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Psychology research unit goes to the dogs

Memorial's Canine Research Unit is looking for participation from pet owners and their dogs.

By Kelly Foss

Why do dogs behave as they do? Almost no other species has shared as much of our lives with us as they do, but how much do we really know about them?
Carolyn Walsh, an assistant professor of psychology, is a member of the Canine Research Unit (CRU) at Memorial University. She says studies, such as the ones being done by her colleagues and students, are changing the way scientists view dogs.

The group's main work is focused on canine social behavior, specifically how dogs communicate and interact with each other. They are also interested in factors such as the dog's temperament, and whether measuring stress-related hormones, such as cortisol, could give insight into how these factors interact with each other.

"In the 1960s there had been some research on dogs, but then it seemed to fall into disfavour," said Dr. Walsh. "It was kind of an elitism, that thinking that these were domesticated animals, so how could they be interesting to study? I went to the second Canine Science Forum in 2010 and one of the speakers said his six-year-old son probably knew more about elephant behavior than about the animal that sleeps on the bed with him.

"There's a lot of information out there about dogs but it comes from a training perspective and it's not necessarily science-based," she added. "But that attitude is changing."

While some of their research involves testing dogs in their homes and yards, much of what the CRU does happens in local dog parks, recording hours of footage of dogs interacting with each other.

The CRU has a number of new and ongoing projects and is regularly looking for participation from pet owners and their dogs.

One of their studies looks at social hierarchies of dogs living in multi-dog homes. Dr. Walsh says in other species where animals form social hierarchies, scientists find a correlation between rank and the levels of certain hormones in the animal.

"Cortisol is a stress hormone and testosterone is a steroid hormone, and depending on the species, the ratio of cortisol and testosterone can be important," she explained. "There hasn't been any research like this done on dogs, so we thought we would look to see if there was a relationship between the levels of these hormones and how dogs behave with each other in the household."

Researchers visit the multi-dog homes and while owners fill out dog personality questionnaires, the dogs are tested by monitoring things like which dog comes to the door first to greet a stranger and who gets to a toy first. Videos of the dogs and saliva samples are also taken.

"What's really great is that we can do all of this hormonal work now in a non-invasive way," said Dr. Walsh. "We take a saliva sample, which most dogs tolerate very well. All they have to do is sit there and chew."

The dog "personality test" sees owners rate their own dog along four personality dimensions. The CRU looks for relationships between the dog's score for these dimensions, their behaviours and their cortisol levels.

Students have also spent hours going through the dog park videos and coding different dog behaviours, considering things like time spent alone, in a dyad with another dog, time spent with humans and specific behaviours such as aggression, play, fear or stress and mounting.

They're even interested in finding out if there's a scientific reason why some dog owners treat their pets like children.

"One of our guesses is that humans are often so attached to their pets because we're probably using some of the same neurohormonal/neurobiological systems that we use with our children," said Dr. Walsh. "Oxytocin is the hormone implicated in social bonding, and we see it in mother/child interactions.

"We're the only ones using non-invasive saliva analysis to see if oxytocin is present in relationships between humans and dogs. Other studies have done this analysis through blood sampling, which people are less likely to sign up for."
The group is also looking at the human perception of certain colours of dogs.
"One of the things we've heard about is an idea called black dog syndrome," explained Dr. Walsh. "A lot of shelter workers and breeders of dogs of different colours, report that the black dogs and cats tend to get placed last. It suggests to us that maybe there's something in terms of how people perceive black animals versus other colours. Our student is going to use video and photos to look at what factors influence people's perception of dogs and dog's likeability."

She says a new project about to begin is with a student who is also a dog trainer. She is looking into calming signals in dogs. This popular idea suggests that there are particular behaviours dogs use which has the effect of calming other dogs down.

Dog owners interested in finding out more about the research, or how to participate, can visit at