Dogs and studies of these amazing canids seem to be “in”. Obviously, we learn a lot about the cognitive, emotional, and moral life of domestic and free-range dogs from a variety of sources, some of which are more believable than others.
In addition to all of the types of media I encounter, I also get questions about what all of these studies actually mean. The question in the title – “What do all these dog studies really mean?” – came by email from a PhD student in dog studies. Felicity went on to ask if I could understand a number of research papers published in the past 5 to 10 years, particularly those that investigated “similar phenomena” but reported different results.
She had recently read The New Science of Our Old Attachment to Dogs and told me that this piece got her to finally write to me. I am very familiar with countless canine studies about captive and free-range dogs. I had thought about these questions. My simple answer was, “There is a lot of good science out there, but we have to be very careful about making sweeping generalizations.” 1.2
Here I want to explain why I came to this conclusion after years of studying the behavior of domestic dogs and their wild relatives. I would also like to emphasize that my views do not mean that the science is bad or necessarily questionable – in general, canine science is not “soft”, but some studies are more rigorous than others – there really is no such thing as a “universal dog” . – not a “dog” or an individual dog – and there are some very good reasons why the results of similar studies often differ, even when done on free-range dogs.
Get the barge in your inbox!
Sign up for our newsletter and stay up to date.
Felicity and I also discussed the fact that various studies appeal to people interested in dogs for a variety of reasons, including those who choose to live with them or are just interested in them, researchers who study them, and those trying to capitalize on what we do know how to train dogs to adapt to a human-dominated world.
Why are the results often different when they should be the same? I often think researchers should consider such a disclaimer: “These results apply to the conditions in which these dogs were studied, so differences between studies are not surprising.” As I explained to Felicity, comparisons between different studies can be complicated because different dogs are studied under different conditions in different laboratories or in different dog parks or under different field conditions.
Additionally, dogs, which are normally examined in laboratories, make up only a small percentage of the roughly 1 billion dogs that live on earth. Some studies also suffer from small sample sizes and special attention needs to be paid to the breeds or mixes involved. These are also not “fatal points of criticism”, as one of my colleagues puts it, but these restrictions simply have to be recognized.
Dogs are different, humans are different, dog-human relationships are different, and so are the conditions under which they are studied
Over the years I have had the opportunity to participate in a number of canine studies in laboratories, dog parks, and free range dogs that are not restricted but some of which may go home from time to time. Time, especially at night. Here are some stories that explain not only why results can differ from study location to study location, but also why the same dog behaves differently from time to time. These variables are also important in trying to train dogs to “act appropriately.” 3
In one study, I was sitting in the hall with some dogs and their humans waiting to be tested and a woman, Lois, asked me why I was there. I told her I was visiting the researchers and giving a lecture, and she went on to tell me that her dog, Riley, was an old hand at such studies, but was “wired” and “stressed” that day for not doing it had. I had her 3 mile run every day. Lois was crazy too and we know dogs can reflect our stress. It turned out that Riley was “absent” that day, not performing the tests she was familiar with as well and then showing no interest at all in staying in the lab. She just wanted to run.
In another situation, Curtis who “loved to be tested and cuddled” was downright gnarled. His human Emanuel told me that Curtis had had a bad night, tossing around here and there and turning around because he had a little skirmish with his friend Erma. Curtis, who usually went straight to the lab to be tested, was reluctant to take part in the experiment he was familiar with and was persuaded to take part. Curtis failed some tests that “competed with Einstein,” according to Emanual, and when he mentioned this to the researchers, they said they would take Curtis’ state of mind into account when looking at the data. I hope you did.
Another example is important to consider. While watching a study go through, Marvin mentioned to me that he was having a busy day and had just fed his dog, William III, about three hours later than usual. Marvin wondered if this would affect how William III. React in the experiment he took part in and used the meal as a reward. I warned him about this, he told the researchers, and they decided not to test William III that day.
Once, when I “secretly” watched researchers gathering data on dogs in a dog park, they were a little too “pushy” for my liking, trying to get dogs to play when they clearly didn’t want to, and stopped playing rough . For whatever reason, on that day the dogs preferred to sniff here and there or just hang out with other dogs. When the reluctant dogs were persuaded to stand up and play, I was told by their humans that their interactions were different than when they wanted to play – shorter and made up of more solo zoomies – and they didn’t follow the “golden rules” of fair play “as usual.
A few days later someone told me that the dogs were more nervous because a new dog had come on stage. I hope the researchers identified these differences as they are useful data on how the game can differ when dogs want to play and when they are forced to play.
Variation is not noise, but important information
All of this is not to say that these and many other studies are not useful and cannot be used to learn more about dogs and improve their lives, but rather to point out that there are some very good reasons why the “same” Dog can behave differently in the “same” conditions and we must be careful in drawing great conclusions about what dogs can and cannot do, what dogs know and do not know, and what dogs can or cannot learn. I am also pretty sure that most of the people who participate in projects like this follow the protocols as closely as possible. In short, deviations should be expected and not ignored. When consistencies arise, even when examining different dogs in different contexts, this data is very useful and may provide meaningful explanations for dog behavior, perception, or emotions.
Practical use of the data
It is also important to understand how data from different studies is used. The dog trainers I am most familiar with know how the same dog’s behavior can change from time to time, and they also know they need to be careful when putting research into practice. Because of this, people trying to teach dogs about human life need to be fluent with dogs – canine knowledge – and know how to evaluate the data available.
Unfortunately, it is not necessary to be “certified” for people to consider themselves “dog trainers” and since dog training is an unregulated industry, I have been told that this is why many dogs have the skills, who make them up do not learn appropriately.They are kinder and more adaptable to various situations in which they encounter other dogs, other nonhumans, and people other than their own human. When someone ends up suffering, it is usually the dog.
Strength-free positive trainer Mary Angilly of Boulder has also told me many times that canine professionals – trainers, counselors, behaviorists, vets, day-care workers, and the like – “can determine when trainers critically examine dog studies” best practices for the dogs, with whom they come in contact, which means not only carefully considering the results of various studies, but also looking at the actual data.
There are many good reasons why I often say, “The more I know, the more I say I don’t know.” Too often dogs are victims of partial knowledge, misinformation, meme-like myths and “quick” answers. It is important to respect their individuality, appreciate the great diversity of these wonderful beings, and closely observe the way research is carried out and what the results really mean
The lack of detail about some common dog behaviors and the individual variability make it exciting to study. Look forward to further discussion of the ongoing research on dogs and dog-human relationships. There is still a lot to learn.
This story was originally published by Psychologytoday.com. Reprinted with permission.