"What Do All These Dog Studies Really Mean?"
We must be careful about making sweeping generalizations.
Posted January 26, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
Dogs and studies of these amazing canids seem to be "in." Clearly we're learning a good deal about the cognitive, emotional, and moral lives of homed and free-ranging dogs from a wide variety of sources, some more credible than others.
Along with all sorts of media I encounter, I also receive queries about what all of these studies actually mean. The question in the title—"What Do All These Dog Studies Really Mean?"—came via email from a graduate student in canine studies. Felicity went on ask if I could make sense of a series of research essays published in the past 5-10 years, especially those that were concerned with studying "similar phenomena" but reporting different results.
She had recently read "The New Science of Our Ancient Bond With Dogs" and told me this piece got her to finally write to me. I'm very familiar with countless dog studies on captive and free-ranging dogs, I had pondered these questions. My simple answer was, "There's a lot of good science, but we need to be very careful about sweeping generalizations."1,2
Here I want to explain why I've come to this conclusion after studying the behavior of domestic dogs and their wild relatives for many years. I also want to stress that my views do not mean that the science is bad or necessarily questionable—in general canine science isn't "soft" but some studies are more rigorous than others—but rather, there really is no "universal dog"—no "the dog" or single canine mind—and there are some very good reasons why the results from similar studies often vary from one another, even those conducted on free-ranging dogs.
Felicity and I also discussed the fact that different studies appeal to people who are interested in dogs for different reasons, including those who choose to live with them or are simply interested in them, researchers who study them, and those who try to use what we know to teach dogs to adapt to a human-dominated world.
So, why do results often differ when it seems they should agree. I often feel that researchers should consider a disclaimer of the sorts, "These results apply to the conditions under which these dogs were studied, so differences among different studies are not surprising." As I explained to Felicity, comparisons among different studies can be complicated because different dogs are being studied in different conditions in different laboratories or at different dog parks or in different field conditions.
Also, dogs who typically are studied in labs constitute only a small percentage of the billion or so dogs who inhabit earth. Some studies also suffer from small sample sizes and the breeds or mixes who are involved need to be given close attention. Once again, these aren't "fatal criticisms" as one of my colleagues puts it, but rather these limitations simply need to be acknowledged.
Dogs differ, humans differ, dog-human relationships differ, and so too do the conditions under which they're studied
Over the years I've had the opportunity to partake in a number of dog studies in labs, in dog parks, and in free-ranging dogs who aren't constrained, but some of whom might "go home" from time-to-time, especially at night. Here are a few stories that help to explain not only why results may differ from one study site to another, but also why the same dog might behave differently from time to time. These variables are also important to consider when trying to train dogs to act "appropriately".3
In one study I sat in the hall with some of the dogs and their humans who were waiting to be tested, and a woman, Lois, asked my why I was there. I told her I was visiting the researchers and giving a talk and she went on to tell me that her dog Riley was an old-hand at these sorts of studies but on that particular day was "wired" and "stressed" because they hadn't had their daily 3-mile run. Lois also was out of sorts and we know that dogs can mirror our stress. As it turned out, Riley was "off" that day and didn't perform as well on the tests with which she was familiar and then showed no interest at all in staying in the lab. She just wanted her run.
In another situation, Curtis, who "loved coming to be tested and cuddled," was downright gnarly. His human, Emanuel, told me Curtis had had a bad night, tossing and turning here and there because he had had a minor skirmish with his friend Erma. Curtis, who typically walked right into the lab to be tested, was hesitant to partake in the experiment with which he was familiar and was coaxed to partake. Curtis failed some tests on which "he had rivaled Einstein" according to Emanual, and when he mentioned this to the researchers they said they'd take into account Curtis' state of mind when they looked at the data. I hope they did.
One more example is important to consider. As I was watching a study being done, Marvin mentioned to me that he'd had a busy day and had just fed his dog William III around three hours later than usual. Marvin wondered if that would effect how William III would respond in the experiment in which he had been participating in which food was used as a reward. I cautioned him that it might, he told the researchers, and they decided not to test William III that day.
Finally, once when I was "secretly" watching researchers collecting data on dogs at a dog park, they were a bit too "intrusive" for my liking, trying to get dogs to play when they clearly didn't want to and stopping rough play. For whatever reasons, on that day the dogs preferred to sniff here and there or simply hang out with other dogs. When the reluctant dogs were coaxed to get up and play, I was told by their humans that their interactions were different when compared to when they chose to play—shorter and consisting of more solo "zoomies"—and they didn't follow the "golden rules of fair play" as they usually did.
A few days later someone told me that the dogs were more edgy because a new dog had come on the scene. I hope the researchers noted these differences because they're useful data on how play may differ when dogs want to play versus when they're forced to play.
Variation isn't noise, but rather important information
All of this is not to say that these and many other studies aren't useful and can't be used to learn more about dogs and to improve their lives, but rather to highlight that there are some very good reasons why the "same" dog might behave differently in the "same" conditions and that we need to be careful when serving up grand conclusions about what dogs can or cannot do, what dogs know or don't know, or what dogs can learn or cannot learn. I also feel pretty sure that most people who partake in these sorts of projects follow protocols as closely as they can. In a nutshell, variation should be expected and shouldn't be ignored. When consistencies arise even when different dogs are studied in different contexts, these data are very useful and may offer robust explanations about dog behavior, cognition, or emotions.
Practical uses of the data
It's also important to know how data from different studies are put to use. The dog trainers with whom I'm most familiar know how the behavior of the same dog can vary from time to time and also know that they need to be careful when putting research results into practice. This is why people who are trying to teach dogs to live among humans need to be fluent in dog—dog literate—and know how to assess available data.
Unfortunately, being "certified" is not required for people to call themselves a "dog trainer," and because dog training is an unregulated industry, this, I'm told, is why many dogs don't adequately learn the skills that will make them friendlier and adaptable to different situations in which they encounter other dogs, other nonhumans, and humans other than their own human, and in the end, if anyone suffers, it's usually the dog.
Boulder-based force-free positive trainer Mary Angilly also has told me many times that when trainers view studies of dogs with a critical eye, dog professionals—trainers, consultants, behaviorists, veterinarians, day care attendants, and the like—can "determine the best practices" for the dogs with whom they have contact. This means not only paying careful attention to the results of different studies, but also looking at the actual data.
There are many good reasons why I often say, "The more I know, the more I say I don't know." Dogs far too often are victims of partial knowledge, misinformation, meme-like myths, and "quick" answers and it's important to respect their individuality, appreciate the large amount of diversity among these wonderful beings, and pay close attention to how research is conducted and what the results really mean.4
The lack of detail about some common dog behaviors and individual variability is what makes studying them so exciting. Stay tuned for further discussions of ongoing research on dogs and dog-human relationships. There's still a lot to learn.
1) I thank Boulder-based force-free positive trainer, Mary Angilly, for help with this piece.
3) There also are some other variables that need to be considered in studies of dog behavior. Some are also important when training dogs to behave "appropriately", which usually translates into "human-appropriate" rather than "dog appropriate". For example, it's entirely "dog appropriate" for dogs to want to sniff a lot, including butts and groins. I often say that if dogs used Facebook, it would be called Buttbook. Not allowing them to use their awesome and highly evolved sniffers could be frustrating to them. When she is working with dogs, force-free dog trainer Mary Angilly wants to know such things as is there a medical issue going on? Is the dog in pain or uncomfortable? Are there emotions "getting in the way?"—is the dog stressed or has the dog gone through recent stressful events? Is the dog getting adequate enrichment? Is the dog seasoned at laboratory testing? Are there treats/some sort of reinforcement involved in the testing? If food is being used as reinforcement, has the dog already eaten that day? Has the dog eaten a lot of the type of that's being used as reinforcement, so they are saturated? How distracting is the environment? What cues are being given to the dog? Are the cues clear? Are the cues distracting or leading the dog to make a choice that they might not if they were on their own? These important questions need to be considered in research protocols. Recall the story of William III.
4) Essays on often repeated myths can be seen here.
Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2018.
_____. Canine Science Isn't a Soft Science: Hard Dog Data Abound. (Studies of canine cognition and behavior generate very important information.)
_____. Choose a Dog Trainer as Carefully as You Would a Surgeon. (Dog training is an unregulated industry in which dogs and humans suffer.)
_____. Dog Training's Dirty Little Secret: Anyone Can Legally Do It. (Dog training is an unregulated industry although dogs need to be licensed.)
_____ and Jessica Pierce. Unleashing Your Dog: A Field Guide to Giving Your Canine Companion the Best Life Possible. New World Library, 2019.
Pierce, Jessica and Marc Bekoff. A Dog's World: Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World Without Humans. Princeton University Press, 2021 (in press).