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Don’t Sell Your Dog Short

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


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In 1996, veteran dog trainer Jean Donaldson picked a fight with Walt Disney. Donaldson begins her book Culture Clash: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding the Relationship Between Humans and Dogs by explaining that people continue to buy into a made-up, Walt Disney version of dogs. According to Disney, the dog “is very intelligent, has morals, is capable of planning and executing revenge, solves complex problems, and understands the value of the artifacts in Walt’s home.” The Walt Disney portrayal of dogs, and animals in general, is often void of the rich animal behavior findings that have poured out since the 1930s. Pluto is not an exemplar dog, and lemmings don’t commit suicide (for the moment, let’s sidestep the discussion of whether Goofy is a dog).

Donaldson wrote Culture Clash just as the field of canine behavior and cognition research was taking off. Nowadays, animal behavior and cognition journals are awash with studies investigating domestic dogs and their wild counterparts. I joke that the academic journal Animal Cognition should be renamed Dog Cognition because of the large number of dog studies it publishes (I understand that joke isn’t that funny, so here are some knock knock jokes).

But why does the domestic dog continue to be oversimplified, even in the face of new findings about dog behavior, cognition, learning and effective training techniques? This is the question I posed last week at Academia Film Olomouc in the Czech Republic, a six-day international program mixing science communication and science films. In my talk, I cautioned the audience that the media’s spin on dog research doesn’t always follow from the research itself. Here is an example:

In 2013, Lisa Horn and her colleagues at the Clever Dog Lab in Vienna investigated a specific part of the dog-human relationship that is commonly referred to as the secure base effect, a concept initially studied in the mid-1900s between human infants and their mothers. Child psychologists found that in the presence of a figure of attachment (i.e., the mother), infants are more likely to explore, investigate and interact with a novel environment. This was a big-deal finding, and renowned child psychologist Mary Ainsworth suggested that “the secure base effect was the most important component of the attachment system because it is crucial for balancing the maturing infants’ exploration of the world with maintaining proximity to the caregiver” (Horn et al. 2013).

Last year, the Vienna researchers investigated the secure base effect in dogs. They found that, like children, dogs show more exploratory behavior and were more likely to manipulate a toy when in the presence of their owner, thus supporting the idea that owners can provide a ‘secure base’ for dogs.

Researchers’ and dog lovers’ ears should perk up when a study like this comes along. My colleagues and I need to consider that the presence or absence of an owner during our studies can affect dog behavior and owners can even influence dog motivation and ultimately test outcomes. And if dog owners look, they’ll find evidence of the secure base effect playing out. For example, imagine a dog waiting for someone to come out of a store. Many dogs are simply not interested in interacting with anyone or anything while in ‘waiting mode’; even a squirrel could go completely unnoticed (sometimes).

When I see a dog outside a store waiting for a person who has stepped inside, I also go into waiting mode. I know that the chances of that dog being interested in me are slim while their owner is out of view and inside the store. But, when the person returns, and after the dog has had a chance to say, “Hello! Great to have you back!” then the dog is more apt to explore the environment, which might include me! Yes, I consider the secure base effect when weighing whether a dog will gallop over and say, in his own special way, “Hello!!! Who are you!?! Can I sniff your crotch!?!?”

Media outlets had a different take on this study. The Christian Science Monitor begins their coverage, “Treating our dogs like our babies might, it turns out, be somewhat reasonable.” But Horn et al. (2013) did not investigate how we should “treat” our dogs–an entirely separate and complicated question that other studies have tackled. In fact, it’s the other way around; the study investigated how dogs “treat” owners. The Christian Science Monitor’s assessment does not follow from Horn’s research, and to some degree undermines the research and research process in general. The newspaper took an interesting and nuanced topic—differences in dog behavior when in the presence or absence of an owner—and boiled it down to an inaccurate soundbite that dogs = children. And just like that, we’re back to the “oversimplified dog” that Jean Donaldson was talking about in 1996.

What’s the point of research if at the end of the day it’s going to be mis-sold? The field of canine science offers an exceedingly complex view of dogs that at times may question what we thought to be true. Other times, findings may confirm what we assumed. Either way, scientific inquiry is about learning as we go. It’s a shame when the media sells dogs (and us) short by reverting to oversimplifications.

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Image: Pluto doing meet-and-greet outside of The Star Trader, Loren Javier Flickr Creative Commons

Reference
Horn L., Huber L., Range F. & Dornhaus A. (2013). The Importance of the Secure Base Effect for Domestic Dogs – Evidence from a Manipulative Problem-Solving Task, PLoS ONE, 8 (5) e65296. DOI:

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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  1. 1. Lacota 11:02 pm 04/23/2014

    This article seems to agree with earlier articles that suggest presenting children with anthropomorphic animals in children’s fiction distorts their ideas of how real animals behave. What does that tell us about children’s fiction in general? Should it be restricted to factual representations or is there room for fantasy?

    Link to this

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