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PI Interview

Shaping Inter-species Connectedness : An Interview with Professor Nickie Charles

What are your aims and motivations for this project?
The project aims to explore how different dog training cultures and the practices they involve shape the relationship between dog and human handler. We’re looking at a range of different training cultures, including working dogs and companion dogs, in order to understand the differences between them, not only in the training methods they use but also in the way they understand dogs, the place dogs occupy in relation to their human handler, and how different training methods and programmes relate to the the end product of the training – a human-dog partnership that is fit for purpose. The motivation for undertaking this research arises from claims that human-animal relations are changing and that these changes are affecting the ways we interact with animals and how we train them.
There is an argument that as a society we are moving towards a different relationship with our companion animals. The scholar Donna Haraway speaks about ‘becoming with’. What does it mean when we speak of shifting forms of human-animal relations?
This question has several parts. Let me take the last part first. Scholars argue that human-animal relations in Western societies are undergoing shifts such that people are more respectful of animals and recognise their capacities and qualities. Animals are no longer regarded as inferior to and fundamentally different from humans. This is particularly evident in how we engage with companion animals who are increasingly regarded as full members of our families rather than as property with which we can do what we like, although legally of course that is still their status. The notion of ‘becoming with’ is an interesting way of thinking about our relationships with other animals which foregrounds the embodied nature of our relating. As I understand it, it refers to how we are affected by and in turn affect those with whom we engage, in other words how both parties to a relationship are changed through their relating; moreover the affecting and being affected by are embodied. An example from something that Vincianne Despret has written is the way Konrad Lorenz, in response to the newly-hatched goslings who followed him around as if he were their mother, in some ways became that mother and, as the goslings attuned themselves to him in a bodily way, by running after him wherever he went, he also attuned himself to their needs. In this way he and they together became something different from what they had been separately, and this something involved an affective attunement each to the other. In the same way we become with our companion animals; if we share our lives with a dog we will begin to apprehend the world differently, in ways which share something with the way a dog apprehends and engages with the world.
There is a wonderful book by Vincianne Despret which explores this becoming with and how we would understand animals differently if we thought from them and through them rather than from our own, human-centric perspectives.
The team have chosen to use an innovative methodology for this project, could you say something about how this enhances the ability of the project to capture the shifting forms of human/non-human relations ?
You’re referring to our commitment to multi-species ethnography and the use of Qualitative Behaviour Assessment as part of that. In undertaking a series of multi-species ethnographies we’re committed to engaging with all participants in the research setting, human and animal, as actively shaping the relations and interactions that we observe. So as well as talking to the people involved we’re paying attention to the dogs, what they’re doing and how they’re engaging with each other and with their human trainers and handlers. In order to capture some of this we’re using video recordings and still photographs so that we can augment our observations with a visual record of what was happening. We’re also interviewing the people involved so as to explore their understandings of the relationship they have with their dog/s and how it’s shaped by training and other activities in which they engage together. The Qualitative Behaviour Assessment comes into play with an analysis of video clips by a panel. This analysis will enable us to understand how the dogs were experiencing the moments that were captured on video. This method was developed by Francoise Wemelsfelder, the project consultant, and has been used widely to assess the welfare of farmed animals. This is the first time it has been used systematically to assess the welfare of dogs in a training situation so we are very excited to have her on board. This methodology will allow us not only to understand the dog-human relationship from the point of view of the human but also to begin to appreciate what it looks like from the point of view of the dog. In this sense we are using a post-humanist methodology as we are not centring the experiences of the human.
Books and articles referred to:
Despret, V (2004) ‘The body we care for: Figures of anthropo-zoo-genesis’ in Body & Society, 10(2–3): 111–134

Despret, V (2016) What would animals say if we asked the right questions?, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press