Ethology, you might have heard the word before but you are still not sure what that means? And dog science? What does your fluffy have to do with science at all? Keep reading and we will answer these questions.
So, what is ethology?
Ethology is the science of studying animals’ behavior in their natural environment. More precisely, it focuses on understanding the evolutionary origin, advantages, and function of the behavior.
Understanding animal behavior is, of course, crucial for anyone interested in animal training. But why would an ethologist want to study dogs?
Studying dogs in their natural environment
Dogs have evolved to survive in human society. During the domestication process, our living room turned in to their natural environment. This gives us a unique opportunity to study the evolutionary basis of certain social behaviors.
Okay, but why study dogs?
In the past, when trying to understand human behavior, scientists often conducted comparisons between infants, chimpanzees and bonobos. The rationale behind this was the high genetical similarities between our species. However, these studies often ignored the fact that apes were not exposed to the same stimuli as babies. On the other hand, dogs are considered by most owners as part of their family. Many owners directly speak with their dogs and even refer to their pets as their “furry kids”. So, unlike apes kept in a cage, young puppies develop in an environment that is very similar to that of an infant.
Lab dogs: past and present
Early behavioral and physiological studies occasionally used dogs as laboratory animals. These were traditionally beagles kept in kennels with very little human interaction and often exposed to procedures that today would be considered unethical.
Nowadays, more scientists are turning to dogs as animal models for understanding human behavior. But the dogs in these experiments are no longer passive subjects but are engaging as willing participants.
So how does a dog lab work?
In the Family Dog Project, which is part of the Ethology Department at ELTE University, dog owners volunteer to participate in experiments with their pets. The dogs quickly learn that there is always a treat or toy waiting for them in the lab if they just manage to solve a task. Dogs would often pool their owner enthusiastically to enter the lab and then refuse to leave. For us, as scientists, there is no greater pleasure than working together with our best friends to solving some of the biggest mysteries of life.