Research aims to investigate dog cognition and therapy dog programs
A new lab at UBC’s Vancouver campus is looking for research participants—and not just anyone will do. The criteria? Must be furry and four-legged. Enjoy belly rubs and yummy treats? That’s a bonus, too.
The new Human-Animal Interaction Lab at UBC has officially opened and will soon be inviting pet dogs and their owners to engage in canine cognition research. Researchers are hoping to discover new knowledge that will improve animal shelter practices and companion animal welfare in shelters and homes with pets. They will also conduct studies on animal-assisted interventions using trained therapy dogs to benefit the wellbeing of dogs working in assistance roles, as well as refining methods of using therapy dogs in educational settings for the benefit of both the child and dog.
“The goal is to uncover knowledge about why dogs do the things they do and how do we determine the individual differences of specific dogs,” says Dr. Alexandra (Sasha) Protopopova, the lab’s director and an assistant professor in UBC’s Animal Welfare Program in the faculty of land and food systems.
The lab, which was renovated thanks to federal and provincial funding via the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the BC Knowledge Development Fund, has recently undergone inspections by UBC veterinarians to ensure it is safe for pups and their humans. The room is outfitted with specialized flooring for easy cleaning, high-tech 360-degree cameras, and a two-way mirror with an observation room next door where researchers can observe the dogs without being noticed.
Although the room is a laboratory, the researchers have worked to make it feel warm and inviting with the careful placement of silly artwork, faux plants (to disguise the cameras), and dog toys, so that the animals and their companions feel safe and comforted.
“The comfort of the animal is a priority,” says Dr. Protopopova, who also holds the NSERC/BC SPCA Industrial Research Chair in Animal Welfare. “Our work is completely non-invasive, and we take that very seriously. All research is made to benefit the welfare of animals and the dogs that come in.”
While there will be a variety of different studies underway in the lab, the overarching goal of the 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 behavioural angle to our research and look for differences between dogs on a small-scale level,” she explains. “For example, we will be looking at how dogs interact with the world and what kinds of differences we might observe in fundamental aspects of their learning, like speed of knowledge acquisition and how quickly or slowly the dog might engage with a new item.”
An example of a simple cognitive experiment that the lab could run involves the “touch” command, where the pup is taught to touch its nose to the palm of the owner’s hand. The researchers might then change 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 the dog to both learn the task and adapt to the new rules.
The lab will also serve a teaching purpose to help students understand how dogs learn, see the world, and navigate their environment. Ultimately, the research will also help inform behaviour rehabilitation practices for dogs and cats and help improve resources and knowledge for animal shelters to support the behavioural needs of the animals in their care.
From the moment a dog arrives at the lab for their appointment, Dr. Protopopova says they are continuously assessed to determine their willingness to take part. After consent is obtained from the dog owner, the dog must also demonstrate their active willingness to participate throughout the research process.
“It’s important for us to ask the dogs if they would like to participate in the same way we would invite children to participate in studies,” she says. “While we have consent forms for the owner, we also have assent procedures for the dog as well, just like we would have for children. The dogs are always given the opportunity to engage and re-engage in the experiment. If the dog does not want to go forward, or if we observe any stress signs, we let the owner know and immediately stop the experiment.”
Regardless of whether they finish, all pups earn a certificate for participating—complete with a photo of them wearing a doggie graduation cap and sash, if they wish.
“We like to think of it as earning their Ph-Dog,” says Dr. Protopopova with a laugh.
For more information on how to apply, please click here.