The research aims to study canine cognition and canine therapy programs
A new lab on UBC’s Vancouver campus is looking for research participants, and not just anyone. The criterion? Must be furry and on all fours. Do you like belly rubs and delicious treats? It’s also a bonus.
UBC’s new Human-Animal Interaction Lab has officially opened and will soon be inviting companion dogs and their owners to participate in research on canine cognition. Researchers hope to uncover new knowledge that will improve animal shelter practices and the welfare of pets in shelters and homes with pets. They will also conduct studies of animal-assisted interventions using trained therapy dogs for the welfare of dogs working in assistance roles, as well as to refine methods for using therapy dogs in educational contexts for the benefit of the child and the dog.
“The goal is to uncover knowledge about why dogs do what they do and how do we determine individual differences in specific dogs,” says Dr. Alexandra (Sasha) Protopopova, lab director and assistant professor. in the Animal Welfare program at UBC in the Faculty of Land and Food Systems.
The lab, which was renovated with federal and provincial funding through the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the BC Knowledge Development Fund, was recently inspected by UBC veterinarians for ensure it is safe for puppies and their humans. The room is equipped with specialized flooring for easy cleaning, high-tech 360-degree cameras and a one-way mirror with an adjacent observation room where researchers can observe the dogs unnoticed.
Although the room is a laboratory, the researchers worked to make it warm and inviting with the careful placement of silly artwork, fake plants (to conceal the cameras) and dog toys, so that pets and their companions feel safe and comforted. .
“Animal comfort is a priority,” says Dr. Protopopova, who also holds the NSERC/BC SPCA Industrial Research Chair in Animal Welfare. “Our work is totally non-invasive, and we take that very seriously. All research is done to benefit the welfare of animals and dogs entering.
Although there are a variety of different studies going on in the lab, the overarching goal of research is to understand individual differences in dog cognition, both in terms of breed differences and individual differences. in dogs, says Dr. Protopopova.
“We take a behavioral angle in our research and look for differences between dogs on a small scale,” she explains. “For example, we’ll be looking at how dogs interact with the world and what kinds of differences we might see in fundamental aspects of their learning, like how fast they learn and how fast or slow the dog can learn. engage with a new element.”
An example of a simple cognitive experiment the lab could perform involves the “touch” command, where the puppy learns to touch its nose to the palm of the owner’s hand. Researchers could then modify the rules by having the dog learn to touch both palms of the owner’s hand. They would then monitor to determine how long it takes for the dog to learn the task and adapt to the new rules.
The lab will also serve educational purposes to help students understand how dogs learn, see the world and navigate their environment. Ultimately, the research will also help inform behavioral rehabilitation practices for dogs and cats and improve the resources and knowledge of animal shelters to meet the behavioral needs of the animals in their care.
From the moment a dog arrives at the lab for their appointment, Dr. Protopopova says they are continually assessed to determine their willingness to participate. After obtaining consent from the dog’s owner, the dog must also demonstrate an active willingness to participate throughout the research process.
“It’s important for us to ask dogs if they would like to participate in the same way that we would invite children to participate in studies,” she says. “Although we have consent forms for the owner, we also have assent procedures for the dog, just like we would have for children. Dogs always have the opportunity to engage and re-engage in the experience. If the dog does not want to move forward, or if we observe signs of stress, we inform the owner and immediately stop the experiment.
Whether they finish or not, all puppies earn a certificate for their participation, along with a photo of them wearing a dog graduation cap and belt, if they choose.
“We like to think it’s like earning their Ph-Dog,” says Dr. Protopopova with a laugh.