Let’s pretend you and I meet at a ‘Spring is finally here!’ potluck in the park.
After exchanging niceties about your horrible subway ride (mine wasn't so bad), you mention you work in (fill in the blank), and we chat about how crazy (fill in the blank) has become.
You ask me what I do, and after swallowing a huge bite of nachos, I offer, “I study dog behavior and cognition, the science behind what makes dogs tick,” to which your face responds with one of the following:
Disgust: You’re thinking, “You do research on lab beagles? I can only imagine the horrors you inflict.” **
Neutral and not interested: You’re thinking, “I like cats.”
Neutral and interested: You’re thinking, “I have no idea what you’re talking about, but I like it.”
Soul mates: You say, “OMG! You study dog behavior!?! I just saw (fill in the blank with the most recent canine science television program), and I loved it! You do that?!?!”
I am pleased to report that the majority of my interactions lean toward the last two, and Business Insider recently included me in, ‘These 40 Science Experts Will Completely Revamp Your Social Media Feed.’ I appeared on the list as “Man’s Best Friend’s Best Friend,” and I might or might not have done a happy dance.
The Business Insider list pulled from all over the map, including a volcanologist, a mathemusician, a solar system explorer, a science editor extraordinaire, a master of animal sex, as well as creative science synthesizers Buzz Hoot Roar who share science with art in 300 words or less (their post, ‘A Spider Did Not Bite You,’ remains a well-deserved internet sensation). Also included were well-known science “silverbacks” (in this case, both male and female) like Maryn McKenna, Frans de Waal, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and Deborah Blum.
Of course, more than 40 people bring science to the social media airwaves. Earlier this month, Time Magazine published ‘The 140 Best Twitter Feeds of 2014,’ including Amy Harmon, Kathleen Raven, Rebecca Skloot, and Carl Zimmer, who cover a wide-range of science topics.
I am sure these other purveyors of science were also happy to be mentioned, but I can assure you my reasons are different. There is still an underlying mindset that dogs and science don't mix; that science is over here and dogs are over there:
Canine science undeniably has a different feel from the science of volcanoes or astronomy, and the science behind the dog in your bed is sometimes met by more head tilts of disbelief than, say, a marine biologist who studies the behavior and environment of marine life. Ocean-dwelling species have a mystique about them so of course researchers would scope out ocean inhabitants! On the other hand, a dog swimming in the water is so, well, normal. That is, until the dog starts using a water slide! Then we might ask “How did that dog come to use the slide? Are elements of interspecific social learning at play? And how do we investigate this?” Cue canine science research stage right.
To be called “Man’s Best Friend’s Best Friend” is like giving a high five to everyone who studies why dogs do what they do. It's an affirmation that if you want to learn about your dog's greeting behavior, just Googling ‘dog crotch sniffing’ isn’t enough. In fact, it could send you in the wrong direction! Instead, check with people studying dog behavior, biology and cognition for research on why and when dogs sniff human crotches.
** This is an outdated perception. In recent years, companion dogs make up the bulk of canine behavior and cognition subjects, and I describe the recruitment process here.