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


30 October 2012

Ideally amicable: beauty and behaviour (part 2)

Hellloooo Julie,

Isn’t it interesting that bigger eyes are a preferred attribute for attractiveness, yet we find animals covering their faces (and therefore obscuring their eyes!) super cute? The eyes have it, but they obviously aren’t the full story. 

I look forward to hearing more!

While you tell me about what rings our bells in terms of physical looks, I'd like to get back to telling you about Tammie King's research into behaviour assessment and contemplating what behavioural traits we prefer in our companion dogs (Part 1 here).

I think I was up to telling you how Tammie set about creating an assessment with the aim of measuring the canine personality trait, ‘amicability’. She wanted to see if this was possible using a relatively SIMPLE protocol (because remember, we need this to be feasible for use in the real world). 

(Abstract from King et al., 2012, details below)
Tammie modified a well-known protocol called the Ainsworth Strange Situation Test for this purpose. Dogs were filmed undergoing the assessment in which they were exposed to a novel environment and unfamiliar person, initially with their owner and then without.

Tammie then gathered a focus group of dog behaviour experts (dog trainers, vets, people who work in animal shelters, breeders, etc. etc.) who independently watched videos of dogs who had undergone the pilot study and rated them on their level of amicability, based on a previously described list of attributes. There was a high level of agreement between which dogs the experts considered more or less amicable. This demonstrated that the protocol was able to elicit a range of behaviours which is excellent as it means we should be able to accurately identify what it was that enabled the experts to identify ‘amicable’ and ‘non-amicable’ dogs.

Tammie put her scientist hat back on and decided the most objective way to work out what was important to measure, was to begin by measuring absolutely every freaking behaviour, from every freaking angle. So she did. Data were collected from over 200 dogs and their owners.

Take a look at some of the footage:

She kept tally of all behavioural variables and went about conducting analyses to determine which variables to retain and which to discard, basically which ones were important in predicting ‘amicability’ Her ethogram is the king kong of canine ethograms.

To further evaluate the assessment, Tammie  asked two of the experts to rate ALL of the dogs to examine the intra-inter- rater reliability (which was very high = good!). Tammie also examined test-retest reliability and predictive validity. She also compared the owners’ reports of their dogs’ amicability. Interestingly, experts and owners don’t always agree

Dogs were behaving differently than owners expected. This might be due to a number of factors. Perhaps the assessment only offers a small snapshot of the dogs’ behaviour in the limited time available; perhaps owners are biased at look at their dogs through rose tinted glasses, etc. 

After a whole lot of statistical analysis, Tammie was able to determine which behavioural variables best predict ‘amicability’. The amount of contact the dog made with the stranger, its locomotion, vocalisations, time spent in particular areas of the arena and body posture were  all considered important.

Tammie has copped a bit of flack from ‘concerned individuals’ who seem afraid that this assessment will be the be-all-and-end-all of dog temperament tests and that every dog will be forced to be AMICABLE

But honestly, this is just a starting step. Step 1 in developing an accurate behaviour assessment for dogs, using the canine personality dimension of ‘amicability’ as a test case.

Tammie won’t really know how successful it is as a test protocol until a lot more data is collected from many dogs far and wide. Longitudinal data would be helpful, as would examining different breeds, puppies to adults, dogs from varying regions, etc. etc. Tammie also believes strongly that having a test like this in existence does not mean we take the emphasis off TRAINING dogs. We still need educate people about dog behaviour, welfare and training to ensure dogs and people live together harmoniously.

Dogs, like people and other animals, are constantly evolving. Perhaps some of the newer dog types around are already being selected for amicability without people realising it? Perhaps new breeds might be developed for this identified niche of FAMILY PET/COMPANION dog. This still leaves room for the people who want whatever dog they want and leaves them free to train it to do what they want.

Tammie suggests we will benefit from being TRANSPARENT about the sort of dog/s we have. Because having ACCURATE information on our dogs’ behaviour can help us make informed decisions regarding their breeding, training, housing and socialisation requirements. It has the potential to help with dog-owner matching, breeding decisions, etc. and also pave the way for future behaviour assessments aimed to measure other traits. In my mind, that has to be a good thing!

So what about their looks?
Are there physical traits that could also make for better companion animals?


Further reading:

King, T., Marston, L.C. & Bennett, P.C. (2012). Breeding dogs for beauty and behaviour: Why scientists need to do more to develop valid and reliable behaviour assessments for dogs kept as companions, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 137 (1-2) 12. DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.11.016

Ley, J., Bennett, P. & Coleman, G. (2008). Personality dimensions that emerge in companion canines, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 110 (3-4) 317. DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2007.04.016

King, T., Marston, L. & Bennett, P. (2011). Development of the Monash Canine Amicablity Assessment (MCAA), Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 6 (1) DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2010.08.033

© Mia Cobb 2012
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26 October 2012

Video Special: Cutest thing ever? Paws on the face!

I'll start with some eye candy
Hi Mia, 

"What do you think is the most common role of dogs these days?"
As I read that in your last post, I blurted out, "companionship" (the guy sitting next to me in the coffee shop didn't even flinch. New Yorkers are expected to talk to ourselves. I succeed). For many people in many societies and cultures, dogs are brought into our lives to be companions.  

But what are the behaviors that make up "companionship"? That's where you come in! Tell me more about Tammie's work into dog behavior and her finding that people want "amicable" dogs, and I'll stick with looks.

Looking at looks
That's what my research talk at the Association of Pet Dog Trainers Conference was all about. I presented our lab's research on what humans find aesthetically pleasing about dogs’ physical appearance. In our study, people viewed images of mixed-breed, adult dogs. We found that they preferred:
This dog has a number of the "preferred" attributes
  • bigger eyes
  • colored irises  
  • approximating a “human” smile 
Interestingly, these attributes were not preferred by everyone, just people who self-labelled as “dog people” or “animal people.” Apparently, what humans find aesthetically appealing in dogs might differ based on how they view dogs and animals in the first place.

What is cute?
I've spent a lot of time reading about what's perceived as cute and physically appealing, and a
pparently, this is considered the cutest thing ever...

Why is this cute? Part of the reason for the "cuteness" might come from an idea suggested by Horowitz and Bekoff (2007): Cute is the ability to use one's limbs to cover one's face. I think they're onto something... 


Bye for now!
King, T., Marston, L.C. & Bennett, P.C. (2009). Describing the ideal Australian companion dog, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 120 (1-2) 93. DOI:10.1016/j.applanim.2009.04.011

Horowitz, A.C. & Bekoff, M. (2007). Naturalizing Anthropomorphism: Behavioral Prompts to Our Humanizing of Animals, Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 20 (1) 35. DOI: 10.2752/089279307780216650

Bekoff, M. Dogs: Looking At the Way We Look At Our Best Friends. Psychology Today. August 21, 2012
© Julie Hecht 2012
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23 October 2012

Ideally amicable: beauty and behaviour (Part 1)

Hi Julie!

How was the APDT conference
Those citizen science projects in your last post were completely awesome – I still can’t decide if the slowed down baby laughter sound is hilarious or scary! Not sure I’d want to hear my kid’s giggle turned into Uncle Fester’s slow-play snicker is all I’m saying.

Looking at those babies’ behaviour, we can obviously tell they are happy little campers, but what assessments can be made about dog behaviour? More importantly, what are the behaviours that contribute to dogs thriving and living happily as modern-day companion dogs and members of our families?

The Anthrozoology research group considered this question a few years back. We often have discussion about dogs with our science goggles on (no, not literally – we don’t even wear lab coats! *snicker*). We talked about the idea of dogs having their behaviour scored and assessed in the same (best practice) way as their hips/elbows/eyes/insert physical trait are prior to breeding. Wouldn't that be amazing? This would be more than simply a breed standard description (e.g. Lhasa Apso: “Gay and assertive, but chary of strangers”; Dalmatian: "stable and outgoing, yet dignified", AKC breed standards), as you touched on in an earlier post. This would be an actual assessment of an individual dog’s behaviour.

This could be such a helpful tool. For potential owners (e.g. check out the documented behaviour profiles of the individual parents before purchasing a pup), for local councils (e.g. could help them better manage the dogs living in their community, including the dangerous ones), breeders, trainers, shelters, etc. etc. etc.

Tammie and her dog Kade
Tammie King was part of those discussions and her research is taking on this huge piece of big-picture pie, head first. Tammie began her PhD journey wanting to improve our capacity to accurately and objectively assess canine behaviour with the goal of improving transparency of the types of dogs we have (own/breed) in our communities. This is a continuously challenging area of study and one of significance for many sectors of our society.

But hasn’t someone already worked out how to do that?
There are already plenty of behaviour assessments in existence. The problem is that they’re all trying to measure different things, in different ways, guided by different ethics (specifically regarding eliciting aggression), using different equipment and different assessors in all different scenarios in varying parts of the world. Many have not been evaluated regarding their effectiveness. As scientists, we’d like to limit variability by producing an objective (not biased), standardised assessment which has been shown to be valid (accurate), reliable (repeatable by different people on different occasions) and is feasible (can be safely used by a range of organisations).

That sounds easy!
Does it? Awesome! What would you measure? Objectively, remember. How would you score it? What would you use in your test to prompt the behaviour that informs your assessment? Keep in mind the assessment needs to have a practical time frame to be useful in a real-world context. What would you involve in your protocol? The owner? A stranger? Another dog? A small child? Food? Cats? Penguins? Wait!

I changed my mind.
That sounds hard!
You’re right. It’s not an easy task. Tammie decided to tackle this the way we all should take on any big task – by breaking it down into manageable pieces. She started by asking “WHAT should my assessment be measuring?” Rather than just take a stab in the dark, Tammie took the question to the masses and asked the Australian public what their ‘ideal’ dog would be.

Nearly 1,000 people took her online survey and it turns out that most people seem to want dogs which are friendly, easy going, safe with children, affectionate, etc. When it comes to dogs living as companion animals, most people do not want the traditionally bred purpose-type dogs, i.e. hunting/guard/herding dogs (Oh hush your protests, this is what the data said, not what Tammie or I are personally saying). 

Instead, in these current times, most people in Australia want what a dog that can be categorised as AMICABLE.

Amicable is ideal?
The next stage of Tammie’s research involved developing a behaviour assessment specifically designed to measure the canine personality trait, amicability.

I’ll tell you more about all of that next time. But I’d love to hear your thoughts - what do you think the most common role of dog is these days? Should we be breeding dogs for beauty and behaviour in their role as modern companion animals? 

Until next time,


Further reading:

King, T., Marston, L.C. & Bennett, P.C. (2009). Describing the ideal Australian companion dog, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 120 (1-2) 93. DOI:10.1016/j.applanim.2009.04.011

King, T., Marston, L. & Bennett, P. (2011). Development of the Monash Canine Amicablity Assessment (MCAA), Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 6 (1) DOI:10.1016/j.jveb.2010.08.033

© Mia Cobb 2012
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18 October 2012

You are Science. Citizen Science.

What a big eye you have! Oh, you're doing science!

You are 1,000% right. Your rightness is statistically significant. Citizen Science is awesome.

To keep with the awesomeness of Citizen Science, here are a few more Citizen Science websites and projects.

Citizen Science Aggregators

Citizen Science on Scientific American

  • "Scientists collaborating across continents. Now, using the power of the Internet, non-specialists are participating, too."
  • “In a nutshell... This is the place to find out about, take part in, and contribute to science through recreational activities and research projects.” They have an enormous listing of different projects you can join. Through scistarter, you pick an activity, pick a topic and BLAMMO, it shoots out projects that interest you and that you could help with. (you must sign up on scistarter, but that's easy peasy).

Some of my favorite projects

  • (I partially, fine, mostly, like it's acronym) NASA scientists are interested in learning how clouds affect our atmosphere, particularly because clouds play a role in affecting Earth's overall temperature and energy balance. 

  • Hysterical, espeically when they slow down the babies laughing and they sound exactly like old men. Or maybe walruses? Or maybe someone choking. You tell me. My favorite is "Hysterical Bubbles", although that dog gets kinda close to that baby during his/her bubble enjoyment. "Baby laughing at Wii" is pretty good, too.

  • Kind of fabulous. This is their description: "An OTTER SPOTTER is YOU, a citizen scientist who observes river otters in your  neighborhood stream, river, bay/county state or national park/ and elsewhere and submits your information to this ecology project... As of September 2012: +150 observations submitted from across the Bay Area, keep them coming in!"

  • Talking about citizen science reminds me of a project called, I am Science which was on kickstarter and reached its goal. From the website: "I AM SCIENCE brings you the personal stories of the individuals who went off the beaten path toward their careers in science“I am Science” describes the stories behind the people who ended up in science careers. Whether as science writers, academic scientists, pharmaceutical technicians or all of the above there is one thing I have learned: the straight and narrow path is rarely the case."
I just got to Cincinnati for APDT 2012 and will be talking about that Physical Prompts to Anthropomorphism study tomorrow. 

Will try and tweet/Facebook on the conference's content!!

Nighty Night!


Bekoff, M. Dogs: Looking At the Way We Look At Our Best Friends. Psychology Today. August 21, 2012

© Julie Hecht 2012
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14 October 2012

Citizen science and digital platforms: folding it all the way to outer space

Hello Julie!

I hope you are having a fun weekend. 

I’m still on a mind-whirling high from attending the ScienceRewired launch event on Thursday last week. ScienceRewired is a philanthropic initiative that aims to promote public engagement in science through digital and social technologies

Their mission is to aid non-technical science practitioners and the digital domain in working together, to look at science from new perspectives while helping educate and empower individuals to create significant positive change in the world. Their focus spreads across science education, science communication and citizen science initiatives – what’s not to love about that?!

I was fortunate to be awarded a scholarship to attend the day in Adelaide (730km / 450 miles away from home) by the Australian Science Communicators. The event was themed ‘Connect, Collaborate and Communicate for Change’ and intended to bring together science communicators, academics, media professionals and digital visionaries for a one day conference of debate, insight and education as a springboard for ongoing communication and action. We heard from a wide range of wonderful speakers about different digital/social media initiatives (most session content has been reported here), but what I wanted to share with you today were two really exciting and different projects that are underway using citizen science.
What is Citizen Science anyway?

Citizen science has been gaining momentum since the mid-1990’s, but just in case you haven’t heard the term before, relax

You already know what it is even if you haven’t heard the label. 

Simply put, it’s when amateur scientists or non-professionally-scientific people (i.e. general public) collaborate and help contribute to science. The internet has made this super easy.


The "human spokesperson for theSkyNet", Kirsten Gottschalk, gave an engaging talk about the 'passive' (means you don't have to really do much at all to contribute to science = win for lazy people who still care) cit-sci project being used to process astronomical (literally!) amounts of data to understand our Universe and make awesome new discoveries.

This is done by participating citizens clicking a link that enables their computer to process small packets of data that provide small pieces of the huge puzzle that is the work of radio astronomers. 

In their first 24 hours, they had over 3,000 registered contributors! 

It's so cool. 
Watch the video to learn more!

David Baker (source)

We also heard from David Baker who Skyped in from his office at the University of Washington. His enthusiasm for the foldit project was infectious and he had everyone in the audience marvelling at this clever project that has engaged gamers and other interested members of the public to help solve major molecular protein design problems related to human diseases and their cures.

The contributions generated through people playing this game have contributed to developments in the field and (this is my favourite bit!) has even resulted in foldit players being credited as authors on a published scientific manuscript. Not individually, no. But as Foldit Players aka Players, F. I love that!

Now my mind is spinning about how all this exciting new knowledge and improved understand of the role and forms that citizen science can play in research.  So what does this post have to do about canine science? Well, maybe not much. 
Hope to hear from you soon,


Further reading:

Hand, E. (2010). Citizen science: People power, Nature, 466 (7307) 687. DOI: 10.1038/466685a

Khatib, F., Cooper, S., Tyka, M.D., Xu, K., Makedon, I., Popovic, Z., Baker, D. & Players, F. (2011). From the Cover: Algorithm discovery by protein folding game players, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108 (47) 18953. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1115898108

Wiggins, A. & Crowston, K. (2011). From Conservation to Crowdsourcing: A Typology of Citizen Science, System Sciences, 10. DOI: 10.1109/HICSS.2011.207 

Parsons, J., Lukyanenko, R. & Wiersma, Y. (2011). Easier citizen science is better, Nature, 471 (7336) 37. DOI: 10.1038/471037a 

Citizen science @ Scientific American:

p.s. we cracked 1,000 likers on our facebook page - I LIKE THAT!
© Mia Cobb 2012
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