Over the past twenty years there has been a worldwide explosion of science focused on our best four-legged companions – dogs. Amazingly, some aspects of our relationship with dogs (like exactly how they were first domesticated) are still being uncovered.
We know that for tens of thousands of years we have shared our lives with dogs. So how come we’re still working out how to be their best friend?
I was part of the new ABC TV series A dog’s world with Tony Armstrong, who not only explores the evolutionary journey of dogs and their amazing senses, but also how science helps them stay happy and healthy.
Exploring what dogs need to be happy and what people think about dogs is something we specialize in at the University of Melbourne Center for Animal Welfare Science. Unlike a lot of other canine research that focuses on how dogs can help us, we work to understand how we can help dogs.
Our research has shown that we perceive the welfare of dogs to range from very low to very high depending on where we find them. For example, people consider racing greyhounds to have low welfare and detection dogs to have high welfare.
It’s interesting because these dogs all spend so much of their time living in kennels where we control how they access and interact with their environment, other dogs, and people.
Many people perceive wild dogs to have very low welfare, but they could be considered to have more environmental, behavioral, and social freedoms.
One of the most intriguing findings was that almost all respondents who lived with a canine friend believed their own dog experienced the highest level of well-being.
This could mean that only the top 2,146 dog sitters responded to our survey, or it could be that people are experiencing a positive illusory bias – or an above-average effect – when rating their own skills in meeting needs. and the desires of their dogs. .
Interestingly, we find a similar effect when people self-rate their parenting or driving skills.
Other Italian research suggests people often miss some of our dogs’ more subtle behavioral cues when they’re not having fun. This includes things like looking away or away from us, their ears tucked back, licking their noses, and yawning.
Together, these research findings mean we’re probably overlooking opportunities where we can help our dogs be happier.
By giving our dogs more choices in their lives, we give them more control and agency, which can improve animal welfare. It can be as simple as letting them choose when to interact with us.
Research shows that when dogs choose to come to us rather than impose our contact, our interactions will last longer and be more positive.
The next time you call your dog, you can do a simple “consent” test where you start petting him, then stop — and see how he reacts. If they choose to leave, let them.
But they will probably look at you and lean in to tell you that they want you to continue. You can also use this type of recording to see if they prefer ear rubbing, shoulder bumping, or chin scratching.
Many dogs do not appreciate cuddles or disguises, which is important for children in dog-loving households to know. Teaching kids basic doggo body language can also mean they recognize when dogs aren’t appreciating their attention before they have to “turn up their volume” to get the point across – growling or even biting.
By paying more attention to the signals our dogs give us, we can better consider what they need and give them what they want.
Understanding what dogs need to be happier is something the Animal Welfare Science Center team thinks about a lot.
Recently, some colleagues and I discovered that prioritizing the welfare of dogs was going to be fundamental to the sustainability of how we interact with dogs. If we can’t provide good welfare for dogs, modern society is unlikely to tolerate it.
This is important for industries that depend on dogs for work or entertainment.
There have been several examples in recent years of the impact on animal-dependent industries when their practices have proven to be out of step with community expectations. The recent recognition of animal sentience shows that we understand that dogs experience joy and pleasure as well as pain and fear.
We now know that dogs’ emotional experiences are as important to their well-being as their physical health. This highlights our moral obligation to ensure that our canine counterparts live a good life.
Our future research hopes to give us new insights into what dogs need to thrive and expand our understanding of how people think about dogs.
With good science communication, we can use new scientific information to help build mutually lasting partnerships between dogs and humans.
And you can start by giving whoever’s on your couch a tasty treat from me.
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