How does pet ownership contribute to population health? An interview with Melanie Rock

Check out this interview where Dr. Melanie Rock, an anthropologist at the University of Calgary, reveals how pet ownership contributes to human health.

Dr. Rock starts out on familiar ground explaining some of the concrete human health benefits arising from companion animals. For example, simply being exposed to a dog can lower a person’s blood pressure and walking a dog is good exercise. This makes sense to me, my German Shepherd Milo keeps me calm, happy, and on the move.

However, this interview really caught my attention when Dr. Rock started talking about the significance of human-animal relationships. She gave examples ranging from farm animals to pets, from rural settings to cities, and from the Global North to the Global South of how our sense of our own identities and our health, and our sense of belonging in a place are tied to our relationships with animals. This has a significant impact on human well being.

Dr. Rock says,

If it’s true that even in resource poor countries in which food is a daily concern, that people establish effective relationships with pets and relate to a dog as a friend, as a member even of the family in some cases, then those relationships are important to take into account when we are designing and delivering health services and broader population health initiatives. … so far we have not really come to grips with the fact that our society is not purely human.


Melanie [Rock] is an anthropologist and social worker whose research focuses on the societal and cultural dimensions of health, with an emphasis on the importance of nonhuman animals for mental, physical, and social well-being. She is an Associate Professor at the University of Calgary, where she serves as Associate Scientific Director in the O’Brien Institute for Public Health. Her primary appointment is in the Cumming School of Medicine’s Department of Community Health Sciences, and she holds a joint appointment in the Department of Ecosystem and Public Health, Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. In addition, she has supervisory privileges in the Department of Anthropology and Archeology, Faculty of Arts and in the Faculty of Social Work. Honorary affiliations include the Institut de recherche en santé publique de l’Université de Montréal and the Human-Animal Research Network (HARN) at the University of Sydney.


From The Science Dog: Do dogs have negativity bias?

Sometimes, psychological similarities between dogs and people can be bad for dogs. Linda Case at The Science Dog provides insightful analysis of research on how dogs mirror emotions displayed by humans and other dogs. She writes,

Negativity bias – We all suffer from it.

This is the phenomenon in which we naturally pay more attention to and give more weight to negative information and experiences compared with those that are positive. It is this particular cognitive bias that causes us to be more hurt or discouraged by insults or criticism than we are pleased or encouraged by compliments and shining reviews.

Case points out that human negativity bias is common in training relationships: handlers are more likely to notice and correct unwanted canine behaviours, than they are to notice and praise desirable canine behaviours.

However, the study Case analyzes looks at this issue from a dog’s point of view. Researchers recorded dogs’ responses to positive and negative vocalizations produced by people and by other dogs. They found that when dogs heard negative sounds from either species they

froze in place more often, remained immobile for longer periods, and showed more signs of stress and arousal than when they listened to positive vocalizations from either a human or another dog.

Case points out that dogs may experience negativity bias. This means that our poor pooches get a double whammy–not only are we likely to respond disproportionately to our dogs’ bad behaviour (our negativity bias), but our dogs are likely to respond disproportionately to our negative reactions (their negativity bias).

Case has a clear take-home message:

Knowing that dogs are naturally more sensitive to negative information (and emotions) than to positive and also knowing that dogs react to the negative emotions of others with stress, then it is a no-brainer to conclude that we should avoid aversives when we train and interact with our dogs. There are of course many reasons that we should focus on positive reinforcement and reduce or eliminate the use of aversives in training. This research just adds one more – negative emotions (harsh voice, hard stares, anger) emotionally bleed into our dogs and cause them to be unhappy and stressed. Not only are they aware of these emotions in us, they may be more sensitive to them than we have previously realized.

This motivates me to renew my efforts to notice, be grateful for, and reward my dog’s good behaviour. Milo the AwesomeDog is laying nicely on his bed right now. I’m off to give him a cookie.

Make camping fun for your dog too!

Too many dogs were getting yelled at in my campground today. They were barking, whining, and generally carrying on. Parents and kids both were shouting for their dogs to “knock it off.”

I get that camping with a family and with pets is overwhelming. And I get that these dogs were irritating. I found them irritating, from a distance. But the yelling wasn’t working. The dogs kept on doing the irritating things they were doing.

And the yelling wasn’t fair either.

Those parents sent their kids to the beach, the whole family went bike riding, there were campfires and s’mores. I bet there were coloring books and decks of cards at the ready in case of rain. Most of those kids had other kids to play with, and were having a great time.

The dogs on the other hand, were relegated to a pen or tie out, alone, in an out of the way corner of the campsite. It is no surprise they were acting up. They were in solitary confinement and were bored. For some of them, the yelling was probably the most interesting part of their day.

So, I got to thinking about what folks could do to help Rover be less of a pain, and to save themselves from all that yelling. Here are some ideas for making a camping trip fun for your dog:

  • Set up your dog’s pen near the action. Put it next to your hammock or beside the picnic table so that your dog doesn’t have to be alone.
  • Crate train your dog and bring the crate along. For many dogs, their crate is their happy place. Why not bring it? It’s a good way to confine your pet in a safe and comfortable place. And for some dogs, it helps them stay calm.
  • Make sure your dog gets lots of exercise. A tired dog is a good dog. Look for a campground with a dog beach or a big pet area so that the two of you can enjoy a good game of fetch, and Rover can burn off some energy.
  • Bring along things for your dog to do. Bringing a range of interesting chew toys for your dog is like bringing along a deck of cards for the kids. The idea is the same, keep them busy doing something that you want them to do.
  • Or, how about challenging your kids to teach Rover some new tricks on the camping trip? That way you can keep them both happy and busy.

Sometimes it’s just too much to manage kids and a dog. That’s OK, we’re only human. Maybe the right thing to do is leave your pup with a friend or relative or at a trusted kennel. After all, camping is supposed to be fun!

Do you have any suggestions for keeping your dog be happy and well behaved when camping?

Dogs in MRIs: Science, brains, and love

Dr. Gregory Berns and his team at Emory University are trying to figure out how dogs’ brains work by training them to lay perfectly still inside a MRI machine. The researchers measure the way a dog’s brain ‘lights up’ when she thinks about different things. I just read an article about this research by Gregory Berns and Peter Cook called “Why did the Dog Walk into the MRI?” What grabbed me most about this article was the justification for doing this research in the first place.

Berns and Cook point out a bunch of good reasons for studying dog cognition and neurobiology.

They note that humans and dogs have evolved to be partners and learning about dog brains can help us understand these evolutionary processes.

They also note that dogs are a good study species because humans are part of dogs’ ‘natural habitat.’ Most of the species we study, rats, pigeons, and monkeys, are in unnatural conditions, which can have a big impact on their behavior and lead to unreliable scientific results. In this respect Berns thinks we can actually do better science on dogs than on species that we don’t naturally interact with.

While I think that the idea of a ‘natural habitat’ is not very clear, and there certainly isn’t much that is natural about putting a dog in an MRI machine, humans do have a long history, an evolutionary history, of collaborating with dogs. In this sense, the training that is part of these experimental protocols is more ‘natural’ for dogs than for likely any other non-human species. I find this interesting.

Finally, Berns and Cook think that because of the close relationship between our species dogs could provide useful models for research on human social behavior, and they might even be useful models for studying human medical disorders such as depression or anxiety.

Dog brain question

my rendition of Milo’s brain

Given all of these scientific benefits, it is surprising that we don’t know much about dog brains. The authors suggest two reasons for this gap in our knowledge. First, dogs are our friends and so there is a cultural aversion to conducting invasive experiments on them. And second, most dog research is based on a citizen science model—everyday people bring in their pets to take part in the experiments. So, of course we can’t actually look in those dogs’ heads.

“Mommy, why is Fido laying so still?”

“We donated his brain to science dear.”

Not a research model likely to get much traction. [Although, I have to admit on days when Milo is engaging in what I call ‘high-jackassery’ this seems tempting. “You want to look at Milo’s brain? Go ahead and take it, he’s not using it. By the way, you’ll need tweezers.”]

MRI lets researchers check out what is going on with a dog’s brain while it is still inside the dog’s head. In other words, it is a non-invasive research method and Fido can go home, play fetch, and cuddle when the experiment is finished.

What’s love got to do with it?

One of the things that philosophy of science investigates is what makes scientific research a good way of producing knowledge. The philosopher of science in me is intrigued because the reasons Berns and Cook give for using their method of studying dog brains arise from the relationships between dogs and people, relationships that can include engagement, respect, and love. There is a tendency for people to assume that good science, objective science, requires that researchers be emotionally detached from whatever they are studying.

But, here is a case where our relationships with dogs, as a group, and as individual creatures, drove scientific creativity. Because we love them, we want to know about them and don’t want to hurt them. This lead researchers to develop a new experimental protocol (the whole dogs in MRIs thing) that has the potential to help us learn interesting and important new things. Love lead to good science. I wonder what different things we might know if we loved rats and monkeys like we love dogs?



For the love of god leash your darn dog

A post like this is silly because it has already been written about 14 million times. Pretty much all the dog trainers and all the dog professionals and all the municipal codes tell people to leash their dogs. leash

I’m writing it again because Milo and I were charged by a little schnauzer. I scared the little dog off and the schnauzer’s person got angry at me for yelling at their dog. What the what? I know that people respond weirdly when flustered. But seriously, that little dog charged my German Shepherd and I intervened before my dog did. That, my friend, deserves thanks. In fact, it deserves ice cream. Heck, it deserves a bottle of scotch.

This is not a rare event. Milo and I have been charged by Golden Retrievers, Poodles, little terriers, and a bunch of other pups.

I don’t care if the pup is a Yorkie or Mastiff, a puppy or senior dog, or a dog that’s an angel straight from heaven. I really don’t care if the dog is friendly. Even if the handler knows their dog can heel past a butcher shop, I don’t know that, and off leash dogs worry me.

Milo and I worked very hard, for years, to help him stay calm around other dogs. He is gigantic and now his behavior is, mostly, pretty good and so a person might not expect him to be stressed by a charging dog. He is. And so am I.

  • A little dog who reacts to Milo and me is not cute or brave, and does not think it is a big dog. It is probably scared, or perhaps stupid.
  • Yes, I know that Milo could ‘take care of himself,’ but I don’t want him to have to. And, who would want that to happen?
  • No, I don’t want the dogs to ‘work it out.’ That’s a project that could cost 1000’s of dollars.
  • And actually, I don’t want our dogs to say ‘hello.’ If we’re friends and I know your dog, then maybe. But my dog doesn’t play with strangers.

Where there are leash laws, please leash your dog. It’s the decent thing to do.

My method is scientific 5: Responsible use of science

There is a very high bar for claiming that a dog training method is scientific. Not only does there have to be peer reviewed research studies, there has to be a bunch of them and they need to directly refer to the training method in question. It is a difficult standard to meet.

Just because it is difficult to meet this standard, it most certainly doesn’t mean that we should abandon scientific research on dog training. What the high standard does mean is that we need to be careful, responsible, about how we use scientific information.

In the rest of this post I’ll explore just how high that bar is, and give you an alternative way, a responsible way, to think about and use scientific information about dog training methods.

What the heck is a body of evidence anyway?

The idea is that there needs to be a bunch of studies, and that you need to be on the look out for studies that support your training method AND studies that don’t. It’s not immediately clear how many studies make a bunch, or how to balance the studies that support and that don’t support a particular method. Most of the time a person has to rely on scientific experts to get an overall idea of the degree of support for particular methods.

Philosopher Heidi Grasswick has argued that it should be part of the job of science to sift through the evidence it generates and provide us with usable, significant information. However, there is not much motivation for individual scientists to do this time consuming work. Thankfully, when it comes to veterinary and human medicine and public health, there are professional and government organizations we can turn to for this sort of expertise.

For example, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association has a Humane Training Methods for Dogs position statement. In this statement they recommend reward-based methods, and discourage aversive methods, and do not recommend aversive methods unless reward-based methods have failed and unless the aversive methods are used by a skilled person. They provide citations to scientific literature supporting their claims, and you can use those citations to track the research papers down for yourself. However, even this position statement is not especially specific about particular training methods. It pretty much advises us to be as humane as possible.

Is the evidence ever directly about what you do with your dog?

If a person wants to call a dog training method scientific then the scientific research should be about the dog training method they are actually talking about. This seems obvious, but in fact there is rarely, some might even say never, a direct connection between the research and dog training practice. One reason for this mismatch is that studies are conducted under controlled experimental conditions, and dog training happens ‘in the wild,’ or at least in the more complicated everyday situations that we find ourselves in. The context the dog-handler team is working in, the skill of the trainer, the temperament and experience of the dog, all make a difference. Also, sometimes, a lack of communication between scientists and dog trainers can result in them using the same name to describe what are, in practice, different training methods.

The bottom line is that it is difficult to be justified in claiming that a training method is scientific. But don’t give up on scientific approaches to dog training.

A matter of degree

Instead of thinking of the scientific nature of a training method as an all or nothing sort of thing, we need to think of it as a matter of degree. Some training methods are supported by more evidence than others, and the scientific research can be more or less like what we actually do with our dogs.

When we point to a method as being scientific our usual goal is to justify our use of it or recommend it to others. More evidence that is closer to our training method, justifies us in giving a stronger endorsement or recommendation of the method as scientific. It’s not an on/off switch; it’s a volume control knob.

Take care though, because scientific evidence can’t give us 100% certainty that a method is the best possible method. In addition to the tricky nature of evidence and the fraught relation between science and practice, science can only test what we have dreamed up in the first place. It is completely possible that someone will come up with a new method that is better than anything we have right now. Also, science is trustworthy because it depends on the experiments we’ve actually done and the measurements we’ve already taken. This means that we always need to be open to changing our minds in the face of new experiments and new evidence.

Responsible use of scientific information means calibrating our endorsement of a method as scientific to the quality of the evidence supporting that method.


Note: this is my fifth post in a series on scientific dog training methods.

  1. “My method is scientific” 1: “That’s right, I said ‘SCIENTIFIC’!”
  2. “My method is scientific” 2: What does this even mean?
  3. “My method is scientific” 3: The trouble with clicker training
  4. “My Method is scientific” 4: Science, goodness, and goals
  5. “My method is scientific” 5: Responsible use of science