Canine Ergonomics: The need for a SCIENCE of Working Dogs

We have long been fascinated by the important roles that our canines play in their collaboration with humans. Our own personal hero in this area is Dr. Bonnie Bergin, the incredible woman who in 1975  originated the concept of the "service dog." Dr. Bergin then went on to establish Canine Companions for Independence, the world's very first service dog program. Seeing waiting lists for service dogs extending to 10 years, and low percentage of dogs making it through the program, she left to found the Assistance Dog Institute and Bergin University of Canine Studies. Now providing college programming, and doing research on training and the use of assistance dogs, Dr. Bergin has been a model for us all.

"The dog, we now realize, thinks, feels and reacts in ways very much like humans, which explains its unique ability to fit into human society. And the plasticity, the versatility, the adaptability of the canine species is very much aligned with ours. So the time has come to elevate the dog to take its place beside humans, equines, bovines and other mammalian species as a specific subject of study at the college and university level. No animal does more for us, none share a more intimate relationship with us, nor can any claim more years of alliance with us – than the dog – our partner, our friend, our helpmate."

Books from several disciplines line our shelves in the attempt to define and explore the nature of working dogs. In this vein, we agree with psychology professor, Dr. William S. Helton.

Editor of CANINE ERGONOMICS, the first book on the science of working dogs, Dr. Helton laments over the fact that the "scientific literature on working dogs is scattered across several non-overlapping disciplines and, in comparison to the magnitude of its societal importance, relatively underdeveloped."  Currently, there is no recognized "science" of working dogs and therefore no recognized, specialized research in the area.

We were very excited, recently, to see that the Penn Vet Working Dog Center was providing its first scientific conference. Although the conference title connotes inclusivity (Selecting Working Dogs for the Next Century: Scientific Advances and Man's Best Friend), the mission of this new center is rather specific to detection dog breeding and training development. This, of course, ties into Dr. Helton's notion that a science of canine ergonomics is a necessary step in furthering our understanding and development of working dogs.

Typically, information concerning working dogs is mostly anecdotal, with books either too general in scope or too specific. And training often fails to be based on empirical methods verified with rigorous scientific standards. Dr. Helton's 2009 book brings together research being conducted on working dogs from a wide variety of fields, examining both cognitive and physiological perspectives. We are intrigued by his ergonomics perspective on the science of working dogs, and the researched approaches for improving working dog performance that are featured.

Providing a complete overview, from physiology to cognition, this is the first book to discuss working dogs from a scientific perspective. It is very helpful to see an analysis of tasks that explores ergonomic and cognitive factors, as well as covering personality traits and behavioral assessments. A look at the book's chapters, contributed by experts from multiple disciplines, reveals just how daunting this science truly is.

  • Canine Ergonomics: Introduction to the New Science of Working Dogs
  • Skill and Expertise in Working Dogs: A Cognitive Science Perspective
  • Social Learning in Dogs
  • Temperament and Personality in Working Dogs
  • Overview of Scent Detection Work: Issues and Opportunities
  • Evaluating Learning Tasks Commonly Applied in Detection Dog Training
  • Attention in Dogs: Sustained Attention in Mine Detection as Case Study
  • Olfaction and Explosives Detector Dogs
  • Conservation Dogs
  • Working Dogs: The Last Line of Defense for Preventing Dispersal of Brown Treesnakes from Guam
  • Canine Augmentation Technology for Urban Search and Rescue
  • Physiological Demands and Adaptations of Working Dogs
  • Physical and Mental Stress of SAR Dogs During Search Work
  • Signs of Physiological Stress in Dogs Performing AAA/T Work
  • Benefits of Animal Contact and Assistance Dogs for Individuals with Disabilities
  • Conclusion: Working Dogs and the Future

Dr. Helton is truly a man on a mission, an important mission in our view. We only wish we could be so eloquent in our ability to communicate the urgency:

"While working dogs clearly have limitations, they are the best options for many work contexts. The scientific community's recent reassessment of dogs' cognitive capabilities and increasing recognition of dogs as legitimate workers opens new opportunities for people with dogs to solve society's problems. We must balance the risk of excessive anthropomorphism, viewing dogs falsely as small people in furry suits, with excessive anthropocentrism, thinking only humans are smart enough to be workers or only human-designed machines are appropriate solutions to our problems." ...

"With proper training, for example, dogs not only match the breast cancer detection accuracy, sensitivity, and specificity of mammography performed by trained radiologists, but dogs may actually exceed them (McCulloch et al., 2006). Dog cancer detection, because it is based on breath samples taken painlessly from patients and not on x-rays taken with often uncomfortable breast tissue compression, may be more attractive to patients. Dog detection presents no potential of radiation-induced side effects, no uncomfortable compression of breast tissue, and no need for patients to spend time traveling to a specialized clinic where they waste their time waiting to be examined. Breath samples for dog detection can be taken anywhere and sent to a remote dog laboratory. This is merely one example where dogs are largely dismissed in favor of expensive machines."

We must caution folks that Canine Ergonomics is a quite scholarly book, and without doubt more attractive given our shared psychology orientation. Spending many years evaluating youngsters, the areas of selective and sustained attention, or vigilance, were critical constructs. Dr. Helton's view of the importance of these areas for working dogs is wonderful to see. In our working with dogs, we have been fascinated by the difference between functional vigilance vs. that of hypervigilance, which is noted in a dog's over-attention to sound, for example. Golden Alfie suffers from that malady and is always on the environmental alert for suspicious sounds, like postal trucks, school buses, thunder, firecrackers, etc.

We suspected that Dr. Helton had been personally inspired by a working dog when we read this in the preface:

"I looked up from the paper and there was Kiowa, a black and tan mixed-breed trained signal (hearing assistance) dog. He lay on the floor with one ear up and swiveling around searching for sounds. Kiowa, like a sonar or radar operator, was a vigilant worker, looking for relatively rare target signals among long series of irrelevant noises and sounds. Kiowa, moreover, was an expert, as he had learned to generalize his signaling to untrained but meaningful targets, such as water boiling or a bathtub filling."

In writing to him, our suspicions were confirmed, as he provided the following delightful article:


Mixed-breed Berkeley (pronounced "Barkley") works as a service dog for Deak Helton's wife, who is hearing impaired. Helton theorizes that dogs may use higher reasoning to master new skills.

Dogs and humans share a peculiar trait: we both are workaholics

Generally, other animal species are a little on the lazy side. Primates, our closest living relatives, assiduously avoid going the extra mile. Most draft animals—think mules—work just as long as they have to and then trot back to the barn lickety-split. "And good luck trying to get cats to work," notes William "Deak" Helton, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan Tech.

But just as people proudly log fourteen-hour days in the office, so will huskies haul heavy sleds across the Yukon and black labs leap into frigid water to retrieve game for their masters. This yen to work means that we might be able to learn a lot about our own Type A behavior by studying dogs on the job, Helton says.

It's a novel approach. While people have been observing and training dogs for thousands of years, scientists can't agree among themselves whether or not dogs are even conscious. "For people who have been around animals a lot, it's 'No duh, of course they're conscious,'" Helton says. But for researchers who adhere to the theory that animals merely respond to stimuli, the idea that they are capable of higher reasoning is still controversial.

Helton himself became convinced that dogs were doing a lot more than responding to stimuli while he was still a graduate student. His aha moment came when he was helping train a service dog, named Kiowa, for his wife who is hearing impaired.

After a process of operant conditioning—rewarding correct behavior—Kiowa had mastered a repertoire of responses to different noises, from the doorbell chime to the beep of the microwave. "Then suddenly, he got it," Helton recalls. "It was as if he put it all together and realized what his job was."

Kiowa began leading his handler in the direction of other sounds, such as a whistling tea kettle and the gurgle of a bathtub filling to capacity. When Helton brought the matter up with his mentors in his graduate program, however, they were skeptical and suggested that the dog was simply responding to sounds that were similar to those he had already learned. That didn't convince Helton; running water in a bathtub sounds nothing like a ringing phone, he reasoned.

It did prompt him to consider using working dogs as a model for human learning, however, particularly for developing expertise. Psychologists have always been stymied in studying how humans become experts in a task because variables, including talent and a willingness to take part in training, are so hard to control.

It's much easier to manage such variables in dogs, however. For example, dogs can be relied on to actually show up and participate in an experiment. And Helton has conducted preliminary observations of "agility dogs" and theorizes that we can learn a great deal about ourselves by studying these canine athletes.

Agility is a relatively new sport, in which dogs tackle a complex obstacle course that involves weaving slalom-style through a series of poles, shimmying through tunnels, and leaping through tires at the direction of their handlers.


Dr. Deak Helton with Berkeley


Novice dogs make lots of mistakes. In the beginning, they have trouble running the course while simultaneously taking direction from their handlers. Eventually, however, the moves become almost automatic, and the dogs become adept at responding to their handlers' signals.

This process of learning something to the point that you don't have to think about it, known as "automatization," is commonplace. For example, learning to drive a car requires total concentration. But as we gain mastery, we can do two and even three things at once: listen to the radio, talk with the passengers, and slam on the brakes to avoid a pedestrian.

Helton hopes to learn more about how dogs—and by extension, people—automatize by teaching local dogs the sport of agility. With the cooperation of Keweenaw pet owners, he plans to train and test the dogs, tracking the development of their basic abilities and how well they automatize.

"This research may have significant implications for the continuing debate over the role of inherent talent in expertise," says Helton. And it could also have implications in the area of "human factors," a new branch of psychology that looks at how the products and systems that surround us influence our performance and behavior.

Whatever the result, it's important to learn more about how dogs learn, simply because they do so much important work, Helton says. In addition to their traditional service and search-and-rescue jobs, dogs now do tasks ranging from sniffing out cancer to detecting mold in buildings. Thus, humans have a vested interest in improving what he calls "canine factors."

"For instance, how could we manipulate their environment to increase their attention span?" Helton asks.

The question is more than academic. You wouldn't want an airport security inspector to overlook a weapon in a carry-on bag or a bomb-sniffing dog to lose interest at the wrong moment. And perhaps, Helton says, the knowledge gained from one scenario may one day better inform the other.

This article can also be read at
Copyright 2006-07, Michigan Tech Magazine


Dr. Helton also shared some current research articles, for which we were incredibly thankful. Although we do not have the ability to provide the articles here in their entirety, one, that was particularly insightful was just published in the March 2010 (Vol 83, Issue 3, pages 315-323) edition of Behavioural Processes:

Does perceived trainability of dog (Canis lupus familiaris) breeds reflect differences in learning or differences in physical ability?
William S. Helton, Department of Psychology, University of Canterbury, Private Bag 4800, Christchurch 8020, New Zealand

Researchers have reported perceived differences in trainability between different dog breeds. These reports could either be the result of underlying differences in learning or differences in physical capabilities. Four studies were conducted to investigate this issue. In Study 1 the level of agility metal-winners amongst those breeds perceived to be high and low in trainability did not deviate significantly from their respective levels of participation in the sport. In Study 2 the level of precision amongst those dogs perceived to be high and low in trainability did not deviate significantly in a real agility competition (P > 0.05), but these dogs did differ in speed (P < 0.05). In Study 3 the amount of training time necessary to achieve agility precision mastery did not significantly differ amongst dogs from breeds perceived to be high and low in trainability (P > 0.05), but there was a significant difference in speed. Finally, in Study 4 breeds considered to be high in trainability were found to be relatively physically homogenous in respects to height, in comparison to breeds considered to be low in trainability. Overall, the results of these studies are more supportive of a physical capability interpretation of perceived breed differences in trainability, than a more cognitive interpretation.

In the discussion of the results, with respect to appreciating how dogs are perceived and classified, Dr. Helton speaks to the practical implications for the working dog community.

The preponderance of dogs used in humanitarian land mine detection, for example, come from traditional military-law enforcement
working breeds, such as German Shepherds, Belgian Shepherds, and Labrador Retrievers, despite the advantages smaller dogs, such as Jack Russell Terriers or Beagles, would have for that assignment: namely their lesser likelihood of detonating a land mine due to their decreased weight. No studies have confirmed that the traditional military-law enforcement breeds are actually better at the task or quicker to train for the task. Both Beagles and Jack Russell Terriers are used in other search tasks, namely the search for invasive species and agricultural products (see Helton, 2009a), which should lead one to question the current preference for larger “working” breeds for mine detection. The preference of dogs for landmine detection and, perhaps, many other working tasks may be based on physical search features employed in the handler community and passed on by tradition. “When looking for X-type of dog, look for these physical qualities.” Perhaps handlers in these fields do not see certain dog breeds as fit for these duties because they traditionally searched for particular physical qualities, for example, the ability to protect the handler (which in a humanitarian context is no longer necessary). This is at least worth investigating, as it may be that these traditional search features are no longer appropriate in some settings.

On the other hand, we should also realize that when assessing dogs for duties in the real world, separating cognition from physical abilities is not easy. Experts may not be misguided when stating that some breeds are more trainable than others for a task or even more trainable overall (as in more morphologically generic), regardless of whether breeds differ or not on more physically neutral tests of cognitive abilities. Handlers may simply be using a quick, intuitive heuristic for picking the dogs best suited for particular tasks due to their breed dependent physical qualities. The handlers may simply label this as trainability (as in suitability). Physical qualities and dog morphology do matter for real world performance (Coppinger and Coppinger, 2001).

Greater sensitivity to obvious physical differences may also improve behavioural research on animals, and particularly, research on dogs. A case in point is a recent paper by Wobber et al. (2009) investigating breed differences in the ability of dogs to use human communicative visual signals to locate hidden food. In their study, they compared four breeds: Siberian Huskies, Shepherds (Belgian and German), Basenjis, and Toy Poodles. Their first objective was to test whether being genetically closer to wolves, which recent genetic research indicates Siberian Huskies and Basenjis are in comparison to Shepherds and Poodles, influences dog performance in their communication paradigm. Their second objective was to test whether being bred to work with people, which they argued based on breed organizations’ classifications Siberians Huskies and Shepherds are in comparison to Toy Poodles and Basenjis, influences dog performance in their paradigm. They did find that Siberian Huskies and Shepherds had better performance than Toy Poodles or Basenjis and argued that being bred to work with people may have selected for improved communication abilities in some dog breeds. Of course, an obvious issue in this study and its interpretation is the complete confound of physical size with their being bred-to-work-with-people factor. Shepherds and huskies are obviously physically larger than Basenjis or Toy Poodles. Larger dogs are likely to have greater inter-ocular distances and may have altered degrees of ocular overlap as their skulls are larger and, perhaps, differently shaped. Greater inter-ocular distances should increase depth perception and may thereby, improve the dog’s ability to detect visual cues. The difference Wobber et al. found may be entirely due to differences in skull morphology and size, not to breed differences in supposed cognitive abilities. This is not a particular criticism of Wobber et al., but a trap many cognitive-oriented researchers may fall into. Presumably in the real world, there are no tasks where physical differences and handicaps do not affect the task, and we should be very sensitive to this possibility. Whenever differences within animal species or between species are found, our first goal should be to look for an obvious (or even non-obvious) physical explanation. Only after all these physical possibilities have been eliminated should we speculate on cognitive differences.

Coppinger, R., Coppinger, L., 2001. Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origins, Behavior and Evolution. Scribner, New York.
Helton, W.S. (Ed.), 2009a. Canine Ergonomics: The Science of Working Dogs. Taylor and Francis, New York.
Wobber, V., Hare, B., Koler-Matznick, J., Wrangham, R., Tomasello, M., 2009. Breed differences in domestic dogs’ (Canis familiaris) comprehension of human communicative signals. Interact. Stud. 10, 206–224.


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Famous model Golden Rusty