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


30 August 2012

Welfare hiding right in front of us

Hi there Mia!

When you address someone as I did above, do you put a comma between “there” and “Mia”? Maybe this is a grammar question for a grammar website (or I could just Google it), but I’m wondering if people put that comma in? 

I used to put in the comma, but then I was told it sounded like, “Hi there (paauuse) Mia!"

HI! How awesome to have those definitions out in the open. Prior to my program in Applied Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare, I hadn't considered that welfare could be defined or explicitly explored through the scientific method. But, when welfare’s in the title of your program, it’s bound to come up (but why the word animal 2 times! Was that really necessary?) I find that in general conversations, we talk about and around welfare: "How are you doing? How's your dog doing? How are you feeling," even though we might not necessarily realize that the responses are welfare-based in nature.

WSPA made a Concepts in Animal Welfare online course (available to anyone for free). I particularly like how they describe thinking about welfare. If someone asks you how you are feeling, at the moment, your welfare might be mighty fine in some areas but not so groovy in others. Our welfare, and the welfare of others, moves on a continuum.

Maybe this person should get a new chair and open or close a window.

So I think about welfare along this continuum from really good to middle-of-the-road to not-so-good, and different factors can come out in different places. Then, on top of everything, we have to consider welfare from the perspective of the other.

For example, if I just broke my leg falling down the stairs, I’m probably going to freak the #@!&@*!! out. But if a rabbit hurts himself, we might not know anything has happened because as a prey species, it's not in his best interest to freak the #@!&@*!! out. 

It’s not to say that he doesn’t experience pain, he just wasn’t built to make a big scene like I will. If the rabbit in pain made a scene, that could attract attention and he could end up someone's easy dinner. Best to hide it. 

But for me, maybe it’s adaptive to make a big scene so that someone will come help me? Or, maybe the big scene has the opposite effect and makes other people want to stay away? Or maybe a lawyer would see me in my state of chaos and distress and weigh the benefits of helping me against the risk of a possible lawsuit. Humans are complicated...

What's interesting about dogs is that less-than-awesome welfare states can sometimes be hidden right in front of us. 


A while back, I attended an outdoor, end-of-summer dog event called WoofStock. Dogs and people meandered about. It was hot. I saw a crowd of people, and I went over (because that's what we do). 

A man was carrying a Pug, and boy was that tongue hanging out of that dog's mouth. Everyone was cramming in to look at the, “Oh-So-Cute” dog! I was left wondering, Why isn’t he walking around like all the other dogs? He too has the gift of 4 legs. 

I researched brachycephalic dogs, and found that through decades of breeding, we have created (and maintained) a dog who can have difficulty breathing and whose tongue doesn’t fit in its mouth. I pulled the research together and wrote a blog post on Dog Spies called,  

I hope you agree that I don't think it's "pick on pug" day. I'm just looking at the question of welfare from three different directions: (1) how do dogs look; (2) what do we find aesthetically pleasing and (3) do certain physical attributes offer particular challenges?

Sometimes what we humans like and find attractive & aesthetically pleasing is not in dogs' best interests. For example, what's the welfare of the above Pug? Some might look at this dog and say, What a cute face! But is he enjoying where his tongue is?

Bye for now!


Oechtering, G., Schlüter, C. & Lippert, J. (2010). Brachycephaly in dog and cat: a "human induced" obstruction of the upper airways, Pneumologie, 64 (07) 452. DOI: 10.1055/s-0030-1255513

Asher, L., Diesel, G., Summers, J.F., McGreevy, P.D. & Collins, L.M. (2009). Inherited defects in pedigree dogs. Part 1: Disorders related to breed standards, The Veterinary Journal, 182 (3) 411. DOI: 10.1016/j.tvjl.2009.08.033

© Julie Hecht 2012
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27 August 2012

I'll show you mine if you show me yours!

Yep - that adult (green coat) having more fun than any kid? That's me.
Hey Julie,

We had a fun weekend, there were miniature trains involved, so how can that be anything other than fabulous? 
I hope you did too!

Can I firstly say – !!!! – how awesome is EthoSearch?! Thank you SO MUCH for sharing that with me – I can’t believe I didn’t know about it and will certainly be starting any conversations with new students in my research group with “Hi, I’m Mia, and here is the link for EthoSearch – you’re welcome”. It’s a GREAT resource.

So you’d like me to define ‘animal welfare’, would you?

Great question! I’ll show you mine if you show me yours! I’m not sure I have a one line response, but allow me to ‘think out loud’ if you will...

I think it’s fair to say that there’s no single universal definition of ‘animal welfare’. 

I think this is partly because our understanding of how and what animals experience is changing over time and partly because different people emphasise different aspects of animal experiences so their 'angle' on/of animal welfare will also differ.

It is a term with its roots in philosophy and ethics and I was lucky enough to share great conversation over dinner with Peter Sandøe earlier this year. 

Sandøe trained as a philosopher and is currently a Professor of bioethics in Denmark. You can hear the public lecture (and see the PowerPoint presentation) that he gave in March 2012, titled ‘Animal Welfare – where does science end and ethics begin?’ via the Animal Welfare Science Centre/RSPCA Australia. It’s a fabulous presentation and well worth taking the 45min if this is a topic of interest to you.

When I refer to thoughts about the definition of ‘animal welfare’ used by people who have been working in this field far longer than me, I find:

Broom (who, incidentally, I can happily vouch for as a master of the conference dance floor!):
“The welfare of an individual is its state as regards its attempts to cope with its environment”. 
  • If coping can be achieved easily with little effort and resource, energy and time use – welfare is considered OK. 
  • If it fails to cope or coping takes much time/energy/resources, then welfare is obviously poor.

From within Sandøe & Christiansen:
  • The welfare of a sentient animal is determined by its capacity to avoid suffering and sustain fitness.
  • Not only will welfare mean control of pain and suffering, it will also entail nurturing and fulfilment of animals natures.

"Good welfare is achieved when animals are healthy and have what they want

From within Stafford:
  • The welfare of an animal relates to its subjective experiences of life.
  • We can never know the subjective experience of a dog but we can be reasonably sure of its physical condition and can use physiological, behavioural and immunological parameters to give some indication of an animal’s experience of suffering and pleasure.
  • The strength of these emotions may be measured using physiological and behavioural parameters that appear to be common to many mammals including humans.
  • Interpretation is always subjective.


From within Grandin:
Despite debates on what animal welfare is, many guidelines  and regulations have been created to protect animal’s wellbeing. It’s a little peculiar to imagine rules governing a concept that we, in general, have so much trouble understanding and defining. Some animal welfare concepts and concerns are purely ethical and cannot be completely explained scientifically. 

I think many people would anticipate a response to your question along the lines of ‘animal welfare refers to an animal’s physical and mental well-being’. For me this is a little like your example of saying ‘aggression is aggressive because it’s aggression’ – it doesn’t really clarify what is meant. I could also say 'there is no definition, we don't know what we mean by animal welfare'... 
How would you rate this dog's welfare compared to the one below? (source)
Instead, I think I prefer to say that I understand ‘animal welfare’ as a state of an individual animal which can range from negative to positive and is influenced by its physical, behavioural, environmental and affective experiences. I’m also quite prepared to change this understanding as I continue to learn. 

What ‘good animal welfare’ refers to may need to wait to be a topic for another day!

I’m very interested to hear more about the welfare aspects of the work Marc Bekoff touched on in his article last week. Can you tell me a bit more about that? 

And remember – I’ve shown you mine, so fair’s fair... 


Broom, D.M. (1986). Indicators of poor welfare, British Veterinary Journal, 142 (6) 526. DOI: 10.1016/0007-1935(86)90109-0

Dawkins, M.S. (2008). The Science of Animal Suffering, Ethology, 114 (10) 945. DOI: 10.1111/j.1439-0310.2008.01557.x

Grandin, T. (Ed.) (2010) Improving Animal Welfare: a practical approach, (Book), Cabi; ISBN: 978-1-84593-541-2

Sandøe, P. & Christiansen, S. (2008) Ethics of animal use, (Book), Blackwell Publishing; ISBN: 978-1-4051-5120-7

Stafford, K. (2006). The Welfare of Dogs, (Book), DOI: 10.1007/1-4020-4362-7

© Mia Cobb 2012
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24 August 2012

Rockstars, Ethograms and Behavior (Problems)

Hi Mia,

Last weekend, my welfare was enhanced by sun, sand and saltwater. I’m not flaunting, just saying. Summer will come to you soon!
Speaking of welfare, very happy that you defined all those elements that are so important to studying animal welfare. Obviously you spend most of your time assessing welfare, and I want to back up a minute to ask how are you defining welfare? I'm sure you've thought about this a lot. I too have thoughts, and if we lived closer, we could rock, paper, scissor to decide who gives their definition first. In the meantime, can you give your definition first, as you post next? ;)
Behavior has been on my mind because I recently went to a rockstareque event here in NYC, equipped with a black and pink tour bus. You might assume a tour called Keep the L.O.V.E Alive has loads of nudity, but these rockstars kept their clothes on, and they were Veterinary Behaviorists. They were on a 6-city bus tour distributing information to the public and veterinarians to reduce euthanasia by solving behavior problems. The tour hopes to raise awareness that there are solutions to what humans deem problem behaviors in dogs and cats. I posted a short summary of the Keep the L.O.V.E Alive tour on Dog Spies.

I’m sure one day we’ll dive into the wide world of “behavior problems,” but let’s stick with plain ‘ol behavior for now.

As you mentioned, in this field, we often measure behavior. But before we can record what’s happening, we first need to define what we are measuring. And, we also need to define it in a specific-enough way so that other people can measure behavior using our definition.


For example, how can we define the behavior of SLEEPING? "Sleeping: When a dog assumes a prostrate position and the eyes are closed for more than 10 seconds.” Is that a good definition? Maybe "prostrate" isn’t helpful to the definition because sometimes puppies sleep sitting up. Or maybe, “eyes are closed for more than 10 seconds,” isn’t helpful because when petting a dog, its eyes might be closed for more than 10 seconds even though it’s awake. Defining behaviors takes some thought. 
Since I’m a huge fan of thinking about how to define behaviors, I want to tell you how much I love a resource called EthoSearch (if I sound like a 3:00 am infomercial for EthoSearch, that’s because I would love to give a
3:00 am informercial for EthoSearch).
Do you know EthoSearch?? EthoSearch originated with the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and is “a searchable database of peer reviewed and educational ethograms”. As you mentioned, ethograms are “a comprehensive list, inventory, or description of the behavior of an organism." Usually, people create ethograms for what they're measuring or looking at.

Here’s an example of an ethogram and data sheet (this is a kids version, kids can record behavior data too! Yay!):

Source: Ethosearch Education Page
There’s actually something for everyone on EthoSearch. On their Research Track, you can browse existing ethograms and contribute to the ethogram database. On their Education Track, you can learn about ethograms and view datasheets. The Education Track is a great resource for students (of any age) when they are learning how to look at animals.

And anyone can register for EthoSearch! It's free!  

From a research perspective, I like ethograms because you can see how others define the behaviors they then measured. If I know that two studies define a behavior identically, then I can think about their results in a comparative light. But, for example, if one study defines SNIFFING as, “Nose makes contact with any part of recipient’s body for a minimum of 5 sec,” and another paper defines SNIFFING as, “All motor movements of the muzzle directed towards the subject, either touching it or within 20 cm,” it could be hard to compare the two studies because they weren’t necessarily coding the same behaviors.*

Sometimes ethograms have not-so-good definitions. If
SNIFFING is defined as, “Nose is moved close to recipient in a happy manner,” this doesn’t provide information about how close, which part of the recipient, for how long and what is meant by “happy”.

Also, I’m also not a fan when a behavior is defined by itself. Aggression is aggressive because it is aggression? Thanks. I’ll be sure to look out for that. 
Patricia McConnell recently gave a great example of how to break down behavior into itty, bitty pieces. Instead of simply plopping a label on top of the two dogs in the photo to the right, she looks at their physical body postures to get a sense of what the behavior comes out to be. And like you said, she puts the behavior in context. 

Click to visit Patricia McConnell blog post
In case anyone in the world does not follow Patricia McConnell’s blog or does not regularly reference her resources on dog and cat behavior, they should stop what they’re doing and follow. Also, she plans to post more of these behavior breakdowns in the future.

In conclusion, apparently I wanted to give an ode to ethograms today. What's on your mind? 

Bye for now, and happy weekend!


*These definitions are in my notes, and I'm looking for the sources.

© Julie Hecht 2012
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21 August 2012

It's all about objective multiples...

First thoughts...
Hey Julie!

I hope you had a great weekend. Can I tell you more about assessing welfare? Hell to the yeah I can! 

(By the way, who gave you that photo of me working at 3:17am?!) 

I could probably blog every day until the next Canine Science Forum about measuring animal welfare - but there are so many other things I want to discuss with you, that simply won’t do.

In thinking how to respond to your question, I popped out to my bookcase (technically, it’s more of a book wall) and grabbed the first few books I thought of when I think of ‘understanding and assessing canine welfare’. There were 23 of them. Hmmm. And that’s before I even considered pulling up relevant scientific journal papers. So...

Interpreting and measuring animal welfare isn’t easy. There’s no litmus test for animal welfare, no smartphone app' that you can use to scan an animal and get a quick result as to whether its welfare is good, neutral or poor (but how cool would that be!).
It’s not easy, but it’s by no means impossible. 

Saliva collecting is easy with slobbery dogs
As scientists, we love an objective measure (one that requires minimal judgement by the person making the assessment, which reduces the chance of human bias and/or error) so we really love something that gives us numbers to analyse. This is where measurements of physical functions, like heart rate, weight, stress hormones and immune system function are great. No matter what mood I’m in, how much coffee I’ve drunk or what time of the night I’m reviewing my PhD data, I can’t alter the fact a salivary cortisol measure came in at 0.29µg/dL. Because that’s what the value is. It just is.

This dog obviously has 'good drive' (source)
Behavioural information is awesome because we can generally collect it without interfering with the animals, reducing any experimenter effect. It’s important that its measurement is still done objectively and this is where an ethological background (oh hey, like mine!) can be really handy. There are many industry-based terms which may mean different things to different people, or in different contexts. For example, in the working dog industry, terms like ‘drive’, ‘willingness’, ‘suspicion’ and ‘instinct’ are behavioural traits commonly referred to, but what is good drive? Has this boxer got ‘good drive’? How do we measure it? Is a livestock herding dog’s drive the same as a guide dog, police dog or racing greyhound’s drive? 

When we measure behaviour objectively using an ethogram, and look at frequencies (how often within a timeframe) or durations (length of time) of certain actions (like barking, sitting, walking, interaction with another dog, person or toy) we remove the human interpretation (and potential error in interpretation) from the data collection stage, which is SUPER important. So rather than rate the subjective term drive, a scientist would tend to measure objective behaviours or actions, like command-response time, running speed or directional tracking of eye movements.

Environment is also important as it gives context to the physiological and behavioural data. For example, if a dog’s cortisol reading in my PhD work was unusually high (usually associated with stress) and the video recording showed that dog barking incessantly in its kennel yard for an extended period of time, I might interpret that as a dog with a significant stress response to being kennelled. However, if I know that at that particular time of behavioural sampling and prior to the saliva collection there was a thunderstorm taking place, it might change how I interpret the data in front of me. It’s critical not to overlook even the simplest of environmental factors (like temperature) that have been shown to affect both animal behaviour and physiology.

This is truly just the tip of the ‘assessing animal welfare’ iceberg and there's always more to learn. I haven’t touched on the hot topics of ‘quality of life’, ‘affective states’, individual vs. population welfare, the interplay of public attitudes/perceptions and ethics with animals welfare or why there is currently an emphasis about avoiding bad welfare rather than promoting the good – lucky we have time on our side for all of that! 

Hopefully this has helped give you an idea of why multiple (physiological and behavioural) measures are so important in assessing canine welfare – the more information you have to help with the interpretation of an animal’s experience, the better – until that smartphone app' comes along anyway!

So how was your weekend, anyway?


Dreschel, N.A. & Granger, D.A. (2009). Methods of collection for salivary cortisol measurement in dogs, Hormones and Behavior, 55 (1) 168. DOI: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2008.09.010

Martin, P. & Bateson, P. (2007) Measuring Behaviour: An Introductory Guide. (3rd Ed.) Cambridge University Press. ISBN: 9780521535632

© Mia Cobb 2012
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Scientific American gave us our first shout out!

Last week, we received an awesome surprise (well, Mia received the surprise first because she has a smartphone). Bora Zivkovic, Blog Editor at Scientific American,
named Do You Believe in Dog? Blog of the Week!


This brought our excitement level to a new high of 167% because it's great to see that others are on board and enjoying our pen pal ways. 

Scientific American bloggers are no strangers to canine science research, and here is some of their coverage:
Jason Goldman, a doctoral student in Developmental Psychology at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, is often considering dogs:
Scientific American is a great resource to consult when considering the dog, and we're looking forward to adding to the canine science conversation.

Thanks for joining us!

Julie Mia  

© Mia Cobb & Julie Hecht 2012
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18 August 2012

So much dog to talk about. All the time in the world!

Hi Mia,

Yowzer!! We have so much to talk about! Dogs eating poop, welfare assessment, behavioural needs, enrichment and the “guilty look” are only the beginning! 
Speaking of which, I’m sure you have at least 7,000 more words on assessing welfare. Can you tell me more about assessing welfare?

You hyperlinked to a scientific journal article by Dr. Georgia Mason, and that made me smile a lot lot lot (or, Alot).

I am a bit of a Georgia Mason worshiper (for any of you who don’t know, she is a researcher in Animal Behaviour and Welfare at the University of Guelph. She explores how the housing of “Applied Animals,” those animals managed or controlled by humans, affects behaviour, brain functioning and welfare. She focuses on lab, farm and zoo animals... I feel like The Oz coming down and speaking to people other than you, Mia. Weird). Anyway, a while back, I gave Dr. Mason directions at a conference in France, and it's still a big deal in my book.

So, yes! Tell me more about welfare assessment!!!

Life for me presently revolves around writing projects. Instead of writing about my writing projects, I'll give you a visual interpretation of what I’m working on and how I feel about it.

How I feel after reading a scientific paper and having a worthwhile thought:
Yay words! (source)

How I feel after sitting and writing for a long time:

Writing projects are about:
Chaser. (source)
Rico. (source)
Sofia. (source)

Another writing project on this beloved topic:
What's the "guilty look" all about? (source)

And writing up research I presented at the 3rd Canine Science Forum in Barcelona, where we met, awww...
What is aesthetically pleasing? (source)
What is aesthetically pleasing? (source)

Come September we'll gear up to finish a study at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab about this:
What the nose knows.(source)

I’ll tell you more about these pictures later.

Happy weekend!!!


Mason, G. 1993. Why is there no simple way of Measuring Animal Welfare? Animal Welfare 2, 301-319. Click here for abstract.

© Julie Hecht 2012
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16 August 2012

Approval endorsed! Now about that PhD...

Oh wow Julie!
The things crossing your desk are pretty darn exciting, I must say! 
Your first peer-reviewed scientific journal publication is totally awesome! It’s a study that I really enjoyed reading about and especially like this video illustration of how owner scolding can influence dog behaviour – poor Denver! 

I look forward to hearing more about the research you’ve done and are currently doing.
What things are you up to at the moment?  
“I’m working on my PhD”
I like these words a lot. They are on my wall.
It feels a little like I’ve been saying that forever, but technically, it’s not forever (yet). It HAS been several years, but turns out that if you pursue part-time post-grad’ research while juggling full time work, throw in a baby for an extra degree of difficulty (if only they assessed PhD’s like Olympic diving!) and also try to maintain some sort of life (friends are important!), it’s actually quite easy not to get a PhD done in 3 years. It will be a fantastic achievement when I submit it and I have a good feeling that’s not too far away now.
So what is it anyway?  My research is looking at the effect of an enrichment program on the welfare and performance of working dogs housed in a kennel facility. This came up as something that needed further investigation when I was managing the Training Kennel & Vet Clinic Department at Guide Dogs Victoria.
Most kennel facilities are pretty typical - built to easily maintain hygiene, house lots of dogs safely and securely in a limited amount of space. Because of this, even when facilities are new and kept clean, they are often sterile and unable to meet dogs’ behavioural needs
A working dog kennel facility I visited recently - sterile, much?
<<<< Know what I mean?
Certain behaviours seen in kennelled dogs, such as coprophagia (eating their own or other dogs’ poo – a behaviour not many people openly talk about, but it’s widely seen in kennelled populations), barking, floor licking and excessive self-grooming, have been linked to chronic  stress in dogs, helping identify where welfare could be improved.  
Too much of a good thing?
Both social (with people or other dogs/animals) and environmental (physical/sensory) enrichment have been shown to benefit dogs housed in kennel facilities, but no one has looked at the effects of putting these elements together into a structured program. Lots of organisations have implemented enrichment programs in their facilities, but we don’t actually know if it’s benefiting the dogs. It might just be that it makes us people feel better.  There’s a chance we might be stressing the dogs by giving them too much to do! This is important, not just to the dogs themselves, but in terms of the work we are wanting them to do.
How do you do that?  There are a few pieces to my PhD’s pie. First, I showed that dogs had a physical (stress and immune system) response to entering the kennel facility after leaving their family-home foster environment. Then we placed some dogs into the structured enrichment program and others were kept in the typical kennel manner. 
We videoed their behaviour and collected saliva/blood to monitor what was going on inside their bodies that we couldn’t see. Using multiple measures (both behavioural and physiological information) is really important when trying to assess animal welfare. I’ll compare the data from the two groups (enriched and standard kennels) to find out if enrichment made a difference to their welfare.
This study occurred while the dogs were being assessed for entry to guide dog training. So as well as information about how they coped with the kennels and whether the enrichment program helped to improve their welfare, we can also see if there is a relationship between their stress levels and their performance in assessment.  I'm VERY interested in this concept of 'Canine Performance Science' in working dogs. I also ran an online survey that over 2,145 people completed about their attitudes and perceptions in regards to working dogs, welfare, kennels, enrichment and training. I am looking at how these opinions vary between general public, kennel staff and dog trainers.
I’m looking forward to my number crunching being finished so I can share my results with everyone! Helping effect change is something I love in my work and it will be satisfying to contribute towards improving the welfare of kennelled dogs who go on to help people with their amazing work.
That’s all from me for now, I look forward to hearing what you’re doing currently,


© Mia Cobb 2012
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