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


24 July 2015

Facebook, depression & dogs: Send me an Angel

Guest post by: Kirrilly Thompson, B.Soc Sci (Hons), PhD

A few years ago, my life changed. The impact of separating from my partner took me by surprise. For the first time in 12 years, I had to put on my ‘big girl pants’ and do things for myself and by myself.

I worked hard. I partied hard. I cried hard. Sometimes at the same time.

In the mornings, I would lay in bed waiting for a reason to get out of it. I had moved to the country to be closer to my horses, but I lost all motivation to ride.

I became obsessed with my appearance. Checking it, judging it, trying to improve it, searching for photographic proof that I was OK. I gained a reputation for being a ‘selfie queen’, but the photos were more like doomed ‘self-helpsies’. Each selfie posted to my Facebook page represented another 30 or so that I had discarded, too horrible for anyone to see, let alone myself. I hurriedly untagged myself from photos posted by friends without authorisation.

I was exhausted from being stuck in my own head, worrying about myself and why I was like this. My GP wrote a mental health plan and I saw a few different therapists. They introduced me to mindfulness techniques.

Like a curious scientist, I was encouraged to observe my feelings and thereby create some distance between them and myself. Instead of feeling sad, anxious, depressed, scared etc. and trying desperately to rid myself of those feelings, I was encouraged to ‘make space’ for them. This was done by examining them as if they were separate from me: what colour is my anxiety? Is sadness hot or cold... Instead of running from or fighting that emotion, I sat with it. Mindfulness.

I soon adapted mindfulness to suit my own visual preferences and affinity for animals. I turned my feelings into dogs. Even though I hadn't lived with a dog since my childhood, I would imagine which breed best represented my feelings and how I would treat it. If I was feeling scared, I would imagine a timid whippet sitting on my lap whilst I reassured it with pats. If I was feeling really angry, I would imagine a growling Doberman. I gave it space in the passenger seat.

A couple of Novembers ago, I was at a birthday celebration I had arranged for myself, all by my big self. Unbeknownst to me, a litter of Tenterfield Terriers were born on the same day. One of them was named ‘Angel Eyes’, but the breeders called her “Big Girl”.

I had no idea I would meet her a month or so later. That tiny four-legged scientist fell into my lap, sat down and stared at me. I chose her because she was mindful of me. We made space for one another. I brought Angel home on Christmas Eve. She became my therapist. I spent so much time wondering what was going on in her head that I got out of mine. I had a little thing that needed me to get out of bed each morning. She made me smile and laugh. If I slept in, it was to take photos of her sleeping on my bed. If my make-up-free face was in the photo, I didn’t care. Whilst I would never have made it through my ‘black dog’ patch without love and support from my colleagues, friends and family, we all agree that Angel changed my life forever. She also changed my Facebook page.

Kirrilly is a Senior Researcher at CQUni's Appleton Institute.
She is a trained anthropologists who uses ethnographic methods to research the cultural dimensions of risk-perception and safety. Kirrilly has particular interests in human-animal interactions, high risk interspecies activities and equestrianism. She has proposed the 'Pets as Protective Factor' principle, based on a DECRA project identifying how animal attachment can be re-considered as a protective factor for human survival of natural disasters. She is also a co-investigator on a sister project: 'MAiD Managing Animals in Disasters' with Dr Mel Taylor. This project aims to improve the interface of animal owners and first responders during all hazards. 

For a comprehensive publications list, see

Further information

On the human desire to connect:
            Baumeister, Roy F, and Mark R Leary. 1995. "The need to belong: desire for interpersonal
            attachments as a fundamental human motivation."
Psychological bulletin no. 117 (3):497.

On dogs reducing depression:
Clark Cline, Krista Marie. 2010. "Psychological effects of dog ownership: Role strain, role enhancement, and depression." The Journal of social psychology no. 150 (2):117-131.

On unhealthy preoccupation with appearance:
Veale, David, and Susan Riley. 2001. "Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the ugliest of them all? The psychopathology of mirror gazing in body dysmorphic disorder." Behaviour Research and Therapy no. 39 (12):1381-1393. doi:

On what is mindfulness:

Multiple resources on mindfulness with guided meditations which particularly relate to anxiety and depression:

Lots of audio meditations using breath, sounds and body as objects of meditation

Compassion meditation resources:

On the benefits of mindfulness for treating depression:
Hofmann, Stefan G, Alice T Sawyer, Ashley A Witt, and Diana Oh. 2010. "The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review." Journal of consulting and clinical psychology no. 78 (2):169.

The idea of self-representation is not new in the social sciences. It is most notably associated with:
Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. London: Penguin Books.
Butler, Judith. 1999. "Performativity's Social Magic." In Bourdieu: A Critical Reader, edited by R Shusterman, 113 -128. Great Britain: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.

But more recently, research has focussed on self-presentation in and through social media:
Siibak, Andra. 2009. "Constructing the self through the photo selection-visual impression management on social networking websites." Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace no. 3 (1):1.

Gonzales, Amy L, and Jeffrey T Hancock. 2011. "Mirror, mirror on my Facebook wall: Effects of exposure to Facebook on self-esteem." Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking no. 14 (1-2):79-83.

The ‘selfie phenomenon’ is widely discussed in the popular and academic media, often in pejorative terms of narcissism or vanity.
Kiprin, Borislav. 2013. "Go Selfie Yourself!".

Buchanan, Kent. 2014. "The wide-screen selfie: Emma Thomson's' take your best shot'." Photofile no. 94 (Autumn/Winter):17-24.;dn=527807360465638;res=IELAPA

Franco, JAMES. 2013. "The Meanings of the Selfie." The New York Times no. 28.

Mehdizadeh, Soraya. 2010. "Self-presentation 2.0: Narcissism and self-esteem on Facebook." Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking no. 13 (4):357-364.

Whilst there is little peer-review social science literature dedicated to the phenomenon, it does seem to be of interest to university students:
Montanez, Alexandria Marie. 2014. The Selfie Queen: Sexualisation, Representation, and Implications of Selfies on Women. Paper read at IUURC 20.
Vigliotti, Jeanette C. 2014. "The Double Sighted: Visibility, Identity, and Photographs on Facebook."

There is a clear need for research on the tension between, on one hand, the selfie as a liberating tool that provides women with control over their self-presentation and positions them as producers of their own image; eg.
Ehlin, Lisa. 2014. "The subversive selfie: Redefining the mediated subject." Clothing Cultures no. 2 (1):73-89.

and on the other hand, a disciplining technology that obliges people to produce the best version of themselves against limitless and dynamic criteria. The latter is reinforced by a developing market for selfie enhancing tools.
Kanazir, Marija. 2014. "Sony Unveils the Perfect Tool for Fashionable Selfie Lovers."

Van House, Nancy, Marc Davis, Morgan Ames, Megan Finn, and Vijay Viswanathan. 2005. The uses of personal networked digital imaging: an empirical study of cameraphone photos and sharing. Paper read at CHI'05 extended abstracts on Human factors in computing systems.

There is even research on the best selfie angle:
Yeh, Mei-Chen, and Hsiao-Wei Lin. 2014. Virtual portraitist: aesthetic evaluation of selfies based on angle. Paper read at Proceedings of the ACM International Conference on Multimedia.

And a facebook group for selfie-science:

Even animals are getting in on the act:
Schlackman, Steve. 2013. "The Telegraph is Wrong about the Monkey Selfie." Newsletter.

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23 July 2015

Stress Down (with a dog!) Day for Lifeline 2015

90% of Australians report they need to stress less. That's an alarming statistic! Lifeline Australia set up Stress Down Day this July 24 to help people find ways to reduce the stress in their life.

Rudy and my friend Jenny, to all appearances, sharing a laugh

I have been helping share info about the benefits pets can offer our mental and physical health by speaking with some media ahead of Stress Down Day this week. 

Findings from a growing body of research show that when our animal companions fit our lifestyle, and meet our needs, we can enjoy:
  • increased self esteem
  • decreased loneliness
  • increased happiness
  • better able to cope with social rejection compared to non-pet owners
  • more physically active
This meaningful social support we get from our animal companions can vary between animals and also between people (ie.I don't feel the way about your cat that I feel about my dog, and how I feel about my cat might be different again), but when things are optimal, the attachment and benefits to people can be as significant for us as a best friend or close family member. That's AMAZING!

I decided to take Rudy for a special walk along the river this morning to actively take time out to stress down - partly because it's Stress Down Day today and partly because I would have anyway. It was a quiet morning, we only saw one other person. We saw loads of birds, a small mob of kangaroos, and we stopped several times just to watch the river and share the moment. I spent a lot of the walk thinking about a family member who left us earlier this year, in the saddest of circumstances. I felt sad. 

Then, my 11 month old puppy would go full goose, zooming around the shallow waters and button grasses and despite the significance of the loss I feel, I laughed at him. 
It felt good. 

We both enjoyed the walk. I returned home feeling more relaxed. Rudy's currently asleep next to me, so I reckon he did too.

I hope you find a way to stress less today too. We'd love to hear about how the animals in your life help - feel free to comment below. If you'd like to share some of my walk - it went a bit like this:

If you know someone (maybe you!) thinking of getting an animal companion for the first time, be sure to encourage them to do their research properly. Find an animal that will fit their lifestyle and meet their needs, so they too can reap the benefits of a positive relationship. Once you know what you're looking for, consider offering a home to an animal currently in a pound, shelter or rescue group. PetRescue are a wonderful hub resource for Australians, listing animals from many shelters and rescue groups nationally.

If you'd like to support the excellent work that Lifeline do, you can donate here

If you or someone you know is depressed, anxious, or may be at risk of suicide, you can get help and support.
Lifeline 13 11 14  beyondblue 1300 22 46 36
USA: Contact USA       

Take care of yourselves,

Further reading:
McConnell, AR, Brown, CM, Shoda, TM, Stayton, LE, Martin, CE. (2011) ‘Friends with benefits: on the positive consequences of pet ownership’, Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, vol.101, no.6, pp.1239-1252

Anderson, K. A., Lord, L. K., Hill, L. N., & McCune, S. (2015) Fostering the Human-Animal Bond for Older Adults: Challenges and Opportunities. Activities, Adaptation & Aging, 39(1), 32-42.
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8 July 2015

Getting practical: Do non-experts make the same behavior assessments of working dogs as experts?

Guest post by: Jamie Fratkin, PhD

First off, I just wanted to say that I love reading your blog! ('THANK You!' say Mia and Julie). I think it’s such a great platform to deliver the latest in dog research for both researchers and dog lovers, and I am excited to be able to contribute. 

Dog being dog. Copyright Steve DeBono.
Just as a bit of background on me. I just finished my PhD in Social/Personality Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin, working with Sam Gosling. My research focus has been examining personality in dogs as well as examining relationships between dogs and people. The project I’ll be talking about is one that I started in my first year of grad school.

The idea for the project was prompted by a practical question in the context of working dogs. Numbers vary a bit depending on the organization, but only about 50% of the dogs trained and bred for working-dog roles end up succeeding or actually working in the roles they were bred for. Lots of money and time is spent raising and training these dogs and with so few dogs succeeding, it is important to determine the factors that might influence success. If we can find these factors we may be able to train more successful dogs or at least figure out at an early age which puppies are most likely to succeed. 

Many studies have begun to explore the role of personality in working-dog success (e.g., Duffy & Serpell, 2012; Goddard & Beilharz, 1982, Sinn, Gosling, & Hilliard, 2010).  Just as not every person is suitable for every job, not every dog is suitable for every working role. For example, you don’t want a dog that is afraid of traffic to lead a visually impaired person. You also don’t want a dog that is easily distracted to be in charge of detecting explosive devices.

Research suggests that some traits seem to be particularly relevant to a dog’s working success. For example, in the 80s, Goddard & Beilharz conducted a series of studies examining guide dogs in Australia and found low fearfulness was a significant predictor of success.

These other studies are promising but there is practical obstacle to doing them. That is, most experts from working dog organizations are already pressed for time by all of the responsibilities they have to oversee. So they usually don’t have time to undertake the behavioral observations that are key to systematically assessing dogs’ personalities.

So for this study, we wanted to find out whether we could save the experts’ time by having non-experts rate the dog’s assessments instead of the experts. We examined this question in two assessment contexts. One context consisted of Belgian Malinois puppies undertaking a short, very standardized test; dogs were placed in a room and the assessors went through a series of standardized steps to examine the dog’s reactions to various stimuli such as a vacuum cleaner being turned on. The second context consisted of Labrador Retrievers undertaking a longer and less standardized test in which the dogs were walked through different environments and their reactions to the environment were observed and translated into traits like confidence and concentration.  

Experts from working-dog organizations had already rated these assessments. So we recruited non-experts (some of whom had never even owned a dog before) to rate the videos of the behavioral assessments that had already been rated by the experts. We gave the non-experts about an hour of training. These non-experts then watched videos at their own pace and made ratings based on how the dog performed in the assessments.

In general, we found strong evidence that non-experts could match expert ratings for many traits in both assessments. However, non-experts did not match experts for about 25% of the traits (e.g., dog’s focus on a reward object). The reason for the discrepancies between experts and non-experts could be that some traits are more difficult to observe via video recordings (vs. watching the behavior live), but it also could be that some traits are more difficult for non-experts to observe than experts. Overall, our results suggest that for many traits non-experts can match expert ratings of dog assessments. Given that non-experts are far more abundant than experts, this finding has has wide ranging practical implications for organizations hoping to assess personality in dogs.  

Jamie and Quasia

~ ~ ~
Jamie's study is available via free promotional access until January 2016. This means you can download now and view whenever. For more about the research in the Special Issue of 'Behavioural Processes,' see 'Really, Canine Science is Open Access.'

Learn more about Jamie and her research on her website

Duffy, D. L., & Serpell, J. A. (2012). Predictive validity of a method for evaluating temperament in young guide and service dogs. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 138, 99-109. 

Fratkin, J. L., Sinn., D. L., Thomas, S., Hilliard, S., Olson, Z., & Gosling, S. D. (2015). Do you see what I see? Can non-experts with minimal training reproduce expert ratings in behavioral assessments of working dogs? Behavioral Processes, 110, 105-116. 

Goddard, M E., & Beilharz, R. G. (1982). Genetic and environmental factors affecting the suitability of dogs as guide dogs for the blind. Theoretical and Applied Genetics, 62, 97-102. 

Sinn, D. L., Gosling, S. D., & Hilliard, S. (2010). Personality and performance in military working dogs: Reliability and predictive validity of behavioral tests. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 127, 51-65. 

© 2015 Jamie Fratkin | Do You Believe in Dog?

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