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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...


22 February 2014

Dog Loses Ear at Dog Park and There Was Nothing We Could Do About It

#SPARCS2014 Day 1
Hi Mia!

Looking forward to the upcoming SPARCS conference in June! We’ll be in Newport, Rhode Island from June 20-22, 2014 with the live audience doing the play-by-play (my dad is going to have to give me baseball reporting tips beforehand), but ANYONE on planet Earth can watch the conference live for free!

Each day of the conference is dedicated to one general topic, and that's not something you often see at conferences. Usually, one person gives a keynote, maybe there’s time for Q&A, and that’s the end! This time, multiple experts will weigh in on the same topic. 

#SPARCS2014 Day 1: June 20, 2014 covers "Aggression and Conflict." Expert speakers (bios here) join the day of talks with takeaways like:
  • Patricia McConnell: To be able to recognize the visual signs of conflict and agonistic behavior  
  • Ray Coppinger: To understand motor patterns when interpreting aggression  
  • James Serpell: To draw attention to what we do and don’t know about aggression in dogs 
  • Simon Gadbois: To learn the richness of the concept of behavioral and social “rules” 
  • Kathryn Lord: To understand how the broader scientific field of animal behavior and comparison to other animals can inform us about dog behavior
Reading about what will be covered, I couldn’t help but think about people who are personally dealing with companion dog aggression or conflict issues -- not the most warm and fuzzy thing to have to deal with. And then I remembered that while many dogs may be dealing with aggression and conflict issues, many people are not necessarily aware that there’s even an issue in their midst!

Let me back up and explain:

Just this month I learned about a paper, Situated activities in a dog park: Identity and conflict in human-animal space, at The Science Dog (Blog / Facebook), a blog maintained by Linda Case, M.S., (author of numerous books on dog behavior, nutrition and training). Case recently reviewed the paper, and you can read her review here.  
Flickr Creative Commons, Justin Beckley
Patrick Jackson, the author of 'Situated activities in a dog park,' is a sociologist at Sonoma State University. At a general level, his paper explores “how people and their dogs do things (activities) together (situated) in the dog park environment.” A ‘situated activity’ is one that bring people together not because they are best best best friends, but because they share a common interest, and in this case, that interest is dogs.

At the dog park, people spend a great deal of time talking about, well, dogs. Jackson describes dog park conversations that we are all familiar with: “Which one is yours?” and “What’s his/her name?”, with follow-up questions about age and habits.

We know that people readily talk to and through their dogs. Over at The Dodo, Alexandra Horowitz recently covered the different types of things we say to dogs (my favorite: “We don't need you to fix everyone's problems.”) I’ve discussed our one-sided conversations with animals over at Scientific American: Did You Have A Good Pee, Mr. Rhino? (I swear the post is about dogs).

But back to Jackson's paper: My ears perked up in the section “Control management.” Jackson comments that the dog park can be a hodgepodge of many dogs doing many different things. Meanwhile, dog owners don’t always know whether something ‘should be done’ and if so, what that ‘something’ should look like.
Per Jackson, “it is also ambiguous how caretakers are supposed to manage their own and others’ dogs in the dog park. If a dog is about to enter the park and is snarling at yours, should you intercede?”

And because dog parks don’t come equipped with species-specific referees (think on-site social workers, psychologists and animal behaviorists), dog parks can be chaotic, even unsafe.

Dogs are confusing. People are confusing. Put them together in a public space, and it’s like all the circuses came to town on the same day.

To add insult to injury, dogs also come with teeth. Again, Jackson:

“It is difficult to know, for example, when untoward behavior like aggressiveness is imminent (King & Long, 2004). In the dynamic dog park environment, knowledge about aggression may only be gained through experience.”





The first sentence I get. 

“It is difficult to know, for example, when untoward behavior like aggressiveness is imminent.”

That's true. People are not innately able to recognize fear and stress behaviors in dogs, even a dog that they live with. And with dogs coming in all shapes, sizes and ‘ways of displaying canid behaviors,’ detecting fear and stress is even more challenging. Many distance-increasing signals can easily go unnoticed. So far, so good, Mr. Jackson.

But the second part:

“In the dynamic dog park environment, knowledge about aggression may only be gained through experience.”

Makes zero sense. Scratch that. It makes less than zero sense.

The field of animal behavior is all about studying what animals do. Some researchers study play in goats, while others might study aggressive displays in chimps, ants, stickleback fish, or even cranes (such as what aggression and its precursors look like in each of these species). As Mugatu from Zoolander might say, “Dogs are so hot right now.” Many are investigating why dogs do what they do, and veterinarians, veterinary behaviorists, trainers, ethologists, comparative psychologists, behavior analysts, and anthrozoologists are hot on the trail.

Aggression and conflict is an area that many animal behavior researchers investigate. Which is to say, people who live with dogs are lucky: science-based resources on dog aggression and conflict exist and are only growing.

For dog owners, "aggression” doesn’t have to be this strange, unknown, out-of-the-blue thing. You don’t have to wait until your hand is bitten to learn about aggression. Heck, we could even argue that we learn less about aggression and conflict through actual experience. Ever hear anybody say: “OOOOoh! Now I get it! I now clearly see all the things that led up to that dog biting that other dog’s ear off. I will certainly not miss it next time”? To an untrained eye, witnessing conflict is usually very upsetting and scary, not something where you walk away with a deeper understanding of what actually went down or how it could have been avoided.
SPARCS website
Here are some free, science-based ways to learn about dog aggression & conflict: 

1) #SPARCS2014 Day 1: June 20, 2014 'Aggression and Conflict'
Anybody in the world can tune in live for this day of research into conflict and aggression. Join Patricia McConnell, Ray Coppinger, James Serpell, Simon Gadbois and Kathryn Lord as they examine this topic from different angles.

2) Free Dog Behavior Webinars (watch live or watch the recordings)
For the last few years, The Center for Shelter Dogs (Twitter / Facebook) and ASPCA Professional (Twitter / Facebook) have been holding free Webinars on companion animal behavior, care and sheltering. Many of the Webinars focus on dog behavior, and they are led by trainers, practitioners, veterinarians and researchers who work with dogs from hoarding and fighting cases, as well as companion, street and shelter dogs. These hour-long Webinars are free, archived and available online now!

ASPCA Pro Archived Webinars (search by topic, select few below)

The Center for Shelter Dogs Archived Webinars (search by date, select few listed below)

  • Wondering About Food Aggression in Shelter Dogs?, February 2014
  • Fear of People, May 2013
  • Optimizing Canine Welfare, February 2013

3) CAAB Chats
Online CAAB chats are new to the scene. These free monthly talks are hosted by Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists, people with a PhD (or ACAABs with a Masters) in an Animal Behavior field. Learn more about CAABs and ACAABs here. These monthly talks are free to watch live with a small fee for the recording. The initial two talks covered ‘Canine Communication’ and ‘Response Prevention.’ Next up, ‘Social Roles and Relationships in Dogs’ on March 27, 2014. Sign up for updates about future talk topics here.


You and I know this is not an exhaustive list (we could add books, blogs, websites and more webinars another day — for this I focused on resources that are available and mostly free). Aggression and conflict are not all that straightforward, and hearing about it from another person, especially in the form of a Webinar, can make the topic a lot more manageable.

When #SPARCS2014 Day 1: Aggression and Conflict comes around, I hope people show up open to the idea that there are many ways to learn about aggression and conflict, and that “knowledge about aggression may only be gained through experience” won’t serve anyone, dog or person.

Oh, and why is the post titled, Dog Loses Ear at Dog Park and There Was Nothing We Could Do About It? Check out The Science Dog post Dog Park People for more on those unfortunate details.

Hope all’s well! I think there's a meta-analysis on your horizon...


Jackson P. 2012. Situated activities in a dog park: Identity and conflict in human-animal space. Society and Animals 20, 254-272. DOI: 

Case, L. 2014. Dog Park People. The Science Dog Blog

Copyright Do You Believe in Dog? 2014
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12 February 2014

Scientific Approaches to Enriching the Lives of Sanctuary Wolves and Wolf-Dog “Hybrids”

Spirit initiating play with Sampson
Hi Julie and Mia,

I wanted to update you on some unique but exciting research that I conducted while working toward my Ph.D. at the University of Florida’s Canine Cognition and Behavior Lab. This particular research focuses on the welfare of wolves and wolf-dog “hybrids” in private sanctuaries.

The common use of the term “hybrid” is perhaps the first indication of how poorly we understand these animals. The term “hybrid” is technically inaccurate – as wolves and domestic dogs are considered taxonomically the same species, so “wolfdog” or “wolf-dog cross” is more accurate. It is estimated that there are 300,000-500,000 wolfdogs in the United States, but a solid census – as well as reliable means of identifying them – is sorely needed. Hundreds of wolfdogs are either euthanized or surrendered to sanctuaries - permanent residences for unwanted, abused and neglected wolves and wolfdogs that cannot be adopted out by shelters.

Although typically filled to capacity, private sanctuaries have little funding opportunities, often relying only modest private donations and volunteers to keep the facility running and ensure that the animals’ needs are adequately met. Consequently, the cost of implementing traditional enrichment items (e.g., toys, objects, scents) to keep the animals stimulated may neither address this goal or prove to be financially feasible.

In many cases, the goal of enrichment for captive animals is not only to increase species-typical behaviors and activity levels, but to reduce or eliminate undesirable behaviors as well.

Interaction with regular, experienced volunteers, however, is an alternative approach. Many animals arrive at sanctuaries with long histories of human interaction, having been obtained by their former owners from breeders at a young age and raised in an environment similar to our pet dogs.

Big Oak founders Debra & John Knight with Sampson & Spirit
The Research
We observed three pairs of wolfdogs and one pair of wolves, all of which resided for at least six months at Big Oak Wolf Sanctuary in Green Cove Springs, Florida. For years, owners John and Debra Knight and their volunteers have prioritized daily human interaction sessions to their animals without the use of food-based reinforcers. This provided a unique opportunity for me to examine the effects of human interaction alone on the animals’ behavior.

Was there any scientific merit to my observations, or did I simply just want to believe that these animals were responding positively to their new lives? This also seemed to be an ideal opportunity to investigate whether human interaction was a a legitimate enrichment strategy for a captive animal population.

John Knight spends some quality time with Job

The Findings
For all subjects, the levels of positive, species-typical affiliative behaviors significantly increased, as did their overall activity levels. Remarkably, subjects also spent significantly more time playing with the other animal in their enclosure when human interaction was provided. In this way, it appears that human interaction also enhances the behaviors between the paired animals.

Three wolfdogs also exhibited pacing (widely considered a stereotypic behavior in captive animals) in initial baselines. The pacing was either reduced substantially or eliminated during all human interaction sessions.

These findings, published in the most recent issue of the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, collectively support the notion that human interaction is in itself enriching for well-socialized wolves and wolfdogs. Needless to say, these results did not come as a surprise to volunteers at Big Oak who have spent countless hours closely interacting with their animals. More data is certainly needed to determine if this effect is true for other wolves and wolfdogs at other sanctuaries, as well as the long-term effects of human interaction on behavioral welfare.

Volunteer Debbie Costa gets scent rubs from Amos & Angel

Although the lack of scientific studies on wolfdog behavior leaves many opportunities to scientists interested in studying them, it poses a difficulty for the general public who seek objective, reliable information on wolfdogs. So, I think it’s worth ending with some recommendations for future reading.

You will likely come to find that everyone has their own opinion on wolfdogs – and that is because no two wolfdogs are the same; nor are any of our experiences with them identical. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading, and I look forward to research that continues to examine ways of further improving the welfare of these wonderful – but often misunderstood – animals. 

Lindsay R. Mehrkam
Ph.D. Candidate
Canine Cognition & Behavior Lab
University of Florida 

PS: Big Oak Wolf Sanctuary is in need of donations. Details here:

Further Reading:

Mehrkam L.R., Verdi N.T. & Wynne C.D.L. (2014). Human Interaction as Environmental Enrichment for Pair-Housed Wolves and Wolf–Dog Crosses, Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 17 (1) 43-58. DOI:

Addams, J., & Miller, A. (2012). Between dog and wolf: understanding the connection and the confusion. Wenatchee, WA: Dogwise Publishing.

Volunteers Maya and Sarah with pups Abigail and India

Photos: Copyright Big Oak Wolf Sanctuary

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7 February 2014

SPARCS: Igniting interest in canine science

We are thrilled to announce that the Do You Believe in Dog? duo, Julie and Mia, will be attending the Society for the Promotion of Applied Research in Canine Science 2014 Conference #SPARCS2014 in the exciting new role of hosts of the live broadcast. 

This year's line up looks amazing! Presentations from leading canine scientists -- based around the themes of "Aggression" and Conflict; Temperament and Personality and Applying Science in Training -- will take place over the three days:

Ray Coppinger 
Simon Gadbois
Sam Gosling
Kathryn Lord 
Patricia McConnell 
James K. Russell
James Serpell
Monique Udell
Clive Wynne

In our role as commentators, we will be on site at the Jane Pickens Theatre in Newport, interviewing speakers, and providing real-time analysis on the topics raised. Most importantly, we'll connect with the thousands of people tuning in from around the globe. Listeners at home will enjoy a more active role in #SPARCS2014.

How can you get involved?

If you'd like to join us in Rhode Island, there are a few ways to get there:

  1. Join SPARCS: GOLD membership gets you a free ticket to the conference and unlimited access to the recordings of the broadcasts for one year. SILVER membership gets you a 10% discount on tickets for the conference and unlimited access to the recordings of the broadcasts for one year.
  2. Attend the conference: You can buy tickets directly through the SPARCS website here
  3. Tune in to the FREE live stream of the conference from ANYWHERE in the world: You can sign up to be notified when the live stream is active here
  4. Follow the conference on social media: We'll be making sure people can follow the action on Twitter (follow #SPARCS2014)
Watching SPARCS2013 couch-side with friends on opposite sides of the globe!
We did this last year and it was AWESOME! Obviously not as wonderful as being there in person, but it is an amazing way to access these great scientists when geography tries to get in the way of a good time! So if you're in Denmark, Uruguay, Namibia, Antarctica, Brazil, the Phillipines, or anywhere in between, don't feel like you can't be part of #SPARCS2014, because you can!

More to come as the event approaches...

Mia & Julie
Recap of #SPARCS2013:

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4 February 2014

Stereotypical dogs: repetitive and pointless?

"I'm a labrador" does not = "I'm hungry" (source)
Hey Julie,

it's great to get an updated view of what's on the canine science cards for you in 2014 - looks like we're both going to be keeping busy - and wouldn't have it any other way!

I can't believe we're already into February, to be honest. There are so many great new publications coming out, it's quite exciting to be able to share them with you here! You know I'm always thinking about the welfare of kennelled dogs (because PhD!) and I noticed a new study from the University of Bristol titled Repetitive behaviour in kennelled domestic dog: Stereotypical or not? (reference given below). Now of course, you know we're not talking about "all labradors are greedy" or "all little dogs are yappy" kind of stereotypes here, we're talking about describing a specific type of behaviour.

I know you're interested in stereotypical animal behaviour too, so I wanted to share this with you! As you know, stereotypical behaviours have traditionally be thought of as repetitive and invariant behaviour patterns with no obvious goal or function

Typical stereotypies that many people would be familiar with, include elephants in zoos/circuses swinging their trunks and/or swaying side to side; horses 'weaving' in stables; and bears route tracing when in captivity:

In these situations, it's generally understood that the behaviour is the result of the animal feeling frustrated, fearful, restrained, stressed or lacking stimulation and when seen frequently, is often considered an indicator of poor welfare. 

Determining whether such behaviours are 'without function' has proven difficult. Research over the past decade has shed more light on the reasons animals might develop these behaviour patterns, and suggests that performing the behaviour is not always without a function, but can actually serve a role in helping animals to cope. We have discovered that the animals showing frequent stereotypical behaviour may not be the individuals suffering the most (you know that old saying - it's the quiet ones you've got to watch!).  

As such, a refined definition better separates 'abnormal repetitive behaviours' from 'stereotypical behaviours' (which are considered to be caused by inadequate housing that causes frustration and may be overcome with appropriate change of environment including social and/or environmental enrichment). 

Dog-focussed research in this area has shown that kennelled dogs kept in restricted environments (such as laboratories or rescue shelters) may show behaviour as pacing, circling, spinning, wall bouncing or barking:

The new research from Bristol set out to investigate if every dog observed in a working dog facility showing repetitive behaviour could really be described as stereotypical (which would suggest they were experiencing compromised welfare). 

The researchers examined the behaviour and physiology (using the urine's cortisol/creatinine ratio) of 30 German Shepherd Police dogs. They saw repetitive behaviours in over 40% of the behavioural samples in response to ten deliberately arousing activities (such as a kennel staff member standing outside the kennel yard, clicking the clip of a leash - indicating exercise time; or a full food bowl being placed outside the front of the kennel enclosure; or a stranger walking through the kennel complex). Only two individual dogs were not observed performing any repetitive behaviour.

The study confirmed that dogs housed in kennel facilities long-term commonly exhibit repetitive behaviours when presented with a variety of routine activities as stimuli; also showing that individual dogs differ in the way that they respond.Some dogs only engaged in repetitive behaviours only during husbandry events when a person was there. Most dogs showed more than one of: circle, spin, bounce, pace, generally in some kind of combination (the spin and bounce as shown in video above was the most common combination seen). 

But, if these repetitive behaviours are only happening with certain triggers when people are present - are they truly stereotypical and indicative of poor welfare? 

DogKennelJump on Make A Gif
The behavioural & physiological responses were able to be grouped statistically, showing 17% of the dogs demonstrated repetitive behaviour during periods of minimal stimulation AND had a different physiological profile from the rest of the population. Interpreting this isn't easy though.

There's still uncertainty whether chronic stress in dogs increases or decreases the responsiveness of the HPA system, and it may be that this is different for dogs of different personality types, historical backgrounds and/or affective states. It could be that the dogs have been externally rewarded (intentionally or unintentionally), and so the behaviours have been reinforced.

This study has highlighted the complexities of trying to understand repetitive behaviour in kennelled dogs and recognises there is unlikely to be a single reason behind apparent stereotypies. 

It certainly shows us that the relationship between such behaviours and their welfare status (and in my mind also - how this impacts on their work performance) requires further scientific investigation. And that it's important, not repetitive and pointless at all.

I'd best get back to reviewing my PhD data then, hey?!
Hope you're keeping well,


Further reading:

Denham H.D.C., Bradshaw J.W.S. & Rooney N.J. (2014). Repetitive behaviour in kennelled domestic dog: Stereotypical or not?, Physiology & Behavior, DOI:

Mason G. & NR L. (2004). Can't stop, won't stop: is stereotypy a reliable welfare indicator?, Animal Welfare, 13 S57-S70. Link: click here for abstract

Mason G.J. (1991). Stereotypies: a critical review, Animal Behaviour, 41 (6) 1015-1037. DOI: 

Dallaire A. (1993). Stress and Behavior in Domestic Animals: Temperament as a Predisposing Factor to Stereotypies, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 697 (1 Corticotropin) 269-274. DOI:

© Mia Cobb | Do You Believe in Dog? 2014
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