New dog lab is looking for four-legged research participants
The research aims to examine canine cognition and therapy dog programs
A new lab on UBC’s Vancouver campus is looking for research participants — and not everyone will. The criterion? Must be furry and four-legged. Do you enjoy tummy massages and tasty treats? That’s a bonus too.
The new Laboratory for human-animal interaction at UBC has officially opened and will soon be inviting pet dogs and their owners to participate in canine cognition research. The researchers hope to gain new insights that will improve shelter practices and pet welfare in shelters and homes with pets. They will also conduct studies of animal-assisted interventions using trained therapy dogs to promote the well-being of dogs working in assistance roles, as well as refining methods of using therapy dogs in educational settings for the benefit of both child and dog.
“The goal is to gain insights into why dogs do the things they do and how we can determine the individual differences between certain dogs,” says Dr. Alexandra (Sasha) Protopopova, Head of the Laboratory and Assistant Professor at UBC’s Animal Welfare Program, to the Faculty of Agricultural and Food Systems.
The lab, which has been renovated thanks to federal and provincial funding through the Canada Foundation for Innovation and the BC Knowledge Development Fund, was recently inspected by UBC vets to ensure it’s safe for puppies and their humans. The room is equipped with special floor coverings 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 unnoticed.
Though the space is a laboratory, researchers worked to make it feel warm and welcoming, carefully placing silly artwork, artificial plants (to disguise the cameras), and dog toys to keep the animals and their companions safe and secure feel .
“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 for the welfare of the animals and dogs that come in.”
While a variety of different studies are being conducted in the laboratory, the overall goal of the research is to understand individual differences in canine cognition, both in terms of breed differences and individual differences in dogs, says Dr. Protopopova.
“We look at our research from a behavioral angle, looking for differences between dogs on a small scale,” she explains. “For example, we will examine how dogs interact with the world and what kind of differences we might observe in fundamental aspects of their learning, such as the speed of knowledge acquisition and how quickly or slowly the dog engages with a new subject.”
An example of a simple cognitive experiment the lab could perform is the “touch” command, where the puppy is taught to touch its nose to the owner’s palm. The researchers could 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 learn the task and adjust to the new rules.
The lab also serves an educational purpose to help students understand how dogs learn, see the world, and navigate their surroundings. Ultimately, the research will also help inform behavioral rehabilitation practices for dogs and cats, and improve resources and knowledge for animal shelters to support the behavioral needs of the animals in their care.
From the moment a dog arrives at the lab for his appointment, Dr. Protopopova that he will be continuously evaluated to determine his willingness to participate. After obtaining the dog owner’s consent, the dog must also demonstrate its active willingness to participate in the entire research process.
“It’s important for us to ask the dogs if they want to participate, just like we would invite children to participate in studies,” she says. “While we have consent forms for the owner, we also have consent procedures for the dog, just like we would have for children. The dogs always have the opportunity to engage and re-engage with the experiment. If the dog doesn’t want to continue or we see signs of stress, we tell the owner and stop the experiment immediately.”
Regardless of whether they’re done, all puppies will receive a certificate of participation — complete with a photo of them wearing a doggy graduation cap and sash, if they choose.
“We like to think of it as a credit to her PhD,” says Dr. Protopopova laughing.