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Project Overview

How does your dog feel about training ?

Our project explores different training practices, the effects they have on dog-human relationships and on the welfare of human and animal participants. We ask whether training practices contribute to the emergence of new, post-human forms of human-animal relations. The research uses an innovative methodology, combining social and natural scientific approaches, and puts into practice a pioneering way of assessing animals’ emotional state.

Research Context

Scholars argue that since the 1970s new, post-human forms of human-animal relationship are emerging which involve greater empathy on the part of humans. Alongside this there has been an increase in pet keeping, with many people regarding their pets as important family members, and a recognition that engaging with animals contributes to human well-being. It is also accepted that there are strong emotional bonds between people and their pets and that, in many cases, these bonds can be shaped by animal training which has itself been undergoing change. Newer training cultures increasingly draw on scientific understandings of animal learning and rely on positive, reward-based methods. They often challenge more ‘traditional’ modes of training which originated in early 20th century institutions, such as the police and armed forces, and tend to rely more heavily on punishment. This shift from more to less authoritarian training practices has been linked to a recognition that animals engage actively in the training process and that their needs, as well as those of their human companions, should shape the human-animal interaction. Evidence shows that different training practices have varying effects on both human and animal welfare. It has been observed that dogs trained with the newer, positive methods seem to be ‘happier’ and less subdued than those trained using more traditional authoritarian training methods. This indicates that different training practices and the cultures in which they are embedded assume and facilitate different forms of human-animal connectedness. .

Innovative Methodology

Our research brings together analytical and methodological approaches from the social and natural sciences in order to develop a truly inter-disciplinary way of approaching the study of human-animal connectedness. In order to do this we shall carry out of 5 multi-species ethnographies. These will explore how humans and dogs engage with each other in different training cultures and will include include companion dog training and the training of different types of working-dogs. Our methodology combines social scientific analysis of dog-human interaction with an innovative natural science method of assessing animal welfare - Qualitative Behaviour Assessment (QBA). QBA addresses the expressivity of animals (describing their demeanour as for example relaxed or anxious), and has been found to be both reliable and valid in a range of scientific animal welfare studies. Given its qualitative, relational conceptual basis this methodology is highly suited for integration with multi-species ethnographies. One of the benefits of this methodology is that, as far as is possible, it allows the experiences and welfare outcomes of human-animal relations to be explored from the animal’s as well as the human’s perspective. As well as breaking new ground methodologically, the research will work across disciplinary boundaries to make a significant contribution to our understanding of different forms of human-animal connectedness, the cultural practices through which they are created, and whether they are changing in line with the broader changes in human-animal relations identified by social theorists.