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


28 March 2013

Throw another dog in the (data) pool

Hello Julie,

My, oh my! What an exciting time it was last week, witnessing Dog Spies' migration to the Scientific American Blog Network. 

Such a great day for dogs, for science and for YOU

Yah! for this recognition of your fabulous writing achievements, communicating the field of canine science to a broader audience. WELL DONE!

As for your question about writing and how I do it, I have to admit I'm 'between systems' currently. By this, I mean that I sometimes map out ideas and plan my writing on paper before hitting the laptop; other times I just let rip straight onto the keyboard. 
I don't know if I'll ever migrate to a completely paperless system, but I feel that I'm moving in that direction. I still take most of my notes in meetings on paper, which is ridiculous as my handwriting is barely legible, even to me!
Thanks also for the link to that piece by Clive Wynne about academic writing - I really enjoyed reading it.


You said it. I'm neck-deep in meta-analysis goodness right now and I'd love to tell you more about it. 

The meta-analysis data set I'm currently involved in compiling is about canine salivary cortisol (that just means cortisol found in dog spit). Cortisol is a hormone (more detail here) regularly used in research concerning animal stress and welfare. I've been interested in canine salivary cortisol  for a while now. 

That's partly because I collected a lot of it (dog spit, that is) from dogs living in home environments and working dog kennels as part of my PhD research; and partly because its really interesting! But my data alone is just one piece of a bigger puzzle. While it's really valuable information (of course it's valuable, it's part of my PhD!), it only offers insight into around 75 dogs from one population of purpose-bred dogs in one geographic area during one two-year period. How do the results of these dogs in my study compare to 'normal' dogs?

Well, you see - that's the thing. What is the normal range for salivary cortisol in dogs?
We don't really know. 

What is it?
Meta-analysis is a way of evaluating and interpreting the results from research about a particular topic. It adds together the data from different studies, then looks at the compiled data pool to see what patterns and relationships might emerge in the larger body of available information created by the many research projects.
Throw another dog in the (data) pool! (source)

Why use it?
The patterns and groups we might look at within a meta-analysis of salivary cortisol (often used as an indicator of stress/welfare in dog research) are things like: 
  • Effects of different environments (do all the results from dogs housed in 'unfamiliar kennel environments' or 'familiar home environments' clump together at different or similar points within the range of values as a whole?); 
  • Effects of breed/age (is the range for labradors the same as that for german shepherds? Are all the young dogs in the same place as the old dogs?); 
  • Methodological aspects (such as what collection media was used: cotton swabs / synthetic rope / swabs with a saliva stimulant, etc. - does this effect where the cortisol results lie within the whole range?) 
All this information (and much more!) can be investigated and the information will help to provide further context for the existing studies, while also informing the design and interpretation of future studies.

Nancy Dreschel
Can you really do that?
Yep, you really can! Meta-analysis is a method used frequently in human health research and there are plenty of resources to refer to (check out 'further reading' section below). Of course, there are a few fancy statistical things you need to take into account and be aware of, to avoid tricksy sources of bias and subjectivity. 

Fortunately, my collaborator extraordinaire, Dr Nancy Dreschel, from The Pennsylvania State University, has set us up to work closely with an extensively experienced biostatistician, so we should be safe from any meta-analytic traps for young players.  

Nancy and I decided to undertake this project together after meeting at last year's Canine Science ForumIt really is the best conference ever.

You meet the greatest people there, no?!  

As I'm sure you already know, Nancy has done some very important research in the area of canine salivary cortisol, which I'll definitely write about in another post, another time (because cortisol in dog spit is SO worthy of being its own topic for discussion). She was recently chosen to receive the 2012 Excellence in Academic Advising Award from Penn State, and I'm so pleased to be working with her on this project. 
This dog could probably provide 5L of spit without trying (source)
So far we've had great support from our fellow researchers, who have shared the raw data from over 30 studies with us. This has allowed us to enter data that represents over 5,000 separate cortisol sample results. As Nancy pointed out to me in a recent conversation, that represents around 5L (or 1.3 US gallons) of canine saliva. Juicy! 

Want to see one?
Well lucky for you - here are three meta-analysis papers I prepared* earlier:
*These are not my research. By 'prepared', I meant 'hyperlinked'.

So there you have it. I'm excited about dogs and I'm excited about throwing their data into the compiled data pool. I imagine it will look something like this when we're finished compiling:
Data "pooled". Snorrrt. Get it? Pooled? Ha!

When I posted on Facebook about being excited about dogs and pools, you might have expected I'd talk about gene pools. Which is funny, because I wasn't intending to. Except that this week a study opened to collect data and the researchers involved in it ARE interested in gene pools, amongst other things - specifically the breeding, health, training and performance success of working farm dogs in Australia. 

The Farm Dog Project has launched (source)
Researchers at the University of Sydney, including Dr Joanathan Early, are seeking information via an online survey from working farm dog handlers about their dogs. Jono explained to me that "the information from this initial online survey will be used to focus the next stages of the Farm Dog Project's research into the specific areas that farmers identify as central to realizing the potential in farm dogs." 

If you have a working farm dog in Australia, you can take part in the online survey.

This will aid the Farm Dog Project's later endeavours, helping to focus and design objective behavioural measurements for traits that are highly valuable and/or difficult to train (remember when we talked about 'drive'?), so efforts can then be turned to identifying the gene behaviour associations which can assist future breeding programs. Dr Early expects that "this information can then be used over the longer term of the Farm Dog Project's scope to develop Estimated Breeding Values (EBV's) or Genetic breeding Values (geBV's) so that working farm dogs can benefit from the same access to science and breeding technology as the livestock they herd". Interestingly, some Guide Dog organisations have been using EBV's to genetically improve their dogs for guiding people with a visual impariment for close to a decade now.

This exciting body of research offers huge potential to the future of Australia's working farm dogs and has been supported by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC); Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) and the Working Kelpie Council.

I think I should stop now, this has turned into a long post, but it's tough with all this exciting canine science going around me! What's going on around you? Is it exciting too?

I truly hope so!


Further reading:

Liberati A., Altman D.G., Tetzlaff J., Mulrow C., Gøtzsche P.C., Ioannidis J.P.A., Clarke M., Devereaux P.J., Kleijnen J. & Moher D. & (2009). The PRISMA statement for reporting systematic reviews and meta-analyses of studies that evaluate health care interventions: explanation and elaboration, Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 62 (10) e1-e34. DOI:

Dorey N.R., Udell M.A.R. & Wynne C.D.L. (2009). Breed differences in dogs sensitivity to human points: A meta-analysis, Behavioural Processes, 81 (3) 409-415. DOI:

Fratkin J.L., Sinn D.L., Patall E.A. & Gosling S.D. (2013). Personality consistency in dogs: a meta-analysis., PloS one, PMID:

Nimer J. & Lundahl B. (2007). Animal-Assisted Therapy: A Meta-Analysis, Anthrozoos: A Multidisciplinary Journal of The Interactions of People & Animals, 20 (3) 225-238. DOI:

© 2013 Mia Cobb
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21 March 2013

Scientific American gets a dog

Paper and pen VS THE COMPUTER
Hi Mia,

So I’m going to postpone the conversation I alluded to on Facebook. I wanted to ask you whether you opt for pen and paper when you're writing out blogs and work, or if you’re a computer gal, typing directly on a computer. I am quite attached to the pen and paper method myself, and it’s driving me a bit bonkers to keep track of ALL THAT PAPER. But, it can also be challenging to write directly on a computer. My thoughts come out a bit more jumbled when I type. Well, I think I just covered most of my pen vs computer diatribe! There! Done!

TODAY has been a big day!! My other blog, Dog Spies, left its old spot on Blogger and
just joined the Scientific American Blog Network, so it looks like Sci Am got a dog ;)

My other blog, Dog Spies, takes a walk over to Scientific American.

Scientific American blog editor Bora Zivkovic (who named Do You Believe in Dog? blog of the week last year) gave both Dog Spies and Do You Believe in Dog? a shout out today.

I’m going to hold off on my thoughts about manuscript writing, but actually, that is probably Step 1 of scientific manuscript draft writing: PROCRASTINATE! ;) All jokes aside, a while back I read an inspirational piece on writing by Clive Wynne, head of the University of Florida Canine Cognition and Behavior Lab. The piece is called Thoughts on Writing and Getting Published, and I refer back to every now and again.

Now I know you are doing some hardcore science over there with a meta-analysis, so do tell us what that's all aboot!

Here’s to the dogs!! 


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15 March 2013

The heat(map) is on... The colours of canine welfare.

Hey Julie,

All those conferences sound completely AMAZING! I love that both dog urine and poo are totally appropriate topics for us to discuss in our conversations. All the other scientists are so jealous right now!

I hope you've been well since getting home again. We've just been through the longest heatwave ever recorded in Melbourne over the past fortnight (9 days over 30oC / 90oF in a row) and today it's finally cooled off, hooray! I haven't posted you the TimTams I promised you on Twitter yet, for fear they'd melt before leaving Australia!

Speaking of heat, I made a heat map of canine welfare for one of my presentation slides at the recent RSPCA Australia Scientific Seminar. It was very colourful and looked like this (click to embiggen):

Cobb's colourful heat map, depicting perceived welfare levels of different dog types.
This is based on data I gathered in an online survey that was conducted as part of my PhD. I asked participants to rate the welfare of different dog types on a scale of 1-5 from very poor to very good. Consequently, this image is a representation of the perception of welfare of different types of dogs rather than an indication of actual welfare. But perceptions are important! 

Proceedings from the day, including my full paper, should be available early next week on the RSPCA Australia website.  

I'll make sure to put a note up on Facebook when it does.

We wish we had a quick and easy indicator of animal welfare, but we don't!
My presentation covered:

- the increasing expectation from the general public for transparency and best practice from industries using animals in work and sport;

- how we have traditionally measured animal welfare in science;

- I used working dogs as an example to talk through the life cycle stages (breeding/sourcing; raising/training; housing/healthcare and retirement/endpoints), exploring what we have learned through our recent research projects in regards to welfare, current practices and where there is room for improvement. 

- I also spoke briefly about research currently under way that is using cognitive bias (often referred to as testing to see if animals are optimistic/pesimistic) as an indicator of canine emotions.
Yep, I actually used this image in my presentation (source)

 - I related the changing dynamic within animal welfare science from researching welfare outcomes (how do we understand and limit the bad stuff) toward studying affective states (how can we understand and promote the good stuff) to similar trends in other fields of research such as human positive psychology and education.

So now I'm home again and focussing my attention on writing up the results of the data analyses (from that online survey) into a paper. I want to submit the paper for publication in a peer-reviewed academic journal. As you know, this can be a lengthy process. 

I first have to draft the paper to a standard that I am happy with; then forward it to my PhD supervisors who may (probably will!) suggest changes and redraft. I then need to decide which journal to submit it to, and format the paper accordingly. There are lots of factors involved in selecting which journal to submit to, including impact factors.Then I will contact the journal and submit it for peer-review. 

While scientific papers DO follow a formula (Abstract / Intro / Methods / Results / Discussion / Conclusion),
they are not THIS formulaic! (source)
After that, the paper will be reviewed, probably by two other scientists working in the same field, who act as peer-reviewers and provide feedback to the journal's editorial team about the suitability of my paper for publication in that journal. They may give me comments suggesting minor or major changes to the paper, or even say they don't think it belongs in that journal. 

All up, it can easily take over a year from writing a paper to getting it published, sometimes closer to two years! Right now, I'm just focussing on step one -- get a draft completed!

Sam Gosling and I,
obviously caught unaware, deep in thought.
I had the chance to catch up with Sam Gosling (University of Texas at Austin) yesterday after hearing him present at the University of Melbourne. He gave a fantastic overview of the research his team have done looking at what our 'stuff' (from bedrooms, to office spaces to facebook profiles and websites) says about our personality. Fascinating! 

After his presentation, fellow Anthrozoology Research Group member, Tammie and I chatted with him further about his group's work into non-human (specifically DOG) personality as well, which was great. One of his PhD students just had a meta-analysis of personality consistency in dogs published through PLoS-ONE (hurrah for open access).

I look forward to talking some more about meta-analysis with you soon. It's a very exciting way of exploring existing data!

How's everything going with you? Any hot tips for getting my paper drafted for publication? 


Further reading:
Fratkin J., Sinn D., Patall E. & Gosling S. (2013). Personality Consistency in Dogs: A Meta-Analysis., PloS One, 8 (1) DOI:

Gosling S.D., Augustine A.A., Vazire S., Holtzman N. & Gaddis S. (2011). Manifestations of Personality in Online Social Networks: Self-Reported Facebook-Related Behaviors and Observable Profile Information, Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, 14 (9) 483-488. DOI:

Seligman M.E.P., Ernst R.M., Gillham J., Reivich K. & Linkins M. (2009). Positive education: positive psychology and classroom interventions, Oxford Review of Education, 35 (3) 293-311. DOI:
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11 March 2013

Why I conference

Hi Mia!

Would you agree that you and I spend a lot of time researching and writing, two incredibly solitary activities?

And given that we both have the social butterfly gene (I just got our DNA tests back, I’ll send you yours), conferences are incredibly important for our health and well-being; a time where we can run amok with people exuberant about the field of dog behavior, cognition and welfare.

In some ways, conferences are akin to summer camp. Smores by the campfire become happy hour, and early morning polar bear club turns into getting up bright and early for the first conference session. Exactly the same (except in camp we did more sneaking around, and I’ve never done that at a conference. My favorite was “raiding the hearth,” aka sneaking into the camp kitchen late at night and eating many, many, many brownies. It was almost like the staff baked them to entice us to engage in illicit activities. Anyway, I miss those brownies).

Conference time!
This seems to be a conference time of year. Last week I attended IFAAB in San Diego, a small conference mostly for those working in the setting of Applied Animal Behavior, so Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists, Veterinary Behaviorists and applied researchers. I also recently attended ScienceOnline2013 in Raleigh, NC where I absorbed many different angles of science communication (which I mentioned in an earlier post)
. In two weeks I’ll be in San Francisco for the one-day Canine Science Symposium put on by Lisa Gunter and Pawsitive Tails, with Kathryn Lord, Sasha Protopopova, Lisa Gunter and Erica Feuerbacher. Looking back, here are my Conference takeaways... 

At IFAAB, I got to reconnect with Dr. Anneke Lisberg (also a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison -- Go Badgers!) who presented her research on one of my first loves, urine.

Yes. I am interested in your dog's urine, even on Twitter.
Dogs urinate because they have to go. That’s definitely part of it. But dogs also use urine as a form of chemical communication. So the question is, what does urine mean for dogs? 

Anneke’s PhD research with Dr. Charles Snowdon explored where dogs place their urine in relation to other dogs’ urine, how dogs investigate other dogs’ urine and who investigates whose urine. 

Dr. Patricia McConnell has summarized Anneke’s research in a number of blog posts:

Anneke’s research highlights just how intricate the role of chemical communication in dogs can be. We can’t just say males do X and females do Y with their urine. There are a lot of factors that might be associated with chemical communication, such as tail height and even whose urine a dog encounters first. 

Heart Warming
Another talk at IFAAB by Melissa Spooner,
LVT, BS, KPA-CTP who works with Dr. Theresa DePorter, warmed my heart. Melissa presented a behavior case concerning a senior dog and her senior lady friend. The case served as a reminder about the importance of handling our 4-legged friends gently. 

According to the case study, a dog started displaying aggressive behavior after receiving daily medical treatments from the owner. This reminds that even happy-go-lucky dogs can start showing “BACK OFF” displays due to harsh or forceful medicating procedures. 

The result of the case study: Dog conflict behaviors were reduced through classical counter-conditioning when administering medications and ADAPTIL (formerly DAP) while discontinuing restraint, verbal reprimands and “ambush” medical treatments.

Important message from our sponsors ;)
Conferences also increase my scope of caring for science in general and the natural world. At ScienceOnline2013, I got to spend copious time with my new friend, Dr. Eleanor (aka Eleanor Spicer Rice; aka Dr. Ant Lady, to me). She is often found working with Your Wild Life, a team of scientists exploring the biodiversity on surfaces from
Dr. Eleanor's ant displacement research in NYT. Not aunt displacement.
our skin to our backyards and homes. Eleanor is writing profiles of ants for a Book of Common Ants, and I never new ants were bestowed with such awesome names! Acrobat ant, little black ant (aww), big headed ant (weird), fire ant (scary) and thief ant (put that back!). 

Eleanor’s ant research was recently featured in the New York Times science section. Her research found that Asian Needle Ants were hanging around with Argentine ants, and that the Asian Needle Ant population was growing. 

Why is this interesting? As the New York Times explains, “Argentine ants are known for crowding out other small species of plants and lizards, but do not pose a direct threat to humans.” But, “Asian ants have venomous stings that can cause weeks of burning and itching. Victims who are allergic to the sting can suffer more severe reactions.” Now I have to get out my magnifying glass and get to know ants!

Here's Eleanor's research in her own words, in an interview with Dr. Holly Menninger of Your Wild Life.

So that’s why I conference! Do tell more about your RSPCA talk!



McConnell, P. The Other End of The Leash. Blog

Menninger, H. 2013. Dr. Eleanor is on a roll. Your Wild Life. Blog

Quenua, D. 2013. War of the Ants Intensifies in U.S. New York Times. 

Rice E.S., Silverman J. & Gordon D.M. (2013). Propagule Pressure and Climate Contribute to the Displacement of Linepithema humile by Pachycondyla chinensis, PLoS ONE, 8 (2) e56281. DOI:

Lisberg A.E. & Snowdon C.T. (2009). The effects of sex, gonadectomy and status on investigation patterns of unfamiliar conspecific urine in domestic dogs, Canis familiaris, Animal Behaviour, 77 (5) 1147-1154. DOI:

Lisberg A.E. & Snowdon C.T. (2011). Effects of sex, social status and gonadectomy on countermarking by domestic dogs, Canis familiaris, Animal Behaviour, 81 (4) 757-764. DOI:

© 2013 Julie Hecht
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1 March 2013

RSPCA Australia Scientific Seminar 2013: Recap

Hi Julie,

what a week! Thanks for all that great information about The Sounds of Dogs, that was so interesting. I definitely recognise differences in the way my dogs bark. They have very different vocalisations for "strange person at the door", "someone familiar that I'm excited to see at the door" and "Oh my goodness, you just did something that we're not meant to do!" (that last one is ALWAYS Elke 'dobbing' on Caleb - she would have totally been the teacher's pet in a classroom environment!).

The RSPCA Australia Scientific Seminar in Canberra was a fantastic day. So many interesting presentations on various topics all focussing on the day's theme:

When coping is not enough
- promoting positive welfare states in animals.

The keynote presentations from David Mellor and James Yeates were (as expected!) really thought-provoking in regard to the journey animal welfare science has taken over the past thirty years and the recent focus on animal affective states (we can probably just call them animals feelings/emotions). 

It was fabulous to see so many friends and fellow scientists from all over Australia and hear about their latest news regarding zoo, companion, livestock, working and even pest animal research.

Some of the slides from my presentation about the welfare of working dogs.
As you know, we're moving from understanding how animals cope in welfare-poor environments and taking a huge leap to try and learn how we can help them flourish. Exciting times!

Here are a few of the notes I wrote down while listening to talks on the day:

- Importance of teaching undergraduate students to assess the complexities of animal welfare issues objectively; use of e-simulation programs to enhance student understanding of animal welfare practices and economic/production components to decisions (Susan Hazel)

- Animal welfare is about people as much as it is about animals

- Australian dogs spend a lot of time in residential backyards monitoring for their owners' return from work. Most separation anxiety behavioural issues related to this management practice can be resolved by giving dogs access to indoors; preferably to owner's bed; but access to worn socks/underwear can also help if bed not available. (Robert Holmes)

- Re: texting during talks -- Blackberries are loud, iPhones are quiet (but bright!) 

- Death is not an animal welfare issue (assuming done humanely) ??? If considered as deprivation of a life worth living, it might be. 

- Future will move from species-specific provision of welfare to greater individualism. Challenge in developing codes of practice/welfare to provide for individual but still be functional at herd/group/facility level

As you can see, there were some really huge ideas being thrown about the room!

I'll be sure to let you know when the full papers come out in the proceedings from this excellent day. I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity by RSPCA Australia to speak among such a great line up. 

There's so much to think about in the wake of all the amazing talks, I think I just need to go and think! 

If you'd like to get into the thick of my current mind-space, you can check out the Public Lecture 'How happy does a happy animal have to be (and how can we tell)? given by James Yeates (essentially the same as his keynote address) recorded in Melbourne, the day after the Canberra event: 

What's been on your mind lately?


Further reading:

Green T. & Mellor D. (2011). Extending ideas about animal welfare assessment to include ‘quality of life’ and related concepts, New Zealand Veterinary Journal, 59 (6) 263-271. DOI: 

Hazel S.J., Signal T.D. & Taylor N. (2011). Can Teaching Veterinary and Animal-Science Students about Animal Welfare Affect Their Attitude toward Animals and Human-Related Empathy?, Journal of Veterinary Medical Education, 38 (1) 74-83. DOI:

Yeates J.W. (2010). Death is a Welfare Issue, Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, 23 (3) 229-241. DOI:

© Mia Cobb 2013
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