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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...


27 October 2013

When equipment fails: paws and assess

Photo: Steven Pam
There is an industry in Australia that relies on an integral piece of equipment, but the system behind product development process is flawed, and lives are at stake. From farm dogs to military explosive detection dogs, guide dogs to greyhounds, Australia’s working and sporting dog industry claims a 50-70% fail rate as normal. The welfare of these dogs is intimately linked to their working performance. 

It can be an emotive topic, so let’s take the emotion out of it and objectively consider current practice.

A diverse industry, with four sectors operating in different domains, is dependent on one key piece of equipment. A tool that can vary in price from free to $40,000, can be purchased new or second hand, but is unequivocally required to get the job done. Hundreds of thousands of units are currently used daily throughout Australia in government, human health, sporting and private operations.

Practitioners invest resources in this equipment, only to find that the tool doesn't work. It’s unsuitable. It operates at the wrong speed. It breaks. It just doesn't do the work it was meant to - at least half of the time! In some industry sectors, the equipment fail rate is estimated as high as eighty percent. Waste units are disposed of and new ones sourced. Perhaps from a large scale manufacturer, perhaps from a private artisan, or some people go ahead and take a crack at making their own. Recycling within the industry is extremely low, at less than ten percent. The production of this equipment is currently inefficient; the industry has no validated minimum standards in place and the product lacks quality assurance.

From an industry business and performance perspective, what should be done? A review of the purpose and production life-cycle analysis for this tool seems indicated? Absolutely. A review of how the equipment is being employed, handled, maintained and stored by practitioners? Yes. Perhaps a review of the training courses and educational materials available to the practitioners and the people who train them? For sure.

Without objective review and subsequent improvement, this industry is leaving itself open to scrutiny by the media and risks losing public support. Review of this kind is common. In industrial design and quality management fields, validation of product integrity, ongoing review and updating of evidence-based best practice are standard. Re-purposing of surplus or malfunctioning stock into other areas rather than directly to landfill may require additional resources. However, this extra spend is important as tolerance for unnecessary waste in the 21st century is limited. Indeed, the sustainability and economic viability of this industry into the future relies on improved accountability, higher transparency and demonstrated responsibility.

We owe this commitment to review and refine the production, management and education surrounding this device to the industry, the people involved and the tasks they achieve. It’s sound business practice. And we owe it to the dogs.

Hi Julie,

I wrote this because I wanted to consider if there was a good case to be made for improving the welfare of working dogs, without the emotion or emotive slant often inherent in animal welfare discussions. 

This came about after recent conversations with people who have suggested my work towards improved working dog welfare is based on me 'loving dogs' or having bleeding-heart, idealistic expectations about the way dogs should be cared for. I hope I have been able to demonstrate that this is a) not about me, and b) that a good argument for objective review and assessment of how working dogs are produced can be made, even before adding consideration for the fact these are sentient animals with capacity to thrive or suffer as a result of how we manage their lives.

I'm looking forward to continuing these conversations at the Working Dog Conference 2013 next week.

Wish you were here,


Further reading:
Branson, Cobb, McGreevy (2010). The Australian Working Dog Survey Report 2009. Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. 

Branson, Cobb, McGreevy (2012). The Australian Working Dog Industry Action Plan 2012. Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. 

Kruger J. & Dunning D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments., Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77 (6) 1121-1134. DOI:  

Dunning D., Johnson K., Ehrlinger J. & Kruger J. (2003). Why people fail to recognize their own incompetence, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 12 (3) 83-87. DOI:

Ehrlinger J., Johnson K., Banner M., Dunning D. & Kruger J. (2008). Why the unskilled are unaware: Further explorations of (absent) self-insight among the incompetent, Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 105 (1) 98-121. DOI:

Dunning D. (2011). The Dunning-Kruger effect: On being ignorant of one's own ignorance, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 44 247-296. DOI:

© Mia Cobb | Do You Believe in Dog? 2013
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20 October 2013

3 Ways We’re Wrong About Dogs

Hi Mia!

Very excited to see that the program for the Working Dog Alliance Conference is out! I love conference programs. I think I’m a visual learner because when I try and remember back to a talk, I remember that the talk abstract appeared in
say, a blue booklet, and that the abstract was on the right side of the page. Or maybe that has nothing to do with being a visual learner and means something entirely different. Anyway...

I wish I could attend the entire working dog conference (damn you ocean!), but I do have some favorite talks that I'm sad to miss. I’m particularly interested in "Racing to retirement, is there a better way?", "Characterizing Dogmanship" as well as Steve White and Nicola Rooney’s talks.

You and I are trading places again. It almost time to change the clocks, and it’s getting darker here earlier and earlier. DAMN YOU WINTER!! 

On a happier note, I’m looking forward to speaking at the Association of Professional Dog Trainers next weekend in Spokane, Washington (#APDT2013)!

I’m covering two topics, and summaries are available here:
  • Contextualizing Canine Behavior and Cognition Research 
  • The Science and Politics of Anthropomorphism
At the last two APDT conferences, I presented posters of my personal research, and I’m looking forward to giving more comprehensive talks this year. 

While preparing for the conference, I found myself remembering that humans are often not spot-on in our interpretation of all things dog.

3 Misconceptions About Dogs

1) Working Dogs Have Good Welfare
I imagine when people hear the term 'working dog' they picture accomplished dogs of war jumping out of planes or sniffing out chemical weapons. Or, people might picture guide dogs for the blind or hearing dogs for the deaf. But those are only the "stars" or "headliners" of the working dog world; working dogs include so many different dogs doing so many things for us and with us

Good welfare is not explicitly bound to certain types of canine work and absent from others. And good welfare cannot simply be assumed because dogs are performing a particular job.

This reminds me of an earlier post you wrote -- "The Heat(map) is On: Colours of Canine Welfare." You discussed peoples' perceptions of the welfare of different types of dogs. Perceptions and realities are both important, and I'm happy to see industry and science coming together to better the lives of working dogs.
(Greyhound at her new job: Source)

As I mentioned, greyhounds hold a special place in my heart. Whenever I see one on the street, I always wonder, “Where did you come from, big friend? What has your life been like?” They never answer, but sometimes their owner fills me in on the details.

2) Separation Distress is Just a Dog Missing its Owner

Research into why dogs show destructive and problematic behavior when owners are out is growing. Motivations are many and could include "fear, anxiety, over-attachment, agitation from outside stimulation and/or lack of appropriate stimulation." 

Mark Evans is a veterinary surgeon and former chief veterinary advisor of the RSPCA in the UK. He now holds informative animal-focused TV shows. For his recent program, he teamed up with Dr. Rachel Casey from the University of Bristol to examine the behavior of 40 dogs when their owners were out of the house. See what they found here, and they've also highlighted the progress of three dogs: Bruno, Oscar and Max.

Recently, Parthasarathy et al. (2006) examined whether “dysfunctional” attachment styles to owners were related to dog separation issues. They concluded that “separation anxiety is not based on ‘hyperattachment’ of the dog to the owner...” Although they did add that “different attachment style may be present between dogs with and without separation anxiety.” 

Blanket assumptions about why dogs are distressed in owners’ absences aren't helpful. Each dog needs to be considered on its own terms.

3) Canine Behavior & Cognition Research Has ALL the Answers! ;) 
This is a direct plug for my first talk at the APDT conference in Spokane next week, "Contextualizing Canine Behavior and Cognition Research."

Science is a way of looking at the world that prioritizes asking questions and devising ways to investigate those questions. This field of study is relatively young. It is continually growing and evolving. Studies build on one another, and in some cases, substantiate earlier findings, and in other cases, not so much. At my talk next Sunday, October 27 (at 8:00 AM!), I'll highlight the idea that our field is best viewed as an evolving process.

That's me in a nut shell!

Looking forward to more welfare news!


Horowitz, D. 2010 Separation anxiety in dogs. Veterinary Focus. 20(1), 18-26.

Parthasarathy et al.  2006. Relationship between attachment to owners and separation anxiety in pet dogs (Canis lupus familiaris). Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research. 1, 109–120. 
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13 October 2013

Working Dog Conference: bridging the gap between science and industry

Hi Julie,

how great was Dr Brad Smith's guest post to us about his research investigating dingo cognition? Responsiveness to humans, tool use and conspecific reaction to death - just all kinds of awesome! 

I'm so glad the editors at Science Seeker noticed it and flagged it to their followers, because this kind of stuff should be known by EVERYONE. 


(Science Seeker)

Reading about new areas of scientific research that advance our understanding of canids, how we relate to them - and them to us, and each - other always gives me a buzz! It's a good thing, because I'm so flat out right now, I need to harness all the buzzes around me to stay awake and productive! 

We're just three weeks out from the Working Dog Conference 2013 now and let me tell you, it is seriously shaping up to be one amazing event for anyone related to working and sporting dogs in any way. Breeders, trainers, handlers, facility managers, geneticists, veterinarians, representatives from government and animal advocacy groups, research scientists and pretty much anyone and everyone with an interest in this industry seem to planning on attending. It's exciting and insanely busy - all at once! 

I can't wait to see the opportunities to network, share ideas and learn in action and the concept of improvement through collaboration being embraced by all these different stakeholders. I think Victor Hugo has been credited with once saying something along the lines of "there is nothing as powerful as an idea whose time has come" and this really feels like the time for this idea!

Let me give you a sneaky preview of some of the things our international guest speakers have been saying:

"The rest of the world doesn’t know it yet, but because of the Australian Working Dog Alliance’s efforts, Australia stands ready to set the new standard for working dog welfare and effectiveness. There will come a day when we who attend this inaugural Working Dog Alliance conference will have the distinct privilege of being able to say, ‘I was there when it all started.’  I am humbled to be a small part of what will surely be a big thing." Steve White

"There is obvious and substantial  value to be gained by sharing knowledge and expertise surrounding their training, welfare  and use. However, I believe that it is vital that  such knowledge is evidence-based, to ensure  we derive proven best practises which truly optimise productivity as well as dog welfare. This inaugural conference will provide an ideal forum for discussion amongst the Australian working dog stakeholders  and I am delighted to be able to share some of my ideas and research findings with the working and sporting dog community." Nicola Rooney

Oh Julie, I really wish you could come and be here for this. Actually, it's not too late - you can still register here (winkwink!)

It's going to be our kind of event, mixing up the applied practical stuff with the theoretical scientific stuff - and all the other stuffs too! Hey, speaking of our kind of event, I was pretty excited last week when I saw the website for Canine Science Forum 2014 and the associated Facebook page (including first Feline Science Forum - tell Josh!) have launched. That's going to be one kicking reunion for us, milady! Start thinking about which abstracts you're going to submit by March 14th...

(image thanks to AWDRI)

Ahhhh - abstracts, I think I can actually hear them calling me. I'm currently compiling all the presentation summaries for the Working Dog Conference ahead of sending the proceedings book off to the printers tomorrow. 

Here are just a few (amongst many!) of the snapshot summaries I am really looking forward to see presented:
  • Presentation about breaking down the inter-disciplinary barriers that have for too been a drag on the working dog community's progress toward maximizing effectiveness, efficiency, and the dogs' well-being.
  • Every year thousands of greyhounds are bred in Australia for one thing only: speed, with the ongoing challenge being how to care for those that are not fast enough. Re-homing programs are a commendable initiative, however the current approach is plagued with inefficiencies, prolonged waiting times and often put the needs of the dog ahead of the adopter, making it a public safety issue as well.
  • Australia has a long and successful history of producing champion (human) athletes. In this presentation the scientific and research support for Australian sport will be explored and parallels drawn with the working dog industry.
  • Otway Conservation Dogs is a unique conservation project developing detection dog teams utilising community volunteers to help protect the endangered Tiger Quolls. 

If you want to get more of an idea, the preliminary program is now up on the Working Dog Alliance website.

What have you been up to lately, anyway?


© 2013 Mia Cobb | Do You Believe in Dog?

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3 October 2013

Take a walk on the wild side: Dingo science

Image: Bradley Smith
Hi Mia and Julie,

As one of the few in the world exploring the ‘mind’ of the dingo, the highly controversial wild dog of Australia, I consider myself quite a rare ‘breed’ of scientist. So I thought I would let you know about some of the recent work I have done with dingoes, including a few world first discoveries. It seems dingoes are becoming just as famous for solving problems as they are for causing them!

I find the differences between the way wild and domestic dogs think and behave fascinating. 

The dingo just happens to be a great model for investigating the influence that domestication has on the canine mind because they are considered by many to be a ‘proto dog’. That is, they are thought to be one of the earliest forms of the domestic dog. Not a domestic dog as we know today, but one representing an early transition from the more-wolf-like common ancestor, to dog. What makes dingoes really interesting and unique is that they are wild living and genetically, behaviourally and physically more wolf-like than dog-like, yet are able to communicate with humans (see my paper on their ability to follow human social cues) and in the right environments, can be successful pets - whereas wolves cannot.
Dr Bradley Smith
(and dingo pup friend!)

Domestic dogs are what we call ‘socially’ intelligent , which means they are highly adept at communicating with people. For example, they can read our behaviours, and express to us what they want. This has a lot to do with why we love them so much, why we can create such a close bond, and why they are such successful companions. But this social intelligence may have come at a cost. When faced with a problem that they cannot solve, dogs will often ‘look’ towards their owners for help instead of trying to solve it on their own. The dog’s wild counterparts - wolves and dingoes - however, have to solve problems on their own. 

In problem solving situations where a human is present, wild canids rarely look back to a human for assistance, and choose to keep trying to solve the task or simply give up (for more information see my experiment on looking back behaviour).  

It seems to me that humans have become tools in the dog’s problem solving ‘bag of tricks’, and the selection pressure for independent problem solving has been relaxed. It's not that dogs are lazy or dumb - they know exactly what they want, and how to get it!

Image: Bradley Smith
When talking about 'intelligence' in animals it is important to distinguish between different kinds of behaviour and the thinking that goes on behind them. Dogs performing fancy tricks, although impressive and fun to show your guests at parties, are learnt through operant or classical conditioning and therefore not really abilities we would consider higher-order. Perhaps the best example is tool use, which has only been reported in a select group of species. Tool-using animals are those that establish the effective orientation of an object to alter some condition and attain an incentive. This has not been reported in any canid (wild or domestic), although there are many anecdotal accounts floating around the You Tube.

So to my surprise, when I began working with dingoes at the Dingo Discovery Centre in Melbourne, Australia, and I came across a dingo that had learned to use tools! Sterling, a sub-adult male had discovered that by manipulating things in his environment, he could get up to all sorts of mischief. In one instance Sterling dragged a plastic table from one end of his enclosure to the other. By jumping on the repositioned table he was able to reach a parcel of food that was placed high on the mesh of his enclosure. Take a look:

On another occasion, I captured Sterling moving around his portable plastic kennel. He would use the kennel as a lookout to see his neighbours over the 1m high opaque wall of his enclosure. His manipulation of objects instantly remind me of Wolfgang Kohlers observations of chimpanzees stacking crates in order to reach bananas that were hanging out of reach.

Another relatively recent phenomena, considered unique to higher order creatures, are the reactions of animals to the death of conspecifics. Originally thought to only be evident in primates, it has now been documented in a variety of species such as elephants and dolphins. Similar behaviour had yet to be reported in any domestic or wild canid until an ecologist friend of mine Rob Appleby (a PhD candidate from Griffith University) spotted a dingo mother and four littermates respond rather remarkably to the death of a pup on Fraser Island (Queensland, Australia). Over multiple days, the mother transported the pup on at least four instances around the island (one of which he was able to capture on video). She did this by picking up the pup (approximately 3 months old) with her mouth and carrying it away. 
Image: Bradley Smith

To me, such behaviour is no real shock. Given that they are highly social species, have high-order cognitive ability, and live in complex societies (e.g., prolonged periods of parental care, strong mother-infant bond). Instead of making any real assertions that dingoes mourn the dead, we chose to interpret the behaviour in more evolutionary or adaptive terms. That is, that the mother was adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach to her deceased pup which still appeared physically healthy and intact. I will let you decide what you make of this behaviour!

I hope you have enjoyed reading about some of the amazing antics that dingoes have been up to recently, and also learned a few more ways why canines are so amazing! I think we have only reached the tip of the iceberg in terms of our understanding of the canine brain, and I look forward to exploring it further with you.
Image: Bradley Smith

Bradley Smith
Senior Post-doctoral Research Fellow
Appleton Institute
Central Queensland University

Further reading:

Smith B.P. & Litchfield C.A. (2010). Dingoes (Canis dingo) can use human social cues to locate hidden food, 
Animal Cognition, 13 (2) 367-376. DOI: 

Smith B.P., Appleby R.G. & Litchfield C.A. (2012). Spontaneous tool-use: An observation of a dingo (Canis dingo) using a table to access an out-of-reach food reward, Behavioural Processes, 89 (3) 219-224. DOI:

Appleby R., Smith B. & Jones D. (2013). Observations of a free-ranging adult female dingo (Canis dingo) and littermates’ responses to the death of a pup, Behavioural Processes, 96 42-46. DOI:

Smith B.P. & Litchfield C.A. Looking back at ‘looking back’: operationalising referential gaze for dingoes in an unsolvable task, Animal Cognition, DOI:

© 2013 Bradley Smith | Do You Believe in Dog?
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