UBC researchers are looking for open-minded canine participants

Researchers at the University of British Columbia’s newly opened Human-Animal Interaction Lab are looking for four-legged participants. The goal: to understand the psyche of dogs, including what makes them happy

Researchers at British Columbia’s largest university want to tap into dog owners in a study designed to show what dogs are capable of.

This is the first time the University of British Columbia (UBC) has called on the public to bring their four-legged friends to the Human-Animal Interaction Lab, which opened Tuesday.

Dogs are believed to have lived alongside humans for tens of thousands of years, and during that time have developed remarkably strong habits of searching their handlers for various social cues, said Alexandra Protopopova, head of the lab and assistant professor in the Animal Welfare Division of the UBC program at the Faculty of Land and Food Systems.

“People definitely know that dogs look out for us. But I think they really underestimate how much,” she said. “We will ask the dog questions ourselves. We really want to know how they respond, regardless of the person.”

UBC animal welfare researcher Alexandra Protopopova interacts with students. about Alexandra Protopopova

Protopopova and her colleagues will ask these “questions” through a series of cognitive games and puzzles, often involving food.

The researchers hope to find out how receptive dogs are to learning new rules of the game and how mood affects their ability to navigate their surroundings.

As Protopopova put it, “How do you see the world solely from the dog’s perspective?”

What should dog owners expect?

The newly opened UBC lab has recently been refurbished and now includes special flooring, 360 degree cameras and two-way mirrors for observing the canines.

The experiments will never last more than an hour, and the researcher says they will never attempt to alter the human-animal bond.

Instead, dog owners stay alongside their pets at all times as they move through the lab.

A few lucky dogs are offered a plethora of toys, games, and treats to see how mood affects their cognitive abilities. Others are left in a basic environment. Protopopova, who is also a certified applied animal behaviorist, has spent her career studying domesticated animals, including how pets adapt to a changing climate.

UBC dog laboratory 2
The new Human-Animal Interaction Laboratory at UBC includes two-way mirrors to observe dogs as they go through multiple non-invasive cognitive experiments. Lexis Ly/UBC

Protopopova said the dogs would never be put in any uncomfortable situations.

“We will never add negative experiences with dogs,” she said. “We take this very, very seriously.”

In the future, canine cognition research should help improve the operations of animal shelters and provide insights to pet owners.

If everything goes according to plan, Protopopova and her colleagues hope to understand what triggers a good mood in dogs, why a good mood can be useful, and the best way for animal rights activists to ask dogs if they’re in a good mood.

Studies will also look at the use of trained therapy dogs and how to make the parenting relationship between children and dogs more comfortable for all involved.

What type of dogs are you looking for?

Protopopova said all dog breeds and sizes are welcome to apply to participate in the study, as long as the dogs are vaccinated and comfortable in new environments and novel situations.

Researchers will constantly monitor the dogs to look for signs of discomfort, and if a dog stops engaging in a game, they’ll take a break.

As the UBC team will conduct a series of non-invasive experiments, some participants will be asked to come for a session and others will be invited to return for multiple visits to the lab.

As the research progressed, Protopopova said they will ask owners of certain dog breeds to participate in the experiments to understand how this might affect dog cognition.

All dogs participating in the study will receive a certificate of participation and a photo with “canine graduation cap and sash if requested”.

“We want to make sure this is really fun,” she said.

Dog owners interested in doing research at UBC’s Human-Animal Interaction Lab are asked to fill out a questionnaire.

About Clayton Arredondo

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