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


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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  1. I looked at Boldness in dogs via a survey a couple of years ago and found that the boldest breeds in my study were the ones with the highest registration numbers for their kennel club groups. It made me wonder what selection pressures are on these breeds and whether they are popular because they are bold or bold because they are popular.

    In the meantime, I've been asking dogs how they feel about their lives using cognitive bias tests. It has left me feeling a little uneasy. I worry that the kind of dogs we want (amicable, friendly, easy going, social) are well suited to suburban life in that they don't cause a lot of trouble, but maybe they are uncomplaining by nature. Does this mean they have nothing to complain about? Given a lot of us work full-time and cannot take our dogs to work with us, are they likely to be content in a small yard on their own for maybe 10 hours a day? Remembering that they are friendly, social dogs.

  2. A reliable and 100% predictive behaviour assessment must be the holy grail! Hundreds of thousands of lives depend on it every year. I just dont know that we are going to get a test that is as conclusive every time, no matter what the environment, stimulus, etc, etc - as say an HD score test or similar. Can't wait to see where all this goes anyway - a big thank you to everyone working on the issues.


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