What’s up, dog?

Just 30 years ago, people laughed at the idea of animals having feelings, but now researchers are studying how joy and stress manifest in dogs.

Lila, a black Labrador, has been left alone in a room. She hangs her head, and presses her nose against the door. Her owner, Marita Yli-Huhtala, monitors the situation via a video feed and evaluates her dog’s state of mind on a tablet: not afraid or anxious, perhaps a little bored and unhappy.

After a moment, Yli-Huhtala re-enters the room, and the delighted dog runs to her, tail wagging wildly. Now the dog’s feelings will be assessed again.

In addition to her owner, Lila’s state of mind is monitored by technology. The dog is wearing a collar and a heart rate belt, with four devices attached to them, measuring her EKG, respiration, movement, activity and pose.

Lila and approximately 40 other dogs are participating in a study where they are put in situations that evoke a range of emotions, such as their owner petting them, giving treats, leaving the room and returning. At the end, a doll positioned on a remote-controlled car bursts out of a closet.

THE CANINE MIND GROUP COLLECTS DATA

You can’t ask a dog to tell you how it is feeling. It’s possible to interpret its emotions from behaviour and body language, but stress or chronic pain may not be apparent. Behavioural problems in many pets could be alleviated if their owners understood what was wrong with them.

An elevated heart rate can tell us that a dog is experiencing a powerful emotion, but not whether it is excitement or stress. An algorithm could be able to differentiate between positive and negative feelings, provided a sufficient amount of data is available.

These dog studies are conducted by the Canine Mind research group at the University of Helsinki’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. The data accrued from the studies is sent to the Tampere University of Technology, where it is studied by artificial intelligence.

In the future, it may be possible to buy a device that can interpret a dog’s emotions for its owner.

NOT EVEN PAIN

The study of animal emotions is a relatively new field. When Outi Vainio, professor of veterinary pharmacology, who heads the research group, began her research into pain and feelings in animals 30 years ago, many thought she was anthropomorphising her research subjects. People thought of emotions as exclusively human characteristics, and many believed animals could not even feel pain. A researcher talking about animal emotions was not taken seriously.

Today, the academic community agrees that animals do feel pain and they do experience emotions. Even still, the study of animal emotions is often met with belittling and laughter.

“It seems that the concept of emotions among animals somehow infringes upon the humanity of its most vehement opponents. We humans are not so special after all. The more information we gain, the smaller the differences between humans and animals turn out to be,” Vainio explains.

Understanding the ways the minds of animals work also tells us about our own roots, our minds and our capacity for knowledge. By studying cognitive disorders among animals we may discover new ways of helping people with similar problems.

EXPRESSIONS AND EYE MOVEMENTS

Vainio’s research group has made a group of people and dogs look at the same set of images and used an eye-tracking camera to measure which feature of the images caught the viewers’ attention. Both humans and dogs most frequently looked at faces, especially eyes. The difference was that dogs spent the longest time looking at images of social interaction between humans, while the human subjects looked at dog interactions the most.

“Apparently it’s more difficult to understand the interactions of another species, so more time is needed to process the image,” posits Vainio.

Occasionally the research results may seem obvious to dog owners. Like the finding that animals have expressions and can read them from human faces. However, there has previously been no scientific data to back up this observation.

A pioneer of canine eye tracking is Sanni Somppi, who is currently working on a doctoral dissertation on the topic. But now she is watching Lila’s behaviour on a monitor in the observation room.

Together with her owner, Lila will spend nearly an hour in the ascetically furnished room with only an armchair and a rug, where nothing happens for most of the time.

“In eye tracking, we count milliseconds. This study has a more relaxed pace. We have to spend at least five minutes on each activity to obtain sufficient data,” Somppi explains.

MIXED POO A MYSTERY

We have been studying the intelligence, memory and problem-solving skills of animals for longer than their emotions. A well-known experiment is the mirror test, intended to determine whether an animal is aware of itself as an individual apart from others. In the test, a mark is painted on the animal in a spot that it can only see via a mirror. If it begins to look for the mark on its own body, it is considered to have passed the mirror test.

Dogs and cats have failed the mirror test, but Vainio believes that this does not necessary prove that they do not recognise themselves as individuals. It’s possible that the mirror test is better suited to visually oriented species. Dogs, who exist in a world of smells, could fare better with an olfactory identification test.

This has already been studied. Dogs have been given a series of smell samples, one with their own faeces, one with the faeces from another dog, and a mixture. All dogs recognised the samples without fail, and were profoundly confused by the mixed poo. This result should come as no surprise to dog owners. Both cats and dogs mark their territories with scent traces to communicate to others.

“We may have become overly stuck in old methods in our research. The same experiment may not work for all species,” Vainio muses.

JEALOUS MUCH?

The prevailing understanding is that at least mammals and birds experience core emotions, such as joy, grief, hate and fear, as intensely as humans. However, they seem to lack more complex emotions that require conscious thinking, such as revenge, guilt or jealousy.

“On the other hand, these understandings may change as we conduct more research. I have two cats, and one of them always seems to show up when I’m doing something with the other,” Vainio says.

Vainio would like to also study other animals in addition to dogs, such as cats and horses. Her research group has already conducted pilot studies on elephants and rats. However, it has been easiest to attain funding for canine research. In addition, eye tracking cameras designed for humans can also be used on dogs, but they cannot be adapted to suit cats or horses.

A 240 KILOMETER TRIP FOR THE TEST

The test is over. Marita Yli-Huhtala and Lila get ready for their 240-kilometer trip back home. They came to Helsinki specifically to take part in the study. Lila has remained calm throughout the test, and is no longer even worried about the strange doll.

“You’re a real model dog,” praises Sanni Somppi while petting Lila.

Lila is no stranger to tests and hobbies – her owner has taken her to obedience trials, agility tracks as well as search and tracking training, just to name a few.

This is not the first time Yli-Huhtala has brought her dogs to studies at the University. A Master of Science (Technology) by training, she is currently pursuing a further vocational qualification as an animal trainer, so she is very interested in animal behaviour.

“This also gave me more insight into my own dog.”

A RELAXED HEART IS LIKE JAZZ

Not all dogs are as comfortable in a research setting. Somppi mentions one dog, who was terribly shaken by the sudden appearance of the doll on the remote-control car. In the preliminary evaluation, the owner had indicated that the dog was very brave and unafraid by nature. She considered rewriting the dog’s forms entirely.

Owners may not be able to read their dogs correctly. Researchers are looking forward to contrasting the owners’ assessments of the dogs’ emotional state with the heartbeat and heart rate readings gleaned from the instruments.

From studies in humans, we know that the heart rate of a stressed person is very steady, the heart beats like a drum in a marching band. A relaxed person – or animal – has more variety in their heart rate, more akin to jazz.

OUR UNKNOWN BEASTS

Turre ja Toivoset 2.0 is a two-year research project which will conclude at the end of this year. The results will be published in the coming years.

Outi Vainio finds it astounding how little cats and dogs, our most common pets, have been studied.

“There are approximately 800,000 dogs in Finland, most of whom live in families, share our homes, eat the same food as us.” Many of them are considered members of our families.

Considering this, we still know little about them.

“It’s amazing that we keep these unknown beasts in our homes. Cats and dogs may seem like cuddly sweethearts, but their original traits remain.

We should study the way animal minds work, because it puts the human species in its correct context among others,” says Vainio. If we can understand how similar we all are underneath, it may help people respect animals and cherish them.

“This should reflect on how we treat all animals – not just our pets, but also production animals and fish. They deserve better treatment than they currently receive.”

 

This article was published in Finnish in the Y/06/18 issue of Yliopisto magazine.

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