Podcast: What does your relationship with your pet say about you?

Can research help us understand our bonds with animals?

In this month’s episode of The Informed Animal Ally, the Vancouver Humane Society’s Amy Morris and Chantelle Archambault are joined by Dr. Sasha Protopopova and Dr. Camila Cavalli from UBC to discuss the research on human-animal bonds.

Note: This written discussion has been edited for length.

Assistant Professor NSERC/BC SPCA Industrial Research Chair in Animal Welfare

Sasha is an assistant professor at UBC and the NSERC/BC SPCA Industrial Research Chair in Animal Welfare. She has PhD and a Master of Science in Behavior Analysis, a Bachelor’s degree in Pre-Veterinary and Animal Science, and a Bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience. Sasha’s research aims are to improve animal shelter practices, improve companion animal welfare through the development of behavioural interventions in shelters as well as pet homes, and assess and improve on the well-being of working dogs working in assistance roles. 

Post-Doctoral Researcher

Camila is a post-doctoral researcher at UBC. She believes a deeper understanding of the way dogs communicate with humans is vital to improve our relationship with them and protect their welfare, and devotes her career to the study of dog cognition. Her PhD focused on the sociocognitive abilities of therapy dogs who visit people in places like hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. As a postdoc, she’s expanding her research to learn more about the characteristics of successful therapy dogs, their motivation, and the welfare benefits of giving dogs the option to opt in.  

Becoming animal researchers

Amy: How did you become interested in human animal interaction?

Sasha: I think what led me first into it as a child is I had a very important, great connection to dogs and to horses and to kind of other animals that were around me at the time, so much so that I would say that my best friend was a dog when I was a child in Russia.

And so I had a lot of deep connections already with animals as I was growing up. But I didn’t really know what I could do with that in terms of a career. I was reading all these books about veterinarians, about maybe research in Africa with primates. And I was kind of imagining that I should be a veterinarian of some kind.

I kind of went down that path in my early education. I was imagining that I was going to go to vet school, but that didn’t really pan out. I decided that actually I was much more interested in behaviour and much more interested in domesticated animals specifically and how they related to us, than just thinking about their physiology. And so I switched and really went into research instead of veterinary medicine.

Camila: Yeah, I think we all thought we might someday be vets. In my case, it was the opposite. As a child, I couldn’t have a pet and I really wanted to have a dog. I was obsessed with everything about dogs and I would read all the time about them, but I couldn’t have one.

I really wanted to interact more with dogs. I was thinking, I’m going to be a vet when I grow up. But I decided to study psychology because I was really interested in behaviour, but I wasn’t such a fan of humans. So I thought, maybe I can find other types of behavior.

Then I met my former PI who was studying dog behaviour in Argentina. And it was like, this is perfect. I’m finally studying dogs. It combined my interests in behaviour and dogs.

Research on animals

Chantelle: We’re so interested to talk about your perspectives on companion animal relationships. I would love to hear a little bit more about your research in this area.

Sasha: My graduate school was really focused on animal shelters. I was a dog trainer before as an undergraduate student.

I first thought that I was going to probably pursue research and dog training itself, but my former supervisor, Dr. Clive Wynne, suggested that I go visit the local shelter and see what’s going on in there. Thinking about, how can I combine the two fields? What can I do as a dog trainer within animal shelters to improve adoption rates of dogs?

I started with that and I went to the shelter. I naively thought that if I were to just train some cute behaviour in a dog, for sure, adoptions will go up and all the world problems will be solved. And so I did that for my master’s thesis. I trained a cute behaviour. It was a cute gaze into the eyes of potential adopters from dogs.

And so that was successful in terms of the training perspective. It was totally unsuccessful. in improving adoptions. I saw no increases in adoptions at all.

That made me realize that I was rather naive and really coming at it from a dog trainer perspective, and not really thinking about it from a more holistic understanding of human interactions. I was kind of forgetting about the human side of things.

From then on all of my research focused not only on the animals, but more on that human side. So what is it that people are looking for in dogs, whether it is to increase adoption rates for my doctoral research, or later on with our work with Camila, when we’re looking at a therapy dog context. So all of these things are connecting the human experience, not just the animal experience.

Camila: In my case, I started as an undergrad. I found a person studying dog behavior and I latched onto her. I did my undergrad thesis with her studying post conflict reconciliation in dogs and humans.

Then for my PhD, I started focusing on therapy dogs, which I have continued to up to now. At times in my research, I focus more on the dog and how they behave and their social cognitive abilities. But it’s of course always important to consider the human parts of those interactions.

Research is very central to the whole topic; to consider everyone that’s there, not only the child and the dog, but also a handler that’s communicating all the time with the dog and with the child. And it’s a very complex situation.

Interactions with different species

Amy: I’m curious about whether the way that you look at human animal interaction varies by species. And if so, in what ways?

Sasha: What an interesting question. Certainly as Camila is, I’m quite dog obsessed. So my personal research has really been with one species, dogs, butI was very lucky to have worked with other graduate students who have studied different species.

One that comes to mind right away are cats. And so this is a work by a current PhD student, Bailey Eagan. One of her studies and her overall line of research is to help cats do well in an animal shelter context, especially cats that are coming in from quite difficult circumstances, like a hoarding environment where they don’t necessarily get a lot of socialization opportunities with other people, they might have some genetic developmental issues, health issues. And so they are coming in quite needy, both behaviourally and medically. And then animal shelters or rescue or rehabilitation services need to devise ways to help them find successful homes.

No Title

Maddie’s® Insights are monthly webcasts with practical tips based on current research to help pets and people. This month’s webinar is presented by Bailey Eagan, MSc, PhD Student. Cats entering shelters often experience fear, anxiety, and stress while in care.

And so in that context, there were some interesting aspects of the cat human relationship that were different from the dog human relationship. Some other things were very similar.

In terms of gauging how successful some rehabilitation programs are with the cats, we looked at sociability towards humans. This is something that is quite similar to dog research, how we think of, what is a successful dog? In the shelter, that’s an animal who is safe, who is seeking out human attention, and is successfully interacting with humans.

For cats, safety may not be largest kind of predictor of a successful relationship.

Another set of data comes to mind from another PhD student in my lab, Lexis Ly. Lexis is a data scientist and has done quite a bit of research where she is combining datasets. One of the things that she did was looked at what were the reasons for surrender of cats and dogs to animal shelters and why people selected self rehoming versus rehoming to a shelter.

She’s compared people who’ve rehomed cats and dogs and what were the reasons for rehoming. Some were similar, but fewer people cited safety, aggression issues, or behavioural issues for cats than dogs.

There’s some similarities, but overall, I think the connection that people have towards companion animals as they kind of seek them out for adoption is in some ways quite similar.

We have some other research that is just starting out with rabbit and human interactions. So perhaps if we do this podcast again next year, I might have some other things to say about rabbits or rats

Chantelle: Oh, wonderful. I’d be so interested to hear about that. Camila, did you have anything to add?

Camila: Yeah, I’m the dog person, so I don’t know a lot about other species beyond personal experience.

I think it’s important to consider when we are thinking about human animal interactions, sometimes people may try to interact with animals who they shouldn’t be interacting with becausethat may be dangerous for people or something that’s uncomfortable for the animal and it affects their welfare.

Just because they look cute, we shouldn’t try to pet a raccoon that we find in our neighborhood. So I think that’s also something to consider. We can learn about species or look at them, but not physically interact with all of the species, even if we want to.

Sasha: You know, Camila and I are really focused on companion animals. And so we certainly are answering these questions from that perspective; when you say other species, we’re thinking cats, dogs, maybe horses, maybe rabbits, anyone that people have that very personal connection with.

But yesterday I had the privilege to attend a book launch by Dr. David Fraser, who’s retired from our animal welfare program. And there he read some excepts from his new edition of the book Understanding Animal Welfare. And he was highlighting how there are so many different societal influences and how we perceive our interactions with animals, and how we’re very speciesist and our care for animals.

There was an example along the lines where a typical farmer may in the morning go to with his elderly dog to the veterinarian to figure out a way to spend money to prolong the dog’s life, in the afternoon send six week old pigs to slaughter, and then set up a trap in the evening for a pesky coyote.

It highlights that within a given day we might have so many different relationships with animals and that’s only really dependent on our cultural attitudes or value systems as we relate to animals or historical aspects.

There’s so many other types of human animal interactions that are out there.

Chantelle: That’s a great point. We are focusing on companion animals today, but we’ve talked about the needs and interactions of farmed animals and wildlife. So that’s really interesting to hear about.

Surprising findings

Chantelle: It sounds like both of you have really fascinating projects about human animal interaction. I would love to hear more about those and if there are any results from those that surprised you.

Sasha: Yeah. Even going back to my doctoral research, where I was looking at what increases adoption rates in dogs, I think what was surprising to me is there are very few things that people look for when they’re selecting a dog.

I was imagining that people had all these behavioural selection criteria when they’re going into the shelter and they’re really kind of selecting based on some kind of match between the family and the dog.

And one thing that I was surprised by was that a lot of that selection was based on the morphology of the dog. So the cute little puppies are going to go home much faster, or small breeds are going to go faster. The certain interesting long coats are going to go faster than other dogs.

I was surprised that looks mattered much more than the behaviour of the dog, but perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. I think that perhaps this is kind of the problem with the human condition generally; that we go after looks first and then the match or the behaviour second.

It made me realize that I shouldn’t be just basing my research questions based on those assumptions that I had about how people engage with animals.

Instead, there is plenty of opportunity for empirical investigations into human interaction so that if we do want to devise some kind of programs to improve adoptions, for example, or create some kind of change for the better for society in terms of animal welfare, that we have to actually start with that initial collection of data.

Camila: I think maybe a bit surprising for me was when I started comparing therapy dogs and pet dogs; that they weren’t all that different in a lot of things, because it wasn’t like they were magical therapy dogs in every aspect I was measuring.

Of course I did find some differences, for example, in the gaze and behaviour and they would communicate more with humans in some situations.

And that makes sense because in the sessions, as I said, can be a very complex situation with different people with things that may be unpredictable happening. So it makes sense for them to be looking at the handler or be looking at people much more maybe than family dogs that don’t have these experiences.

Sasha: Another one that I think I was surprised overall thinking about therapy dogs or therapy animals was how it seemed how little the handlers of those animals seem to understand their own animals.

I can kind of reference a couple of studies.

One of the studies was by my master’s student, Megan Arant for her master’s thesis, who was curious about the welfare of therapy dogs. She wanted to ask the question of whether, if given a choice of therapy, dogs actually wanted to engage with children or if they would choose to leave and it really was the handlers who were kind of pushing this volunteerism onto the dogs.

She devised a couple of experiments and she recruited therapy dogs who were registered therapy dogs; specifically whose handlers said that their dog’s favourite thing are children.

So she had that sub sample of dogs who were hypothetically very interested in children. And then she asked those dogs some questions behaviourally.

One of those was a button press experiment. The dogs were trained to press one of two buttons by trials. One of the buttons essentially just kept the dog in the room. So it was nothing, it was a control button. And another button led the dog out for a break out of the room. And in the control condition, that room was empty. And so we wouldn’t expect any differences in the button pressing. But in the experimental condition, the room contained a child.

And that child would follow the dog and interact with the dog in a very typical animal assisted intervention type of session where there is some physical interaction between the child and the dog. These therapy dogs are registered therapy dogs, so this is something that they have experience with.

She saw that some dogs did elect to start pressing the button more to stay in the room. So this is great because this tells us that, yeah, the therapy dogs were really enjoying their sessions with the child. But what was surprising was that not all of those therapy dogs did that. We would hypothesize that all of those dogs are really in love with children as their handlers will say, but in fact, most of the dogs really didn’t care about the child either way.

So there was no change from baseline to the experimental condition. And in fact, a few dogs really actively started pressing the button to leave the room. This is of course very concerning because again, these are not just pet dogs. These are therapy dogs whose handlers say they love children, and yet they still want to escape that room when the child is present, highlighting that handlers don’t always know what their dogs are actually telling them.

In the same vein, there was another study that was very interesting, but this time with therapy horses. Also conducted by Megan Arant and another colleague of mine, Dr. Katy Schroeder, who’s an equine assisted mental health professional.

This was a study conducted with therapy horses and these horses were used in sessions with children. So very similar to the dog sessions. And one of the activities in these sessions is to have the child groom the horse.

A lot of the times when you hear these sessions being discussed in the public media, it’s said that the horses really love the grooming. The grooming is part of that connection between the horse and the child. And this is where the positive benefits are arising between the horse and the child, and both are really enjoying that connection. And it makes it seem like the horse is an active part of this experience and is really engaging positively with the child in that way.

So we devised a very simple experiment asking horses whether they actually enjoy grooming. It was a simple task of touching their noses onto a fist of the experimenter. This was just a quick behaviour to train the horse.

And we could use that trained behavior; if we were to use food and every time the horse would touch the hand, they would get food. Would they keep working for that? Compared to if the horse got nothing, they would probably stop working and touching the hand.

This is a very simple method to ask animals whether some kind of item is rewarding. If some item is rewarding, they’re going to keep working to access that item. But if some other item is not rewarding, they’ll just stop working for it.

So knowing that we had a positive control of food, because we know animals love food, they’re going to work for food. We also had a negative control of nothing because we know if you provide nothing, animals will not engage in work for free. So knowing now we had a positive and negative control, then we had our experimental condition where if the horse touched their nose onto our fist, then they got a little bit of grooming in a very typical fashion of the therapy sessions.

And then we looked at how many nose touches were emitted by the horses and compared the rate of nose touching to the condition with the food, which was a positive control and the nothing, which was the negative control.

And quite sadly, for all the horses, they completely did not care about the brushing and no horse worked for the brushing. So the data looked identical for that negative control and the brushing, showing that for the horse brushing was equivalent to nothing, certainly not as exciting as the food.

And this kind of experiment was really a replication of other research that was done with dogs. If you ask the dog, what do you like? Do you like your owner saying, good boy, good job? They don’t care about that. That means essentially zero to them compared to food. Petting is a little bit okay for dogs, but again, if you compare that to food, that’s not as exciting.

I think when it comes to therapy animals, we tend to get a bit romantic and we tend to kind of imagine that there’s all this magical benefit or magical kind of connections between animals and humans and children. And that may be so, but I worry that occasionally because of this kind of romanticism superimposed on these activities, that we tend to forget to really watch the animal. And we forget to really consider that we may be wrong. And maybe this is not the correct situation for this animal and they’re not necessarily getting as much pleasure or as much benefit as we’re imagining they’re getting.

And maybe the benefit is really our projections of what we’re getting out of it. And so I think that is kind of an interesting lesson that data has shown for me at least.

Chantelle: That’s so interesting. I love the idea of being able to research and quantify when animals are opting into an activity. We had an episode last year on training dogs and cats; opting in was a major part of it.

I think the study about grooming is very telling. And I think we see the same sort of thing when people talk about petting farms where they’re very romanticized; “the children are getting that experience and the animals love it too”. But what we end up seeing is that the animals are in these really loud environments where they’re quite stressed.

Understanding your relationship with your pet

Chantelle: A lot of our listeners share their lives with companion animals. Both of us certainly do. Do you have any advice that you would give to someone who wants to learn more about their own relationship with their companion animal?

Sasha: One thing one can do probably is to have some kind of understanding of that baseline relationship at the moment and whether they are satisfied in that relationship that they have.

Sometimes we humans tend to not really look at the animals and really just kind of assume that there is a certain benefit that both we and the animals are getting.

I’m also a dog behavior consultant. In my cases where I’ve gone into homes, I’m called because there’s some behaviour issue and I’m called in and asked to kind of solve the dog’s problem.

I think there’s a lot of situations where the owners have kind of inaccurately determine some aspects of the relationship between themselves and their dogs.

For example, one thing comes to mind, I was in a home environment with a German shepherd and his owner, and the German shepherd has previously had a lot of very aversive based training. And what I mean by that, there was kind of a lot of forcefulness exuding on the dog and the dog was not allowed to engage in any behaviours other than when commanded by the owner.

So the dog was very kind of inhibited in his behavior. He wouldn’t move, wouldn’t engage in toy play, even eating food was quite difficult for this dog. He was a very shut down type of dog.

Whereas the owner’s assessment of that situation is that the dog is very well trained and respects him as the leader.

As a third party kind of coming in and looking that relationship, to me it was a rather sad one where the dog really was not benefiting from that relationship where there was a lot of suppression of the dog’s natural state, natural behaviours.

There was a lot of kind of lack of enjoyment in the dog’s life. And that was evident by me trying to offer different foods to the dog and the dog just not eating, showing a lack of motivation to eat, lack of motivation to play.

When I would ask the dog for kind of any interaction, I would see a lot of avoidance behaviours. So instead of having the dog go forward to me or be curious, I would see a lot of turning away, a lot of stress behaviors, like ears back, tail tucked. And that again, kind of signified to me that perhaps the previous interactions with humans this dog had were not necessarily a pleasant one.

But again, this kind of from the owner’s perspective, the trainers before said, well, this is good because this is the dog showing you that you’re dominant. You know, the dog is submissive. Ears back is a good thing and so on and so on.

And so it’s tricky. I think when it’s hard to know who’s the expert, especially when it comes to dog training. I wonder if it’s really important in that case to get that education about body language, get that education about learning theory and kind of really truly understand and evaluate whether you are providing a good life to your animal and how you can improve honestly.

Camila: Yeah. It’s really interesting question. I was thinking along the same lines that how many times people assume that animals should like something because they like it and they may not.

And somebody was telling me this recently; she was saying her dog doesn’t respect her because he doesn’t want her to touch him. And I’m like, well, but how do you touch your dog? And then when she said, he’s a very tiny dog and I just carry him everywhere and I kind of bounce him like a baby.

She really loves the dog, doesn’t mean any harm, but she couldn’t realize that type of interaction wasn’t super fun for the dog.

She was thinking, my dog doesn’t love me. I spoke with her more, he probably really enjoys interacting with you in other ways. She was saying, yeah, he’s always bringing me his toys, but I never play with him.

Then I was advising, maybe you should interact more on his terms. And if he really likes playing with toys, then maybe you will have a better relationship with him if you played with toys instead of carrying him like a baby, which he clearly doesn’t enjoy.

How to have a good relationship with your pet

Chantelle: That actually segues really well into my next question, because of course, interacting with your companion animal on their terms is going to have a really positive impact on your relationship with them.

Are there other ways that a person can build a positive relationship with the animals they interact with?

Camila: Food. Sometimes if the animal is not super comfortable, food can always help a bit. As Sasha was saying, with the example of the horses, they do like food, and most animals do like food.

But of course it’s not the only way of interacting. Many dogs like playing. And it’s another way to interact that can be quite fun for both.

Sasha: One thing kind of that goes along with interacting with them on their own terms is also taking a look at all the unnecessary things we’re nagging our dogs about.

As I walk around Vancouver, there’s a lot of instances where people using food, using positive reinforcement training, but still are asking dogs to, for example, sit every time there’s a red light, and before crossing the street, or every time they see a dog, or they have to do this to do that.

There’s just a lot of requirements on the dog’s behaviour. And in some ways, it’s not always a bad thing necessarily. Training has some, of course, benefits, but it always makes me think how frustrating it must be to live a life like that for an animal. Imagine if you were in a relationship with someone who did that to you all the time.

I think a lot of the time, when we think about how we relate to our pets, there may be this maternal/paternal relationship to animals, but I wonder if perhaps it could be better defined as more of a friendship.

And if it is more of a friendship, perhaps then it will change the way that we do certain things. Do we really ask our friends to like sit every time we stop moving or whatever it is? I’ve wondered a lot about that in the last couple of years and really started seeing people and dogs interact with each other from a very different perspective.

I’ve noticed that there seems to be a large disconnect with some relationships where the dog is clearly looking at something super interesting. So from the dog’s perspective, there’s like a really exciting bird over there. And the dog wants to tell the owner. He might even look at the owner and then look at the bird, so he has some kind of social referencing going on and inviting the owner to share in this excitement of this bird.

And then some owners will just tug at the dog and say, stop that, come with me, stop looking at this bird. They find that annoying or frustrating, and punish the dog for any showing any kind of interest in their environment or inviting the owner to join in on this exciting thing.

But then there’s some relationships that are very different. Like you see some owners do the opposite where they notice that their dog is interested in something and they’ll share attention. They’ll be like, Oh, that’s so cool. Like let’s go there and let’s check it out. Whenever I see that second type of relationship, my heart gets really warm, and it just feels nice because that feels like there’s actually a benefit to those relationships. They’re actually enjoying each other’s company, which is lovely.

Again, kind of made me think about if you had a partner who you would kind of tell them like, Oh, look, there’s this really cool, or there’s something either exciting or scary, and then your partner just says, ignore that, let’s keep moving. That’s not a relationship you’d want to stay in.

How we actually answer our dog’s behaviors is rather interesting to consider.

Camila: My parenthesis is that I have a dog that after seeing the bird screams, so then sometimes I need to redirect her because I know that the next behaviour is screaming from the bottom of her heart because there’s a bird and sometimes we don’t want that.

So sometimes I may seem like that kind of owner that are not letting them do what they really want at that moment, but it comes from knowing how she deals with different kinds of situations and how she has a hard time regulating her own emotions.

Sasha: Have you tried screaming with her? See what happens.

Camila: I could. People might look at me weirdly, so maybe if we both scream, it could be extra fun.

It is definitely nice to share moments with a dog.

I also watch people when I’m out and about and see people with dogs. I see a lot of people who are on the phone and the dog is sniffing something but they keep walking because they don’t realize the dog had stopped. I think walks are a moment to share with the dog. So yes, sometimes, of course, it may be a bit boring every day to walk an hour with the dog, but I do try to pay attention to her in this time.

Amy: Thanks for sharing that both of you. You’re really bringing to mind my housemate. We went on a road trip with my dog and they shared the front seat together and they kind of got to be like siblings.

And she sent me a video recently. She took Clover for a run. The video was really about what Clover wanted to do.

In the video, she’s like, okay, Clover’s taking me to her favorite beach. And then she sends me a video of them barking at each other because Clover loves to bark. And she was like, well, I’ll bark back then we can bark together. And it really shows that beauty of like seeing who the dog is.

Clover really enjoys barking. She just loves it. She loves the sound of her own voice. And sometimes she’s saying something and you figure that out, but other times she’s just like, I love barking and I want to do it right now.

So I do really appreciate that. And I think it’s important to make those spaces for dogs like that; maybe there are some situations where it’s not okay to bark and you want to redirect the behavior and reward them being quiet and give them distractions. But other times it’s like, well, there has to be a nice time to be able to bark and to let that emotion out. So yeah, I appreciated that kind of screaming at the birds together comment.

Can you understand your pet?

Amy: Many people think they can understand what their cat or dog is trying to communicate with them. What studies have been done on communications between guardians and their pets?

Sasha: That’s a really interesting one. Historically in imperative cognition research, there’s been some attempts at trying to understand what is language and whether non human animals can engage in language.

And of course, and this is not communication in that sense; there’s no debate at all whether animals can communicate with each other.

We hear that in birdsong, we see that continuously through body language, through play, through aggression, it’s all communication.

But in the sense of kind of a human sense of language, there’s been a lot of research in primates to see whether chimpanzees or bonobos can be taught from an early age. So fostering type studies where a newborn bonobo or newborn chimpanzee is taken into a human family and is raised in a family and is taught sign language. Fundamentally, later on, scientists are in agreement that there really has never been a proper demonstration of any language-like abilities in that sense of non human primates, whether it’s through the use of sign language, there’s no kind of vocal ability, nor pressing buttons.

And so in terms of that kind of aspect, that research has kind of taken a pause, but it’s been substituted with other types of research.

Camila: Yeah, I think those early studies, are interesting, but they weren’t very successful in teaching animals to speak.

But we are now many years out from that, and we are still trying to teach our dogs to speak with buttons. It’s like, why are we so obsessed with teaching animals to speak?

I think, at least to me, it’s more valuable to try to understand them on their own terms.

Sometimes it’s good because there are some people that are using so much energy and so much time interacting with their dogs, trying to get them to use buttons to speak that they are spending time together, but maybe they could be spending time together doing something else that’s more fun for the dog.

And I don’t think we need those buttons to actually understand our animals. Sometimes we are not totally great at that. As we said, with the case of the therapy dog, sometimesthe handlers may not realize all of the times that a dog is stressed. But I think anybody who interacts with a companion animal, especially in the case of dogs and cats, you can understand if they want you to open the door or if they want you to play. They don’t need to press a button or have something that’s human-like to tell us how to interact with them.

So I’m not a fan of those kind of projects, but I do think it’s possible for people to understand animals using their own behaviors.

And there is a whole line of research that focuses on showing behaviour in which, for example, you have a dog and you’re in the house or in a space in which you can hide some things. The owner or the person that’s familiar with the dog goes some away from the room and you hide something and the dog is the one that knows. And you need to see if people will find things based on their dog’s behavior.

And actually, people are quite good at following the dogs. And the dogs are quite good at showing things, but they usually only show things that are interesting to them. So when people try to get them to show office supplies or something, those didn’t work, but if you hide a toy, it’s probably very easy for the person to realize where the toy is in the room because the dog is directing a lot of behaviours towards the place, directing their gaze or barking or touching the place and trying to paw at the place and it’s quite obvious. But if you hid a stapler, then you’re probably not going to find it from your dog.

Sasha: I think there’s a lot of the ways that I think we teach dogs to communicate with us for sure because if they want us to do something, they have to successfully show it to us.

So for example, in all the cases where the dogs have learned to approach the door and then sit in front of the door and then kind of alternate gaze between the door, stare at the door intently to indicate that they want to go outside; the owners didn’t necessarily teach the dogs that, train the dog formally in that way. But just through experience that if the dog happened to be by that area, the owner then understood and reinforced that behaviour by allowing the dogs to go outside. And so kind of naturally, these types of communications between the owner and the dog happen.

So I think direct training is not even almost necessary; just occupying the same space and responding to each other’s needs could be quite sufficient to create these communication abilities between human and animal.

Amy: It’s amazing to think about where we’ve come from, like the studies in the sixties with the dolphins that were pretty awful and coming to a place now where all of the communication studies are focused on giving animals the best chance at expressing themselves and trying to really understand them from their own perspectives.

Can your bond with your pet be measured?

Amy: What are some of the benefits and challenges with the scales and measures that researchers use to gauge their bond with animals?

Sasha: I think the main one, of course, is that a lot of them are survey based or questionnaires.

So for example, one that’s very popular is the labs is the Lexington attachment to pet scale, which is very frequently used. It’s asking the question of how attached the human is to the animal. And so that is very valuable for researchers to kind of get a sense of the human.

And of course, there’s plenty of surveys like that. That’s a very human directed or human centric type of inquiry in terms of assessments.

For the opposite of how attached or what is the relationship from the animal to the human, asking questions of the animal is more complicated because of course we have to then devise various types of behavioural tasks and then assume that what it is that we’re measuring is actually measuring the thing that we think we’re measuring.

For example, the Ainsworth Attachment Theory is originally devised between mother and child, and then kind of adapted to a dog and owner scenario. It involves a whole bunch of departures and entrances by the owner leaving the dog alone, and the interpretation of the test is that the attachment style of the dog is revealed.

Whether it’s secure attachment, which is when the owner returns and the dog is then greets the owner, but then goes on and interacts with other objects and engages in play behaviour; compared to an avoidant attachment style, for example, when the dog does not greet the owner upon return and looks like they’re mad at the owner, stays away from the owner. All of this, of course, is then our interpretation of the behaviour.

So that’s always kind of very tricky because we don’t actually have any kind of gold standard. All we’re doing is matching up one test result to another test result and kind of looking for correlations.

Camila: And even if we are testing something in the lab, of course, we may prepare the situation so it works better in the lab, but may not be exactly the same as it would happen in other situations in life or in their own home.

But sometimes you can! For example, with the pandemic, we learned to use Zoom for a lot of things. And we can also use Zoom to test dogs in their own house. And that’s quite interesting because then you have a video call with the owner and you use the computer as the camera and then it is a bit more like normal life for them. There is not a person coming in the house or the dog is not going into the lab.

But of course you lose a lot of other control in the situation because you don’t know what else is in the room, or maybe the cat walks by or somebody comes in. You have a lot more control if you are in a lab.

So I think, of course, both are valuable and the best way is always using different types of assessments.

As I just said, the surveys are really interesting and there are a lot of them, but sometimes they do depend on the interpretation of the owner of the behaviour of the dog. And sometimes they may not realize some things or they may not want to share some things.

For instance, if you have a therapy dog, you may not want to say in one of the impulsivity scales, my dog gets excited or out of control in situations, because you may feel like you’re going to be judged as a bad trainer or handler. So some people may not feel comfortable with that and may not want to say negative things about the dog.

Other people kind of need to vent so they may score everything quite negatively, but in truth if you were to see their actual relationship or to see how they interact in real life, it may be different.

Sasha: Some of the surveys or questionnaires that are designed to look at breed differences and still rely on the owner’s answering questions.

For example, there’s a questionnaire that’s very widely used in research called the Canine Behavioral Assessment & Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ). It has a whole bunch of questions about the behaviour of the dogs that the owners answer.

One of the things that I thought was really interesting when I was a graduate student, if you look at the outcomes of breeds, the greyhound is very low in aggression and all kinds of problem behaviours from the C-BARQ data.

And then I had an opportunity to assist with greyhound rescue. And there were a lot of greyhounds coming in with reactivity issues, with a lot of struggles on the leash, with a lot of, honestly, a little bit scary behavior for me.

And I was so surprised because I had this idea from reading the data. I’m like, oh, but the greyhounds are meant to be so nice and gentle and calm, what’s going on? And then I kind of delved into the relationships that owners of greyhounds have with their greyhounds.

I think this is very anecdotal, but I have a suspicion that greyhound owners are potentially thinking the greyhound is a little bit different than other animals. Not so much in Vancouver, but I know in the U.S. they tend to keep them on very tight leashes because the greyhound is a big dog. So it’s a very controlled environment and the dogs are not allowed to interact with other dogs. They’re always muzzled if they’re engaging with others. And so there’s a lot of very different types of management strategies that, at least in the U.S., owners of greyhounds have.

I’ve observed many cases where as I’m looking at this dog, I’m seeing a lot of reactivity, but the owner is not because “that’s just normal greyhound behaviour”. And they wouldn’t necessarily think of that as reactivity and greyhounds are not reactive.

And so I wondered if this is a case where kind of breed stereotypes actually perpetuate and then alter the results in scientific inquiries themselves. And then it perpetuates again and again and again.

And I think I’ve observed that in the shelter environment with breed labeling, that if someone is labeled as a German shepherd, perhaps the owners might kind of allow the dog to get away with things, you know, guarding behaviour. Thinking, well, he’s a German shepherd; he’s meant to guard. Compared to maybe a different breed, a golden retriever. If a golden retriever growls, that’s not appropriate. Golden retrievers are not meant to growl.

And so I think there’s also a lot of this human imposed acceptance of certain things and not acceptance of other things, which I think also change the way we then respond to that behaviour and kind of determine whether it’s appropriate or not appropriate and how much we should kind of fill out those questionnaires a little bit differently as well.

And so I wonder a lot about the kind of the owners themselves, how they are biased for or against their own breed in that sense.

I wanted to talk about a different situation where we struggle with trying to figure out what behaviour assessments actually do.

I had a PhD student, Kelsea Brown, who did her dissertation on sociability assessments. She was interested in the validity of behavioural assessments, generally in the shelter, and she really focused on sociability assessments because they seem to be most robust. This is a question of whether the dog is social to strange humans.

She conducted sociability tests on the same dogs, on leash off leash. She also looked at whether the test was conducted with her in a chair, kneeling versus standing; all of these very small procedural differences that are not ever accounted for in the shelter environment.

And she saw that social behaviour from the dogs was very different depending on the presence of the leash or no presence of the leash, or if the person was sitting, standing, or kneeling down.

And moreover, when she ranked the dogs based on sociability, seeing who’s the most social, who’s the least social, once you’ve altered some procedural differences, that ranking also changes. So essentially there is no validity to the behavioural assessment, which is scary.

The most obvious scary part is that we’re euthanizing dogs because they don’t pass some tests in the shelter, but also it’s quite scary for researchers because when we conduct these sociability tests, and then for example, we look for a gene of sociability or whatever it is, it’s very much dependent on what small procedural variation we have selected. How that will reflect on the data.

Camila is actually engaging in a really cool project that’s across different laboratories where there is an attempt to replicate simple behavioural experiments that we already think we know about in dogs across different laboratories.

Camila: Yeah, the Many Dogs project is a multi centric project. It has about 50 researchers across the world.

The idea is to try to do the same experiment in different parts of the world with different dogs, more or less with the same setup as much as we can. Make it similar and see what happens if you do the same test.

The first project was some pointing, which is something that has been extensively studied in dogs. And then we tried to see what would happen testing pointing in different labs.

It was a hard task, but it is super interesting from the point of replicability and open science to have the different people conduct the same tests or a very similar test and see what happens in different populations.

We are now gearing up for the second project. We are going to be looking at overimitation, which is the ability of dogs to imitate human demonstration of how to complete the task.

It’s not super simple, but again, it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens with dogs across the world.

Amy: Thanks so much for sharing all of that. I can really see how different setups for studies would have big trade offs in terms of the way you capture the data and the replicability of it and the sort of accuracy of the behaviour.

Certainly, I’ve noticed, with my own dog, how different environments impact her behaviour drastically. And it’s the same with us as humans. It’s interesting to imagine, how do we, in research, try to capture that level of variability that exists in all beings such that the study still gives us data that’s useful and makes an impact going forward in human and animal interaction.

Sharing research

Amy: I’m curious, thinking about using data, how human animal bond research gets put into plain language and made accessible for the public.

Sasha: It’s difficult in the sense that if we were a science that used very complicated terminology, like in physics or in chemistry, I think there would be less interest in our science. There’s a lot of interest in the science of human animal relationships and dog behaviours, dog cognition.

But because it’s rather accessible and because everyone has a dog, everyone has a cat, there’s a lot of misconceptions that get perpetuated and misunderstandings of the data.

A lot of the reporting is not particularly accurate because I guess it connects so easily to the reporter’s own experiences with dogs or maybe something they heard on TV. I think there’s a bit of more danger of reporting not exactly accurately and reporting towards the kind of interest of the viewer rather than the reality.

There’s also, I think, romanticism that guides reporting a lot of the time. For example, I think if you ask the lay person outside if there’s been research demonstrating the benefits of therapy animals, I think overwhelmingly we will say yes, because that’s what’s being reported because that’s what we want to know. That’s what we want to hear.

But we go to conferences, we’ll see that it’s probably about 50/50 and that we have quite a lot of negatives. But that’s not going to get reported. And so I think there’s a lot of reporting bias towards the positive on the human animal interaction side.

Camila: I totally agree. Like, I think for example people may not want to report that horses don’t like when kids groom them or a percentage of therapy dogs wants to escape when they see a child.

It may not get shared, it be misinterpreted, because of course it’s also not the opposite. It’s not like therapy dogs hate children.

But sometimes it does get reported in ways that is not the way the original study meant to report information, but I think that’s quite common in a lot of fields, and it does create misinformation that gets repeated then, and of course it makes things worse.

Sasha: And it’s also the point where, because everyone has an opinion about companion animals, there’s a lot of comments about, “Why do we devote research dollars to this topic? I could have told you that myself,” kind of thing.

And of course, in hindsight, perhaps the best data are the ones that are explained pretty easily. Of course, if we had the opposite data, someone else would say the same thing about, “I could have told you that” as well. That is why we need data.

But I think dog scientists definitely have to grow some kind of tough skin.

Chantelle: I’m really interested to see where this goes, communicating these findings with the public. We’re lucky and it’s kind of dangerous that we’re in the information era where anyone can share anything on TikTok. So a dog trainer can share negative reinforcement techniques or someone can share really educational content about how to understand your dog’s body language.

Next episode

Please join us next month as we discuss the last ten years of farmed animal investigations in B.C.