Research

Dog research roads lead to Bendigo

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PhD candidates Jennifer Gravrok, Lynna Feng and Sarah Byosiere with lagottas Audrey, Isabelle, Cricket and Salvador. Photo by Shioban Downing

Anthrozoology. The word itself is no walk in the park – even spell check can’t compute. But it’s fast becoming everyday talk on the Bendigo campus, thanks to Dr Pauleen Bennett and her band of PhD candidates.

Anthrozoology is all about the interactions between humans and animals. It can touch on anthropology, medicine, psychology, veterinary medicine and zoology.

Cue the three researchers pictured here, and their bevvy of cute pooches. Americans Jennifer Gravrok, Lynna Feng and Sarah Byosiere are on scholarships to undertake full-time research under the supervision of Dr Bennett, who is world-renowned for her own research into the special bonds between dogs and people.

“I found Pauleen online somehow,” says Jennifer. “I just started Googling, contacted her and she was able to help me get a scholarship. Once I had that, I was set.”

Jennifer is from Minnesota, where she studied general biology. “I thought I wanted to do veterinary medicine then I realised I liked behaviour and research,” she says. “It was always my goal to research dogs so when I got this opportunity I took it. I couldn’t really say no.”

Jennifer is researching the physical, psychological and social benefits of service dogs, including guide dogs, autism assistance dogs, mobility assistance dogs, psychiatric service dogs and alert dogs.

“Specifically, we hope to follow half a dozen people, starting before they get their service dog, through the training process and a year after working together,” Jennifer says. “This will allow us to see how the expectations, benefits and relationship between the service dog and their handler change over time.”

Lynna has travelled from California to fulfil her goal to better understand how dogs learn and interact with the world. Lynna is a professional dog trainer. Her bachelor degree is from the University of California, Davis in Animal Science with an emphasis in Behaviour. She is currently researching how dogs use auditory signals to help them learn, which could have implications in the way they’re trained.

Sarah arrived in Bendigo from Michigan in September last year. She has a Bachelor of Science in Biospychology, Cognition and Neuroscience and a Master in Biopsychology from the University of Michigan.

Sarah began studying dogs by analysing how they play, specifically how dogs use the play bow. Before coming to Bendigo, she studied dogs at the Duke Canine Cognition Centre, the Clever Dog Lab and Wolf Science Centre.

She was one of 40 applicants to respond Dr Bennett’s world-wide call out for anthrozoology researchers. “The dog world is pretty small, and there’s a ton of websites and Facebook pages shared among us,” she says. “At that stage I was looking at grad schools and had applied for a whole bunch of different programs. I decided there was no harm in applying for Bendigo, so I just added it to my list.”

Sarah is working with specialised digital equipment to test dogs’ vision and cognition, and asking questions such as, what do dogs see? And are dogs susceptible to optical illusions? “So far the results are surprising,” Sarah says. “Testing has shown dogs are susceptible to optical illusions, but in the opposite way to humans.”

Sarah is currently submitting a manuscript on her findings to the journal Animal Cognition.

“We found the dogs were susceptible to an illusion called the Ebbinghaus-Titchener illusion,” she says. “However, this susceptibility was reversed from what is typically seen in humans and most mammals. Dogs consistently indicated that the target circle typically appearing larger in humans appeared smaller to them, and that the target circle typically appearing smaller in humans, appeared larger to them.”

Most of the research is being done in the Bendigo Campus’ dedicated dog lab, but now the beautiful spring weather has finally arrived, there’s always time for some well-earned pet therapy in gorgeous Rosalind Park.

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