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Drop Outs and Bloopers: Behind the Scenes of Canine Science

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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I judge dogs when I meet them, but not in the way you might expect. You see, every dog and owner I meet gets filtered through a lens called “Potential Canine Science Study Participants.”

The growing field of canine behavior and cognition research is not built on the backs of lab beagles. Instead, research depends on the kindness and interest of dog owners who sign up their dogs to join any of the canine studies around the globe.

So whenever I meet a dog in NYC, I’m thinking, “Would your human companion be interested in signing you up for a study at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab?” And, just as important, “Would you, Mr. or Ms. Dog, be interested in participating in a study?” Nine out of ten times (not an exact science) the answer is yes.**

But dog participation doesn’t always go as planned. Which leads to one of the most interesting yet overlooked sections of research papers — the section that reports the dogs who didn’t make it into the final results. A blooper reel of sorts. These nuggets hidden in dense research papers offer little windows into the world of dogs and canine research methodologies. Why did a dog not perform according to plan? Was the dog not interested in playing along with the tasks required by the study? Or maybe the owner or experimenter goofed up the execution. Let’s take a look:

A 2010 study by Kundey et al. dropped six subjects:
– One dog was excluded due to “interference from a squirrel.” Let’s all take a moment and imagine what that could look like.
– Another dog was excluded for “excessive activity.” Which could be code for this.
– Another dog was excluded for food aggressiveness. Obviously not helpful in a study that involved food.
– Other dogs were excluded for experimenter or owner error.

Another study by Range et al. (2009) required dog subjects to “give a paw” to an experimenter numerous times. A number of subjects didn’t make it into the final results:
– A pair of dogs “was excluded because one of them (a border collie) tried to herd the partner dog instead of concentrating on the task.”
– Two subjects were excluded because they “refused to cooperate with the experimenter to give the paw 30 times in the assessment session.” I’ll give a high five to the dogs who cooperated. They must be expert patty-cake players (but in all seriousness, raising a paw is often considered a submissive behavior, not a game of patty-cake).
– Another dog “had to be excluded because the owner decided to stop the experiment after her first dog was tested.”
– And finally, “one died because of old age before the assessment session could be conducted.”

So when working with dogs, not everything is going to work for every dog, and things don’t always go as planned. After all, do other areas of science have to worry about a squirrel mucking up their study?

**This participation rate is high because, like most canine behavior research, our work incorporates a variety of methodologies that are a good fit for dogs with different personalities: some studies include food and treats while others don’t, some include the presence of other dogs, others don’t, some include the direct participation of owners, other don’t … some include nuts, Mounds don’t … you get the picture. Owners complete a short online questionnaire and bam! They’re added to our database of “People interested in participating in canine science studies at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab.” They’ll then be contacted about our future studies. And, for a somewhat comprehensive list of canine behavior and cognition groups around the globe, check out my website. Other canine research groups are looking for study participants too!

Images: Flicker Creative Commons: dogs and squirrel.

References
Kundey et al. 2010. Domesticated dogs (Canis familiaris) react to what others can and cannot hear. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 126, 45–50.
Lorenz, K. 1954. Man meets dog. London: Methuen.
Range et al. 2008. The absence of reward induces inequity aversion in dogs. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 106, 340–345.

Julie Hecht About the Author: Julie Hecht is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer in New York City. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Twitter @DogSpies.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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