Canine Ergonomics: The need for a SCIENCE of
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.
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
Dogs for the Next Century: Scientific Advances and Man's
the mission of this new center is rather specific to
breeding and training development. This, of course, ties
into Dr. Helton's
notion that a science of canine ergonomics is a necessary
furthering our understanding and development of working
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
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
- 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
- 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
"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:
BORN TO WORK
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Coppinger, R., Coppinger, L., 2001.
Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origins, Behavior and
. 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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