-ranging dogs, and what we learned about Bali dogs

Marco and Shogun. Credit Marco Adda
Today we are joined by Marco Adda as he describes his recent publication exploring Bali dogs — those living in a free-ranging state and those living in human homes as pets. 

Do you know that free-ranging dogs are one of the most widely distributed carnivore in the world? Or, perhaps I should begin by asking: have you considered, or even ever heard about, free-ranging dogs? In case yes, I can imagine what you are (maybe) thinking: feral dogs. Am I right? Are you picturing dogs living wild and uncontrolled in a “developing country”? Dogs carrying diseases and people avoiding them at all cost?

In some cases, this may be the case, but framing free-ranging dogs this way is not actually correct. In fact, free-ranging dogs, also called Village Dogs (rather than “feral dogs”) do not always carry diseases, they often interact with humans, and they may be wonderful companions too! They also represent an excellent opportunity to study and understand dog-human interactions and dog behaviour.

Most people in places like Europe, North America, and Australia think about dogs as companion animals living with a human family. Thus, when those people happen to spend time in places where free-ranging dogs are present, they often want to adopt dogs and restrict them to their homes. This is what I witnessed in places such as Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, India, and Mexico, among others. And this is what we have been observing in Bali, Indonesia. Bali dogs are shifting from a free-ranging lifestyle to a Westernised style of restricted pet companionship.

Bali dogs are a unique canine population. They have been free-ranging for thousands of years. And you know what? They are not as wild as you may think. While it is true that they often show a high level of independence, they are also recognised as excellent animal companions. In fact, expatriates populating the island of Bali over the last few decades occasionally adopt these village dogs, and then keep them restricted to their houses and backyards as is typical in their home countries and cultures. This new trend has provided us with the unique opportunity to compare the personality traits of dogs according to their lifestyle: either living as human companions, or living as free-ranging dogs. In addition, we have explored the impact of age, sex, and neuter status (demographic variables) on these dogs’ personality traits.

I have been observing Bali dogs since 2012. Bali is not a huge island (5,780 km²), and in 2012 about 300,000 free-ranging dogs were estimated to roam around. When preliminary observations proved novel and exciting, a study was developed in collaboration with the Family Dog Project in 2014. Further observations and questionnaire-collection were planned and carried out over the next few years. Dog “carers/owners” filled out a validated dog behavior and personality questionnaire for their pet companion Bali dog. Caretakers completed the same questionnaire for the free-ranging Bali dogs. In total, we had 75 adult dogs in the study. The questionnaire included many questions about how the dog behaves under different circumstances.

Dogs in the study. Credit: Marco Adda
What we found
Observations and analyses revealed that Bali dogs living as human companions in a typical domestic setting (house, fenced backyard, etc.) are more active, excitable, and aggressive towards animals, and are also more inclined to chase animals or humans than Bali dogs that live free-ranging. Looking closer, females were found to be more excitable and fearful of people. In other words, being restricted within a household could potentially make free-ranging Bali dogs more reactive than those dogs living free-ranging.

These results raise some important considerations. One may assume that a free-ranging dog lives unhappily without a human family. In some instances, this may be the case. But we need to also remember that free-ranging dogs have a lot of freedom that dogs living as pets or companions do not necessarily have. Consider the privilege of deciding daily actions and habits. Free-ranging dogs can display behaviour according to their personality. Their sociality, and in some cases sexual conduct, are not, or are minimally, conditioned by humans.

While we love our pets and we include them as part of our families, we need to remember that, to some degree, we are limiting their freedom and this may impact their behaviour. This study on Bali dogs, then, shows how some dogs, shifting from a free-roaming to a pet/home context, may become more reactive to some solicitations. Does that mean we shouldn't have dogs in our houses? I don't think so. However, we need to remind that when dogs live as restrained "pets", the lack of some freedoms may affect dogs' behavior and even prompt some behavioural issues. Therefore, we may need to adjust something in our human behavior or habits to provide an adequate environment for our dogs.

We know that this study is just preliminary, but we consider these results relevant. They suggest that a change in lifestyle, i.e. being adopted and living in a confined environment, may have negative consequences on some canine personality traits in this population of dogs.

Bali dogs matter

A notable aspect of this study is that our dog population is really unique. Most well-known dog breeds (such as Golden Retrievers or German Shephards) are the result of relatively recent and deliberate human selection. The Bali dogs have not been deliberately selected by humans in this way. Instead, they have roamed the island for at least 3,300 years.

To better grasp the history of Bali dogs, we need to look at the main religion of Bali. The Hindu Bali religion traditionally respects the street dog. Dogs can be seen as sacred creatures or manifestations of spirits. Bali dogs have been allowed to behave as dogs would and roam and reproduce freely on the island. In my ethnographic research around Bali, I gathered stories from the 1970s-1980s describing how large packs of free-ranging dogs (10-25 individuals) would roam the streets. Some dogs were referred to as aggressive and the packs described as scary, and yet dogs were left to roam, consistent with religious traditions. This suggests that Bali dogs have potentially had little behavioural selection, at least until the 1970s-1980s, when the scene dramatically changed due to major economic, environmental, and cultural shifts.

We cannot entirely exclude the possibility that particular dogs may have been eliminated due to their behaviour, or that humans preferred — and therefore selected — some dogs over others. However, Bali dogs have not experienced artificial selection for morphology or behaviour as seen in Western dog breeds. This is something that makes the Bali dog population unique. It is also one of those cases where we can see the flaw in calling a 100-year-old artificially selected breed "pure," while a 3,300-year-old canine population is considered a "non-breed."

And Bali dogs deserve particular attention. Their numbers have declined from some 800,000 individuals in 2008 to no more than 150,000 individuals in 2018. This is a dramatic drop of 81% of the entire population in just the last ten years. The main reasons are the massive culling plans, the dog meat trade, as well as other causes like disease or car accidents. While neutering programs are in place for the welfare of dogs, they also contribute to the decline in numbers. Furthermore, the interbreeding of Bali dogs with international dog breed is also impacting the historical Bali dog population. Finally, studies on the personality of free-ranging dogs are rare, which adds to the value of this research.

Bali dogs and Marco
We would like to thank all the dog “owners” and the caretakers who participated in our study by completing the questionnaires and providing relevant information about companion and free-ranging Bali dogs.

Marco Adda and on Facebook
Family Dog Project and on Facebook


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14 June 2018

Not one way to do it. The ‘Do You Believe in Dog’ learning & training roundup #Train4Rewards

Not one way to do it. The ‘Do You Believe in Dog’ learning & training roundup #Train4Rewards

Hey dog lover! What’s hidden behind most everything?

Why, it’s learning and training! 

While this probably sounds like a grand overstatement, it really isn’t. Here at Do You Believe in Dog, we’ve seen learning and training sneak into practically every nook and cranny of our relationship with dogs. But not all learning (or training) is the same.

Today, we’re participating in Companion Animal Psychology’s #Train4Rewards blog party 2018 by highlighting DYBID posts which taught us about reward-based training, often with the help of an excellent video! While we (Julie and Mia) write many of the posts here at DYBID, other canine science researchers have contributed to share their own research and findings. The posts below are relevant to all dogs and also explore where a dog lover can access good information on learning and training.
Check out the entire 2018 #Train4Rewards Blog Party

What a difference a second can make! Clare Browne discusses her research on the effect of a 0 or 1 second reinforcement delay. [VIDEO INCLUDED]

Cat Reeve shares her work with diabetic alert dogs (DADs). How do dogs learn to alert when a person has a hypoglycemic event (low blood sugar)? What samples should we use to teach them? [VIDEO INCLUDED]

Claudia Fugazza reminds us that reward-based training can, and should, get social. Claudia explains how dogs can learn new behaviors by observing and copying their handler. Dogs are the new copycats. [VIDEO INCLUDED]

When something scary comes along, there’s something you should know. We can help our dogs. Veterinarian Sophia Yin shows us how. [VIDEO INCLUDED]

Simon Gadbois looks at science as a method of inquiry, and explores its purpose and applications in the real world.

Mia reflects on a training day the the Melbourne Aquarium and highlights a great book by McGreevy and Boakes called ‘Carrots and Sticks: Principles of Animal Training.’

Guess what? Our recommended book list from 2013 is still relevant today! 

Be sure to check out other posts participating in the Train for Rewards Blog Party 2018.

Julie Hecht & Mia Cobb
Do You Believe in Dog Facebook & Twitter

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30 May 2018

Free canine science event, June 1-3: Live streaming world wide! #SPARCS18

Free canine science event, June 1-3: Live streaming world wide! #SPARCS18

It’s Baaack! 

You may remember us talking about the SPARCS conference in 2013, 2014, and 2015. After a 2-year hiatus, it’s baaack! And people who care about dogs all around the world are pretty much losing it with excitement (like on the SPARCS Facebook page!).

SPARCS, which stands for the Society for the Promotion of Applied Research in Canine Science, has been at the forefront of connecting dog lovers to canine science via a free, live streaming conference that actively brings dog people into the conversation #SPARCS18! 

SPARCS returns for 2018, this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, June 1 - 3. This time, it’s all about what’s underneath: canine behavioral genetics. Six canine researchers, behavioral veterinarians, and geneticists bring us ‘The Real Dog: What We Know & What We Don’t (Yet).’

#SPARCS18 speakers and science hosts!
We’re incredibly excited to join SPARCS for the third year as science hosts. The conferences is live streaming from New York's Hudson Valley (EDT), and is now presented by The National Canine Research Council. As we prepare for the conference, here’s what you should know about watching and engaging live, and even how to watch later.

June 1 - 3, 2018
9:30am - 5:15pm (EDT)
Each day features two speakers, post-talk Q&A, and an end-of-day group panel discussion 4:30pm - 5:15pm

Friday, June 1
Ádám Miklósi and Kristopher Irizarry kick us off with the evolution of dogs’ close relationship with humans.

Saturday, June 2
Claire Wade and Elinor Karlsson introduce the amazingly complex relationship between genomics and behavior, which in recent years has been clarified with the help of citizen science.

Sunday, June 3
Kelly Ballantyne and Jessica Hekman wrap it up and get really real about the impact of behavioral genetics on dog relationships with humans and the important recognition that genetics don’t necessarily mean predestination.

Get social: Pose questions and comments for speaker Q&As and daily panel discussions. This live streaming conference is anything but passive — unless that’s what you want, in which case sit back in your pajamas and relax! After each talk, we (Mia and Julie of Do You Believe in Dog?) will hold speaker Q&A sessions, and our questions (we hope!) will be your questions! 

Share questions or comments over Twitter DYBID using #SPARCS18, and feel free to post on the Do You Believe in Dog Facebook page too. Remember, SPARCS is also on Facebook and Twitter

Watch later: All presentations and panel discussions will be recorded and posted to the SPARCS website following the conference. 

Watch the past: As mentioned, this is the 4th SPARCS conference, and past presentations, speaker interviews, and panel discussions are available, right now, for free, on the SPARCS website. Hear from Marc Bekoff, Michael Fox, Clive Wynne, Ádám Miklósi, Ray Coppinger, James Serpell, Simon Gadbois, Monique Udell, Alexandra Horowitz, Kathryn Lord, Patricia McConnell, Stephen Zawistowski, Michael Hennessey, Bonne Beerda, James Ha, Hal Herzog, Márta Gácsi and others anytime you like. 
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13 March 2018

Do Dogs Just Want To Have Fun?

Do Dogs Just Want To Have Fun?

Please welcome Rebecca Sommerville, today’s guest contributor. Rebecca joins us to discuss her recent review on the function and welfare of dog play with co-authors Drs. Lucy Asher and Emily O’Connor. 

Photo by Jenni Chen, license CC BY

The sight of a dog playing, whether tearing around a park after another dog, or throwing their favourite toy in the air, rarely fails to draw a smile. It seems like dogs just want to have fun. Yet all of that playing uses a lot of energy and puts them at more risk of getting hurt. There must be a good reason they play, but it’s hard to see an obvious one. In the modern world all of their needs should be provided for – food, water, shelter, companionship. So why would dogs do zoomies, if not for fun?

In our recent review paper, we explored research on animal play to help answer this question. Dogs and modern-day wolves share a common ancestor, but during the last 10,000 years, their bodies and minds have been shaped by living with us. They can live harmoniously alongside people and be very attentive to us, and their behaviour is affected by these influences, including play. Our paper looked at the main reasons why animals play and put those reasons to the test with dogs.

The first reason was playing to get stronger, or to develop ‘motor skills’. Dogs play the most when they are young, which suggests that play could strengthen their bones and tissues while they are growing. Many types of movement are seen during play, from fighting to biting, mounting to chasing and manipulating objects – which could all be practice for doing these for real as an adult. However, play is not the best practice, or the best way to get fitter, so it doesn’t make sense why it would exist for this reason alone. It is not the best practice for the muscles and bones because it is sporadic and it doesn’t truly represent the later serious behaviour, only parts of it and in different ways.

The second reason was playing to be prepared, or ‘training for the unexpected’. Play can be quite unpredictable, especially when it is social, and it could prove useful practice for future situations when dogs need to think flexibly and be able to cope. Another interesting aspect is ‘self-handicapping’, where dogs deliberately put themselves at a disadvantage during play, such as to play with a smaller dog. This gives them skills in showing flexible behaviour, for example to signal that they want to back down to avoid a fight if another dog is aggressive towards them, which is particularly important for young dogs to learn. But again, this can’t explain all types of play that dogs do.

The third reason was making friends through play, or ‘social cohesion’. Through play, dogs build their social skills and bonds with others. Dogs prefer to play with someone they know and play can also be used to get to know a new person or dog. There was quite a lot of evidence for this in dogs because the games they play, who they choose to play with, and how they play all revolve around improving their social relationships. 

The final reason was play by accident, or a ‘by-product of biological processes’. As play appears to not have a function, it could be a by-product of something else. For example, play may simply occur because the dog has too much energy, or wants something to do in boring surroundings. It may make up for a lack of contact with other dogs, which is why they play a lot when they meet up with them during walks. Play could also be a learned response, either because it feels good, or because someone taught them to do it, it happens more over time. Through selective breeding, dogs have many qualities of young animals, and play may be one of these. We were not convinced that these are the only reasons play exists though, because there are so many types of play and each dog has their own level of playfulness, which is stable over time.


We also considered what play means for animal welfare. Most people believe that dogs have fun when they play and many scientists think that play is a sign that animals feel healthy and happy. Yet ‘play’ is not one thing. Play can be done alone, with a person, or with other dogs. 

When play is done alone, it is often with a toy or another object. This could improve their physical skills, but be caused by a lack of other stimulation in their surroundings. In some cases tail chasing, that looks like play, can be a sign that something might be wrong.

Play with other dogs is good for welfare as it improves their physical skills, social skills, and coping abilities. However, if play is one-sided, not evenly matched, or turns into aggression (owners aren’t always able to tell the difference), this would not be good for welfare. Some dog breeds are less capable of showing other dogs that they want to be playful, because they have features such as shorter legs, longer bodies, or docked tails. It’s important that dogs have access to other dogs (of various shapes and sizes) from a young age so they can learn how to communicate properly in social situations.

Finally, most dogs prefer to play with their owner than another person. They can play with them as a play partner, or the person can move toys for the dog in a way that acts as a substitute for prey. It’s worth noting that play might not always be fun for the dog if it involves too many commands rather than being spontaneous. There are other ways play between people and dogs could improve dog welfare, such as using play as a way to positively reward training or to improve adoption from shelters by having dog play with prospective owners. Contact with dogs has been shown to make people feel better too! 

Take-aways for dog lovers:
  • There are many types of play and each type builds different skills in a dog.
  • Play is self-rewarding (fun) for dogs.
  • Play is not always a positive sign of a dog’s wellbeing. 
    • Play with other dogs and games with people build their social skills, but take care if play partners are not evenly matched.
    • Excessively playing alone or tail chasing may indicate a lack of stimulation in their surroundings or another problem. 
  • Playing with a dog is good for bonding and consider including play that does not revolve around commands.

Rebecca Sommerville
Animal Welfare Advisor

Sommerville, R., O’Connor, E. A., & Asher, L. (2017). Why do dogs play? Function and welfare implications of play in the domestic dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 197, 1-8.

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27 February 2018

Early bird tickets through February 28th! Canine Science Symposium April 14-15, 2018 in San Fransisco

Early bird tickets through February 28th! Canine Science Symposium April 14-15, 2018 in San Fransisco

In its 6th year running, the Canine Science Symposium returns year after year to the San Francisco SPCA because nothing about the dog is stagnant. Not only do itty bitty puppies inevitably grow, but so does our understanding of dog behavior and cognition. This, in turn, can affect their welfare and wellbeing -- how we care for and interact with them.

As a past and present conference participant, I (this is Julie) always look forward to the Canine Science Symposium for two simple reasons: I learn from my colleagues, and I learn from audience participants. It's that simple. I can't think of a better way to serve dogs. 

Also, this year I hope to meet Officer Edith -- who I follow closely on Twitter (you should too!). She's next door at San Francisco Animal Care and Control; so many dog people in one spot!

The Canine Science Symposium was recently featured among the Top 10 Animal Behavior Conferences for 2018, and here’s why. This year’s two-day conference features 15 speakers and 2 tracks (view speakers, abstracts, and symposium agenda). Themes include dog behavior, shelter enrichment and adoption, training, working dogs, play, and the dog-human bond, and more.

More specifically, talks focus on the efficacy of clickers and other reinforcement methods, offer a constructional approach to playgroups, explore the effect of temporary fostering on shelter dog welfare, dive into K9 scent work and its applications, look into dogs in animal-assisted interventions, consider behavior-based euthanasia decisions, explore the role of neuropeptides in mammalian emotions, social behavior, and cognition, detail adoption and enrichment interventions, and take on the art and science of the shelter meet-and-greet, among other topics!

Clive Wynne and I kick off and close out the conference, respectively (we’re not giving the same talk, promise. We checked). Clive argues, “that how people care for their dogs is not keeping up with the best practices that science is developing,” and I wonder whether more research is really needed. Yes, scientific question begets scientific question, but does this suggest we’re entirely in the dark about dogs What do we know now?

Participants can receive continuing education units, and the early bird special is through Wednesday, February 28:

See you in San Francisco?

Follow on social media: #CSS2018
Conference dates: April 14-15, 2018
Conference location: 
SF SPCA's Education & Training Center
243 Alabama Street
San Francisco, CA 94103

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6 February 2018

Is Your Dog a Social Butterfly?

Is Your Dog a Social Butterfly?

Please welcome today’s guest contributor, Dr. Erica Feuerbacher, an Assistant Professor of Companion Animal Behavior and Welfare at Virginia Polytechnic and State University. And check out Erica’s earlier DYBID post, Less Talk More Touch: What's Your Dog Saying to You?

Sandra Tilkeridisová, Unsplash

Hello Dog Believers! 
We dog devotees have an abundance of tales about our special relationship with our dogs. These anecdotes seem backed by the fact that dog lovers often can’t use the bathroom alone, and our dogs are incredibly excited when we come home. The good news is that science backs this up: owners do have a special relationship with their dogs. 

In my own research, I have asked dogs simple questions about their preferences. For example, I present them with two alternatives and ask, “Which do you like better?” The answer is given by the dog’s behavior—which alternative do they spend more time with, and how much more time do they spend with it? I have investigated dogs’ preferences for petting compared to food delivery, and petting compared to vocal praise. In some of this research, we observed effects of the presence of the owner, but I hadn’t looked directly into dog preference for their owners. 

To explore whether dogs display a preference for their owner, Clive Wynne and I gave dogs a similar choice: do you want petting from your owner or petting from a stranger? And does this choice differ if we ask the question in an unfamiliar setting  (an unknown laboratory room) or in a familiar setting (the dog’s home)? 

For 10 minutes each dog was free to interact with either owner or stranger (both of whom were seated), or neither. Dogs spent about 80% of the session near a person, but with whom they spent the most time differed by location: in an unfamiliar location, dogs spent significantly more time with their owner (by a 4 to 1 advantage), but in the familiar setting, they spent more time with the stranger (by a 2 to 1 advantage). Interestingly, dogs tested in the familiar location (the home) still approached their owners first—nearly 70% of the time—before then going to chill with the stranger for the rest of the session. And dogs tested in the unfamiliar location approached their owner first at an even higher rate! 

These results points to two takeaways: first, in a stressful situation—like being in a new, unfamiliar place—you are likely a comfort for your dog, and your dog would prefer to be with you over a stranger or anywhere else in the new place. Second, your dog, while certainly having a special relationship with you, is still a social butterfly and interested in meeting new people, particularly when in a comfortable setting. The suggestion of dogs’ social butterfly-ness aligns with other recent research by vonHoldt and colleagues (2017) which suggests dogs are hypersocial and that this has a genetic component.

But what about shelter dogs who don’t have an owner? Are dogs in shelters equal opportunists, splitting their time evenly between two strangers? Or, do they prefer one stranger over another? We investigated this too! Shelter dogs did show a preference for one stranger over another, and even more interestingly, the degree to which they preferred that stranger was similar in magnitude to the preference that owned dogs had showed for their owners in an unfamiliar setting! Other research has demonstrated that shelter dogs start to show attachment behaviors toward a stranger after spending just three, short 10-minute sessions together. Our data suggest this attachment might start to form even faster than that. We also tested owned dogs with two strangers and they behaved just like shelter dogs. 

Here's Sugar in the shelter at the beginning of the session... 

and Sugar later in the session...

In these experiments, we did not explore on what basis dogs made their choice. Why did dogs prefer one stranger over another? Now that we know how quickly dogs can show a preference for one person over another we can start to explore why—is their preference based on olfactory, tactile, or physical characteristics of the person? 

It’s also useful to remember that we tested socialized dogs. The shelter dogs were up for adoption, and the owned dogs were, we hoped, not dogs likely to aggress towards a stranger. We don’t know whether these results apply to dogs with more stranger-directed issues. 

In the end, though, our results bring up a few points: You do have a special relationship with your dog. This is especially evident when the dog is stressed. Understanding this has potential welfare implications for some of our practices, such as taking the dog in the back at veterinary clinics and separating the dog from the owner. Is this useful or harmful to the dog? Or are the effects of these separations owner- and dog-dependent? But we ought to start asking these questions for our dogs’ sakes. Our results also demonstrate dog hypersociability and that dogs’ can be quite socially fluid, forming many different human-dog relationships. So whether you are on the more introverted side, like yours truly, remember that you might just have to up your social game to keep up with your dog. 

Assistant Professor of Companion Animal Behavior and Welfare
Virginia Polytechnic and State University 

Feuerbacher, E. N., & Wynne, C. D. L. (2017). Dogs don't always prefer their owners and can quickly form strong preferences for certain strangers over others. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 108(3), 305–317.
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