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


26 September 2016

What’s Behind Our Lasting Relationships with Dogs? Researcher Seeks Help

Please welcome today's guest contributor, Karen Griffin, a PhD student at the University of Lincoln who is trying to figure what makes relationships with dogs work. Please read on, as she is hoping for your help!

Hi Mia & Julie,

I am currently working on a study to examine factors that affect successful dog relationships and placements.  I am using a new approach to do this, which involves dog owners and shelter/rescue staff assessing dogs using a set of game-like tests.

What makes some relationships work? Flickr Creative Commons
The abandonment of dogs is a problem that affects much of the world.  In the UK between 2014 and 2015, local authorities handled over 100,000 stray dogs.  In the US, the problem is even more monumental; recent estimates suggest that nearly four million dogs enter shelters nationally per year, and over one million of those are euthanized.  

These are frightening statistics, and science has taken notice in recent years, aiming to understand and help reduce this epidemic.  However, much of this research is narrow in focus and scope, by relying on the analysis of retrospective data, that’s collected by shelters when dogs are relinquished, or in the way it conceptualizes the dog-owner relationship.  In the case of the latter, the dog-human relationship is traditionally understood as a static, unchanging one (e.g. Prato-Previde et al., 2003; Marston et al., 2005).  At the same time, there are indications that our lifestyles and relationships with dogs are not fixed, but dynamic. 

Credit: Steve Benisty
This is where my PhD research steps in.  I have applied a very different approach, and have redefined the dog-owner relationship as a dynamic entity that changes over time.  Over the course of the relationship, conflict will inevitably arise, as it does in any close personal relationship, and it is the ability of one member of the party (i.e., the dog or the owner) to resolve the conflict. It is this conflict resolution that will determine if the relationship will continue and be successful or not.  The inability to resolve conflict could lead to the relationship failing and the dog being relinquished. 

So now the question is, what do we do about this?  How can we understand or predict which dogs and owners will be able to resolve conflict and thus which relationships will succeed?  My research has hypothesized that behavioural flexibility (i.e., adaptability) is central to this, so I am assessing this in both humans (i.e., long-term dog owners, dog adopters, and dog relinquishers) as well as dogs.  

Game time
This is where I need help!  I created a citizen science study that dog lovers worldwide can join.  I have developed a set of four game-like tests that assess behavioural flexibility in dogs:
  • L-Shaped Food Finding Test
  • Time Alone Test
  • Three-Toy Test
  • Pointing Test

About you
I am seeking help from people in these two groups:  
  1. Long-term dog owners to participate with their own dog(s) (i.e. people who have owned their dog for at least three years)
  2. Animal shelters, rescue centres, rehoming organizations to participate with dogs without a current home
Time commitment
The study should take approximately 10 minutes per test plus 10 minutes for set-up and background survey completion.  An hour should be sufficient for everything.  Please note, you do not have to complete all four tests to participate.

Please don't hesitate to contact me should you have any questions: Thank you for considering contributing to this study of what makes relationships stick!

University of Lincoln
School of Life Sciences

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