National experts to speak on human-dog bond

Have you ever felt like your pet dog was reading your mind? If you have, you certainly aren’t alone. Stories abound from people whose dogs give them extra attention when they are feeling down. Other dogs grow anxious when their owners are preparing for a trip, and some dogs show hostility to people their owners dislike.

Dogs’ ability to perceive human feelings and intentions is remarkable. Dogs can even follow a person’s pointing finger, which is no small mental feat. Scientists have been unable to train even chimps to do that.

It’s no surprise, then, that dogs are considered “man’s best friend.” And it’s no surprise that many people consider their behavior unique among animals. Clive Wynne, a psychology professor at Arizona State University, disagrees.

“I don’t deny that dogs have a remarkable ability to know what people are up to. But I do deny that they have new, special skills,” says Wynne, who is also director of ASU’s new Canine Science Collaboratory and the proud adoptive “parent” of a shelter mutt named Xephos.

Wynne recently came to ASU from the University of Florida, where he studied dog behavior and human-dog relationships for more than a decade. He is the co-author, with Monique Udell, of “Animal Cognition: Evolution, Behavior and Cognition” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). He is also director of research for Wolf Park in Indiana. Wynne’s work with wolves led him to challenge conventional wisdom about differences between dogs and their lupine ancestors.

“I study wolves that have been hand-reared by people. They’re really responsive to humans. Wolves are every bit as good as dogs at following what people are up to,” he explains. “You don’t see it in a typical wolf because they don’t grow up around people.”

He adds that truly feral dogs that reach adulthood without meeting humans will be just as skittish around people as any wolf. But if wolves are as trainable as dogs, why are they rarely kept as pets, while dogs are toted to dog parks and hiking trails, garbed in Halloween costumes and photographed peeping from celebrity purses? Wynne says it’s partly due to differences between how dogs and wolves develop.

“Wolves grow up quickly. There is only a short period in which there is a willingness to learn who you can be friends with,” he says. “Dog development is slowed down, so it’s easy to tame them. Any dog that is around people is easy to tame – we don’t even think of it as ‘taming.’”

Wynne will discuss these differences and the origins of the human-dog bond in a public talk on Feb. 25. He will be joined by two other noted canine researchers: Gregory Berns and Matthew Breen.

Do dogs love?

Berns is a neuroeconomist at Emory University who has spent decades using MRI technology to study how the human brain works. But a different question also nagged at him: What is my dog thinking? To answer that, he and his colleagues figured out how to teach dogs to lie still in an MRI scanner, using only positive training methods. The dogs even wear earmuffs to protect their ears from the machine’s noise.

“He has cracked the holy grail in dog science,” Wynne says of Berns’ accomplishment.

Whether dogs love their human guardians the same way we love them is a subject of lively debate. Berns’ research, which explores what happens in a dog’s brain at the smell or sight of its owner, offers interesting new information to the discussion.

Berns will talk about the findings he has presented in his book, “How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain” (New Harvest, 2013), and a widely shared New York Times article, “Dogs are people, too.”

Berns argues that new evidence about canines’ capacity for emotion forces us to reconsider how we treat them. He questions whether we should continue to view dogs as possessions if they have emotions similar to our own.

Canines contribute to cancer research

Matthew Breen is a professor of genomics at North Carolina State University. He studies a different aspect of the human-dog relationship – our mutual vulnerability to certain diseases.

For hundreds of years, people have bred dogs to display specific traits. These could be physical attributes like size and coloring, or behaviors like retrieving and herding. Unfortunately, such breeding unintentionally selected for less desirable traits, as well. Certain breeds of dogs have a higher risk of developing health problems like hip dysplasia, seizures and some types of cancer.

Genomic studies have revealed a silver lining, however. Research on dogs can accelerate our understanding of cancers that also affect humans. Because dogs have gone through such tightly controlled breeding, scientists can study their genetics with less “background noise” than they find in the human genome. Identifying the genes involved in disease is likely to be simpler as a result.

Breen’s work shows that to be true. In studying a particular form of brain cancer, he and his colleagues narrowed the number of genes that are potentially involved from 500 to fewer than 10. They have also identified genetic signatures that predict how well a dog with lymphoma will respond to two of the leading types of chemotherapy. Breen will discuss these and other results, which could lead to better treatments for both humans and their canine companions.

Happily ever after

Wynne notes that not only are certain dog breeds more susceptible to diseases, but they can be more likely to develop behavioral problems such as separation anxiety. He says that psychologists have developed numerous behavioral techniques for handling problem behaviors in humans, largely using rewards to get people to behave better.

“Why do people misbehave? Often it’s because they experience some positive consequence for doing so, even if it’s only the attention of their caregivers. We are applying these behavior modification techniques to dogs for behaviors like extreme thunderstorm phobia, or excessive tail-chasing,” he says.

One area where such training might reap enormous benefits is in animal shelters. Studies show that certain characteristics of dogs can help or hinder their chances of being adopted. For instance, puppies are more popular than adult dogs, and certain breeds – such as pit bulls – are considered less desirable. Behavior is important, too.

“If you’re a cute dog, you can get away with anything,” Wynne explains. “For ugly dogs, lots of behaviors matter. Keep your kennel clean. Don’t lick yourself or your cage.”

Wynne has been working with animal shelters to improve the odds that dogs will be adopted. He and his colleagues have trained dogs in certain behaviors to assess whether those behaviors increase their adoptability. Now he is focusing his efforts on ensuring that the adoption will stick. Return rates of shelter dogs can be high – sometimes more than 30 percent.

“It’s one thing to get adopted, but many dogs that are adopted get returned. We are looking at what to do to help form a bond between people and the dog so they can live happily ever after,” Wynne says.

He is collaborating with faculty in ASU’s Exercise and Wellness Program, along with the Arizona Animal Welfare League & SPCA, to find out if exercising with a newly adopted dog increases retention.

"There is a health benefit to owning a dog – people who have dogs exercise more,” he explains. “We invite people to exercise with their newly adopted dogs. We want to know, do they have lower return rates?”

Cross-bred research

Wynne is enthusiastic about working with researchers in a different field and hopes to continue such interdisciplinary efforts in the future. For example, learning what influences people’s adoption decisions would benefit from expertise in marketing. He notes that ASU offers excellent opportunities for these types of collaborations.

“A lot of institutions talk an interdisciplinary talk, but the standard university structure in the U.S. is not suited to interdisciplinarity,” he says. “The resources flow through departments, and people naturally don’t want to share. But it’s clear that something is happening at ASU that is allowing that crossover to happen.”

In creating his new research group, the Canine Science Collaboratory, Wynne deliberately avoided using terminology from his own discipline (psychology) in the name. He welcomes collaboration with anyone interested in studying dogs, whether they are faculty from other departments within ASU or outside organizations.

“Going to the Dogs – an Evening of Canine Science” will take place from 5-7 p.m., Feb. 25, at the Tempe Center for the Arts. The event will feature presentations from Wynne, Berns and Breen about their research and discoveries. Afterward, the speakers will be available to meet the audience and sign copies of their books. Admission and parking are free.

Check out these ten things you probably didn’t know about dogs.

The Department of Psychology is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Wynne’s research is funded by the Canine Health Foundation, part of the American Kennel Club. 

Written by Diane Boudreau, Office of Knowledge Enterprise Development