I’ve always loved the quote, “If you put two dog trainers in a room, the only thing they will agree upon is that the third dog trainer is wrong.” Any issue in the dog world is like this: Vaccinations, feeding dogs, desexing, dog-dog interactions… Anything that involves dogs almost undoubtedly also involves some conflicting ideas.
In my opinion, these conflicts are caused by the paucity in scientific literature on dogs. There is a lot of material out there about dogs, but not a lot of it has been studied scientifically. If dogs were studied in this way, maybe we would have less conflict and more solid answers on the right things to be doing with our animals.
So why aren’t we researching dogs?
Because dogs are expensive to study
Studying dogs in controlled conditions requires significant resources, both in terms of establishing a facility to hold a sample of dogs, and maintaining the well being of these dogs over the course of the study. Additionally, there are ethical issues with the instutionalisation of animals in this way.
Scott & Fuller (in Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog) outline an extensive study they did on numerous breeds, over several generations, over 20 years of work. This study was done in 1965, yet dog enthusiasts still frequently make reference to this text. The reason being is that nothing of its type has ever been replicated, because of the expense involved.
Rand & Hanlon (in their Report on the Validity and Usefulness of Early Age Desexing in Dogs and Cats) refer to this challenge in the field of early age desexing. That is, to study the affects of early age desexing on adult animals is a long winded and expensive exercise.
However, the expense is well worth it. Consider that we are referring to Scott & Fuller’s work over 40 years on! The company Fort Dodge, with their Duramune vaccination must be rather satisfied with their investment. By actually conducting a controlled study that illustrated their vaccination’s effectiveness three years after administration, they can now cash in on being the only C3 vaccination on the market that comes with that guarantee.
Because the study of dogs does not have a true academic field
There are no “studies in dogs”. There are no “doctors of canids”. There is a void in terms of dogs and academia. The only small field which covers dogs is veterinary studies which considers medical practices and dogs. What we do know about dogs, science wise, comes from zoology, psychology, and other fields, mashed together to make some interesting reading, but no definitive conclusions. There are many non-academics, dog trainers and behaviourists, who have a great understanding of the dog, and we can gain a lot from them. However, it’s not science. Coppinger’s book makes this point particularly well, and concludes that much that we do know about dogs comes from studies of wolves and mammals, and not dogs themselves.
Because dogs aren’t people
I think it’s difficult to get away from, but people are inherently selfish. Humans are only really interested in research that is for human benefit – for their health or well being, for their curiousity. Because the theory on wolves and domestication is almost universally embraced in the scientific world (contentiously), then there is no curiousity.
Luckily, however, it seems dogs may be beneficial for human well being. This is a growing academic field, with many studies being conducted to verify if animals benefit people, and how. Animals, including dogs, may benefit pet owners, and they may also benefit people who they merely visit in hospitals, nursing homes, and similar facilities. This field is somewhat anecdotal at this stage, and centred around human-well being.
Be that as it may, if this link between human and animal well being is verified, then I think there will be a sudden interest in ensuring the well being of animals. If animal and human well being is interconnected, then research will need to be conducted to understand animal well being. So we may see some science on dogs yet!
What would change if we did research dogs?
We can do what is proven instead of what is thought
The dog world is currently opinion based. If we had more dog science, then perhaps the dog would could be science based. And if we had a field that was science based, perhaps we could spend more time doing what is proven to be best rather than time debating what we think could be the best.
We would know how to train, how to vaccinate, when to desex (if at all), how dogs naturally interact with other dogs, how best to rehabilitate aggressive dogs… And then we could do it!
Or, perhaps science would tell us that dogs are complex and unique and we need to assess and respond to each case individually.
Breed traits could be identified and embraced
Dogs are very varied. It’s an obvious statement, but very significant. They look varied, but they act varied too. I would be surprised if I met a Tenterfield terrier with a rat as a friend, and I’d be equally surprised if I met a Neapolitan mastiff with hyperactivity issues. Of course, not impossible, but undeniable that there are some characteristics that are breed specific. Knowing what these are in a quantitative, scientific way would mean that we would better be able to deal with behavioural issues, better able to advise on potential dog ownership, and just overall improve aspects of dog ownership.
Coppinger uses the example of a woman with a working-lined border collie often freezing and staring at things. The woman takes the dog to the vet, the vet diagnoses the dog with obsessive compulsive disorder, and medicates the dog for it. As the dog-savvy readers of this blog would know, this border collie was probably showing ‘eye’ – a breed characteristic used for herding behaviours. This was not a dog problem but actually an environmental problem. Medication was not the appropriate course of action, when we consider the breed nature of border collies.
There are many other examples of breed specific behaviours. Border terriers, my breed, like to have a pillow. My puppies are 4 weeks old and are rarely seen not using a pillow of some kind. Greyhounds, who are probably the only other breed I’ve had extensive experience with in a home environment, nibble with their front teeth when playing and air snap.
These are all qualitative stories, but they illustrate that not only are dogs deserving of their own study, but they are deserving of studies for particular breeds as well. The physical variety in dogs is as significant as their psychological variety.
Or so it seems, anyway. Let’s do some research so we can find out.
Further reading: McGreevy’s Thoughts on Dog Science