Depending on who you choose to believe, dogs have been an intimate part of our human experience for 40,000 years or 12,000 years or 6,000 fewer years. Perhaps our close ties with dogs are an even more recent phenomenon. It seems almost ridiculous in our 21st century lives that we don’t know more about our canine companions. They live in our homes, they sleep in our beds, they play with our children, and they bring us so much joy. How is it that we know so little about them?
Fortunately, science has taken an interest in dogs and our research into them is growing each year. Around the world, behaviourists, biologists, geneticists, and psychologists are taking a closer look at dogs. Work started in the 1930s has evolved into the science of Ethology, the study of animal behaviour. Newer sciences such as Neuroethology are taking a biological approach to looking at the evolution and function of the nervous systems of our dogs and how it might affect behaviour.
After centuries of folklore and guesswork about how and why dogs do the things they do, science is beginning to shine a light on the inner lives of dogs and what we are finding is both surprising and, in a way, expected. Unfortunately, what we see in popular media like television and movies only repeats the same inaccurate folklore we have dragged with us about dogs. Science rarely gets an opportunity to enlighten and educate us about what our dogs really are and what they might think and feel. So I was delighted recently when I found out about a conference being put on by the Society for the Promotion of Applied Research in Canine Science (SPARCS).
Let the SPARCS fly!
I consider myself lucky. Lucky, first, because I live only a few hours drive from where the SPARCS conference was held so it was practical to attend. But perhaps more importantly, I consider myself lucky to have met and befriended Prescott Breeden who runs Pawsitive Packleader dog training in Seattle and the organizer behind the SPARCS conference. Prescott and his team were able to bring 8 of the worlds foremost canine scientists and researchers together to talk about what they have learned.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the conference for me was the amazing diversity of viewpoints offered by the speakers at this conference. From starkly clinical assessments of the genetics of dogs and wolves to consideration of their thoughts, emotions, and perspective on their environment, the sheer volume of information presented in the more than 15 hours of talks was breathtaking. Not all of the speakers agreed with the conclusions of other speakers. There was not consensus on some common issues facing dogs in the modern world. And that is as it should be. Every answer begs more questions and these were the people who were passionately pursuing the Truth as it pertains to our modern dogs.
What science can prove
One of the more fascinating talks for me was that given by Dr. Raymond Coppinger, professor emeritus of biology for Hampshire College. In his talk, Coppinger presented research and data collected by geneticists, paleontologists, and anthropologists regarding the evolution of dogs and their integration into human society. Primarily Coppinger tackled the common understanding that our modern dogs evolved from wolves. The surprising conclusion offered in his presentation is that science has no conclusive evidence that dogs are in fact descended from wolves! The genetic information available to us today allows that dogs could be descended from wolves but the same data could be interpreted to show that dogs evolved from coyotes or even that wolves evolved from dogs! Clearly science has more to learn before we can be certain of the origins of the modern dog.
In his talk on the origins of the modern dog, Dr. Ádám Miklósi, associate professor and the leader of the Department of Ethology at the Eötvös University in Budapest Hungary, spoke about the difference between domestic and domesticated animals. Domesticating an animal requires that humans become an important selection mechanism in addition to the environment to shape the future genetics of a species. Clearly the modern dog is one of the earliest examples of human influence and selection in shaping a species of animal regardless of the dog’s early genetic origins. In as much as we have shaped the evolution of the dog, Dr. Miklósi also suggested that the integration of dogs into human society may have functioned as a selection pressure on us as well, making humans and dogs co-evolutionary partners with each species influencing the development of the other.
What science observes
But dogs are more than mindless biological machines. This point of view was well represented at the conference. Talks by Dr. Marc Bekoff, noted ethologist and professor emeritus at the University of Colorado presented compelling insights into the emotional lives of animals. By observing animals, Dr. Bekoff believes he has found evidence that dogs have the ability to form a “theory of mind”, that they can understand that “others” have their own point-of-view which may be different from their own. Bekoff offered biological comparisons of human and canine brain and nervous systems as a basis for assuming dogs have the kinds of thoughts and emotions that we do unless we can prove otherwise. This forms the foundation for what he calls “Compassionate Conservation”, an approach to interacting with animals as compassionate, thinking and feeling beings.
Dr. Bekoff’s sentiments were echoed in the comments of other scientists at the conference. Dr. Michael Fox, veterinarian and Ph.D. in ethology and animal behaviour offered information on canine nutrition, behaviour, and early development. Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, professor of psychology at Barnard College, Columbia University, shared some of her research into canine cognition and problem solving based on data from her Canine Cognition Lab at Columbia. Contributions by Dr. Clive Wynne of the University of Florida, Dr. Kathryn Lord of the University of Massachusetts, and Dr. Monique Udell, Assistant Professor of Animal Sciences at Oregon State University all added rich and thought provoking research as well.
A glimpse at a bigger picture
As someone who works with people to teach their dogs (sometimes called a “Dog Trainer”), I often have an on-the-ground viewpoint that deals with the daily struggles of living with modern dogs. Jumping, nipping, disobedience, not coming when called, and other unwanted behaviours are all a part of my regular interactions with dogs and their owners. The SPARCS conference gave me a chance to step away from all of that and just consider the dog for itself – its origins, its behaviour, its biology, and its place in our larger society. Much of what I learned will impact how I work with dogs and their owners from now on.
It was surprising to me to learn that about 70% of the world’s dog population do not live in homes with owners. These are the “village dogs” that scavenge and attempt to survive in many parts of the world. Even more surprising was the statistic than only 1 out of 20 dogs in the world will live past the age of 1 year. Learning about the various ways that dogs have integrated into different human societies world wide highlighted an incredible adaptive talent that we sometimes take for granted in our dogs.
Meetings of minds
I believe that Prescott Breeden is on to something with his SPARCS conference. His incredible generosity in broadcasting the conference live over the Internet free to anyone who wished to watch was done at some considerable expense. The caliber of presenters he was able to assemble and the masterful way the information was presented also shows an important professionalism. Perhaps the most valuable and most easily overlooked aspect of the conference were the panel discussions at the end of each day where the scientists could interact with each other and the audience on a wide range of dog related topics.
SPARCS was an important event. It was an attempt to bring the worlds of dog training and dog science together. The result was an atmosphere rich with information and learning on both sides. I know I came away from the weekend with new insights from the talks of noted scientists and I am sure the scientists came away with more to think about from having interacted with us.
I want to thank Prescott and his team for creating the SPARCS conference. He plans to continue the initiative and is already planning next year’s conference. But that will take support from the dog training community. Prescott has set up memberships for SPARCS at varying levels to help promote canine research and to continue creating opportunities for the community of canine science to come together with dog trainers more regularly to share what we are learning.
I am proud to be a SPARCS supporter and hope to see many more great events of this kind as we support canine research. If you care about your dogs, you should care about the science behind them. Please support SPARCS and other efforts like these.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
The first Canine Nation ebooks are now available –
“Dogs: As They Are” & “Teaching Dogs: Effective Learning”
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