A Great Time for Dog Nerds: Notes from the Canine Science Symposium

Posted on Mar 26, 2013

from the Photo Lab

What a great time to be a dog nerd… er… enthusiast.

On our way back from San Francisco yesterday, my friend Suzanne Kernek (director of Behavior and Training at Sonoma Humane Society) and I could not shut up about all the incredible information we had just absorbed at the Canine Science Symposium organized and hosted by the wonderful folks at Pawsitive Tails, who offer dog training, dog walking and pet sitting services to busy professionals and families in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Canine Science Symposium promised to be an exciting opportunity to hear from some of the brightest (and youngest) names involved in dog research, canine cognition/behavior and intersections of canine and human behavior; with a powerhouse line up that included the likes of  Julie Hecht, Kathryn Lord, Sasha Proptopova, Lisa Gunter and Erica Feuerbacherboy, was it ever.

from left to right: Erica Feuerbacher, Jeannine Berger, Sasha Proptopova, Kathryn Lord, Lisa Gunter, Julie Hecht and Emma Clarke

We started the day off with Kathryn Lord, who studied evolution and development of behavior, with Dr. Raymond Coppinger. Her presentation focused on the Critical Period of Socialization of dogs and wolves and why the first 8 weeks of life are so important. Kathryn just sucks you into her presentation; she is lively and clearly excited and driven by her research and findings and it is highly contagious. When she described being “stampeded by wolf puppies”, I could not help but wanting to step into her shoes for a day. The similarities and differences between developing wolf cubs and domestic puppies of different breeds were riveting. So much of our dog culture has revolved around keeping pups “isolated and protected” the first few weeks of life where clearly this is the time where they need to experience everything they will be expected to live with as adult dogs. Early socialization could reduce the amount of behavior problems we see today in many dogs, such as fear, aggression, anxiety and fear over sights and sounds of urban life etc. It made me wish I could hop on a time machine and travel back, find my Willow wherever she might have been as a newborn pup and steal her away to put into practice Kathryn’s puppy protocol. Alas, we cannot go back in time, but we can do better with the next wave of newborn pups that come into this world of ours. Truly fascinating research and one that I feel many of the people involved in shelter and rescue work will hopefully be putting into practice with shelter puppies.

I’ll freely admit I was most excited about Julie Hecht‘s presentation. Having read her work in Bark Magazine for so long, faithfully following her blog Dog Spies and reading about her involvement with Alexandra Horowitz‘s (whose book Inside of a Dog had such a deep effect on meDog Cognition Lab at Barnard College in New York City, I was really looking forward to hearing her speak about Unpacking Anthropomorphism; this is a word that has many associations and is often vilified. It means we apply human-like characteristics, intentions or emotions to our dogs in some way, shape or form. One clear example she talked about was the famed “guilty look” we so often feel our dogs give us because “they know they did something wrong”. Is it really that they know the trash is off-limits but it’s oh so tempting and couldn’t resist or that they have in their “guilty-look” a natural appeasing behavior that is there to keep them in our good graces, regardless of whether they did do something they shouldn’t have in our absence? It was interesting to hear Julie’s take on it and be reminded that it is important to always consider the dog’s storyline instead of applying our own.

Sasha Proptopova‘s presentation was the most surprising to me and a wonderful example of what U2’s lead singer Bono calls “Factivism”; using facts to support your cause. We’ve all heard and seen it before; older cats and dogs, especially those with black coats usually wait the longest to be adopted. Bully breeds such as Pit Bulls are often condemned to be the least adoptable, people want trained family dogs, etc. etc…. The numbers from Sasha’s studies might surprise you, I know they surprised me; and it brought home the fact that maybe it really isn’t one-size-fits-all in the shelter and rescue world; that different regions and target markets want different things in their adopted pets and that the same issues we see in California with some breeds and mixes may not be the same as in Florida. Some people really don’t pay attention to the fact that a shelter dog already knows sit or has been taught to gaze into a person’s eyes. In her particular research, she found it was not a black coat but a brindle one that seemed the one with the highest length of stay in a shelter. On average, a person decides within 30 seconds whether they like a dog or not; 30 seconds! that is so little time for a life to hang in the balance, isn’t it? So what else can we do to increase chances of adoption? Some of Sasha’s findings include cleanliness of dog run/kennel, an enrichment program for dogs to help them cope with life at the shelter, photographs and information available on the dog and rearrangement of efforts and resources to be heavily dispersed among the less privileged animals likely to have a longer stay, rather than spending them on highly adoptable animals.

Next, was a real treat. Lisa Gunter is the author of a recent study widely shared on the web by now regarding Breed Stereotypes and the effects of pairing a person (such as an older woman, a child, a person in a wheelchair or a police officer) with a dog that alone was seen as dangerous, in this case Pit Bulls, and how that affects perception. With photography by Kira Stackhouse of Nuena Photography, Lisa’s research (based on a previous study by Walsh, McBride, Bishop and Leyvraz in 2007) shows the result of photographing three breed-types of dogs alone and then paired with different people such as before mentioned. When photographed alone, the Pit Bull-type dog rated lowest in perceptions of friendliness, approachability, adoptability, intelligence and highest in aggressiveness and difficulty to train. However, when this same dog was photographed with an elderly woman or a child, there were highly significant changes in perception, becoming a far more positive one. The article is worth reading, especially if you are a photographer working with a shelter or rescue. Sure, we can take fantastic pictures of beautiful dogs, but if we really want to create positive perceptions of dogs that are truly great with people and kids and only held back by a breed stereotype and therefore increase their chances of adoption, then we best take heed of this advice.

I believe I might have been the only animal photographer present at the Symposium, but thanks to Lisa, Kira (Nuena), the evidence presented in research, and Julie Hecht who took the time to talk to me after about photographing dogs, I felt like our work in photographing animals is now an active and hopefully respected entity in the canine science world. Members of the rescue world present at the symposium seemed excited about this, and I took the opportunity to spread the word about HeARTs Speak, an organization we are proud to be members of, whose purpose is to help rescues and shelters through photography. I am excited to put this idea into practice right away with the shelters we currently work with and support.

To finalize, Erica Feuerbacher presented a fascinating look at why our dogs love us and how they prefer to interact with us. In trying to find an answer to whether interaction is a reinforcer, Erica’s research focused on seeing how dogs chose to interact with people; was it because of food, or touch, or verbal praise? Erica’s research shows various scenarios with both shelter dogs and family dogs; some dogs preferred food from the start, which validates food as a reinforcer for training; and some preferred petting, often preferring longer periods of social interaction but eventually turn to food. What about vocal praise, is that important or valued by our dogs? Research shows that even when only one choice is available (vocal praise or touch alone), some dogs clearly have a preference for petting, especially in shelter dogs; in owned dogs, the difference was not so pronounced. Could this be because owned dogs have been conditioned to vocal praise and therefore value all forms of interaction? Could it be because shelter dogs are unfortunately more deprived of contact and therefore highly value petting and prefer it to vocal praise? Understanding how our individual dogs prefer to interact with us will undoubtedly make for a richer bond and friendship. I know I came home keen on paying a little closer attention to what makes my dogs happiest when we are interacting.

We closed the day with a round table with all the speakers, who I was delighted to find were so approachable and human, and above all, dog people. When I was growing up, I was aware my friends and family enjoyed dogs and their company, but I couldn’t really find someone like me, who loved dogs enough to study dog books and movies cover to cover. It was so incredible to realize that all of a sudden, I was in a room full of people that not only shared my love, interest and passion for dogs; but they were brilliant professionals actively working to create positive change for shelter dogs, helping make our relationships with our own dogs deeper through understanding and all with the wonder of science behind it.

The only thing I came away wishing for had nothing to do with the symposium itself. Up until a few years ago, dogs were not a sexy subject to study as a serious scientist. If you wanted to work with dogs, the pickings were slim in regards to career choices, but now, there’s a new study every month and whole sections of books on dogs at libraries and bookstores. We learn more about our canine friends everyday and it is certainly a very passionate world. But I am not a dog person alone, I love cats just as much and find these two so wonderfully different yet similar in many ways; which led me to wish for a Feline Science Symposium. Where are all the books and studies on domestic cats? How about a Feline Behavior Academy? Dare I say it is now in its early kitten phase judging from the sheer popularity of cats on YouTube and pop culture and with new faces and ideas such as Jackson Galaxy and respected names such as Patricia McConnell and Karen Pryor extending their expertise to cats as well? Hopefully, we’ll see. It’s just some food for thought.

In the meantime, I’ll be creating and wearing my Dog Nerd t-shirt loud and proud because it feeds my soul and benefits my relationships with my own dogs. It really is a great time to be a Dog Nerd… 🙂




  1. Sue Davy
    March 26, 2013

    I’m halfway through your blog post and I’m making dinner and my kid is off to a hockey tournament tomorrow and the other one wants to eat and my dogs are barking!!!!! All I want to do is read your words and then read them again, and then foster another litter of puppies and then find 4 more hours in the day!

    Thank you!!!!! I will read it later and I will digest it and I welcome you into the shelter!!!!! Thanks for everything you’ve done and all that is to come. You are the next generation of animal welfare. I felt it the first time I met you and I KNOW it to be true. Welcome.

  2. Tails from the Lab: The Canine Science Symposium Returns to San Francisco
    March 3, 2014

    […] If you missed out last year on the first Canine Science Symposium, organized and hosted by the kind folks at Pawsitive Tails, you hopefully have your ticket to this year’s! If not, don’t worry, with the help of the amazing Lisa Gunter, we are able to give you an insight into this year’s lectures. If you would like to know more about this fantastic event, or buy your ticket, you can do so HERE. If you have a chance to go, I would love to hear your thoughts on it. To read about last year’s Symposium, click HERE. […]


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