Love me, love my dog

“From cadavers to collaborators in little more than a hundred years”: this is how the zoologist and science writer Jules Howard describes the greatly transformed role of dogs in scientific research over time. In Wonderdog: How the science of dogs changed the science of lifehe explores how dogs have been studied, carving out a new niche in the popular practice of writing about dog cognition. “The more compassionate we have become in our explorations into the minds of dogs, the more intelligent they have shown us to be”, Howard says.

Mercifully, he makes a compassionate choice of his own. He tucks away in footnotes and endnotes the preponderance of “gory details” of the abuse suffered over the years by dogs used as research subjects. Coping with what he does include is challenging enough. Ivan Pavlov’s discovery of classical conditioning in the late nineteenth century is well known: dogs were trained to associate the sound of a buzzer or whistle (though not a bell, as is often imagined) with food, and would salivate at hearing the sound stimulus even in the absence of the food. But how many of us remember what the dogs were forced to endure along the way?

Pavlov was primarily interested in the role of digestive juices in the body, and needed a way to track the amount produced by dogs. His solution was to collect the juices through a tube inserted into a fistula created in the dog’s body. These substances leaked out “over days or weeks … Many dogs would die during the course of these experiments. With little by way of anaesthesia or analgesics, all would suffer.”

Howard’s portrayals of the villains and heroes in the research world of the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries makes for fascinating reading. His chapter “The Brown Dog Affair” is a standout. Two Swedish women, Emilie Lind-af-Hageby and Leisa Katherine Schartau, enrolled in the London School of Medicine for Women in order to observe and describe vivisection procedures, ostensibly as students. In fact they were reported, galvanized by Lind-af-Hageby’s earlier visit to the laboratory of Louis Pasteur, where she witnessed extreme cruelty to animals. In 1903 the pair published their observations in The Shambles of Science: Extracts from the diary of two students of physiology. This volume became “an instant hit”, perhaps especially because of the chapter that featured a mongrel they called Brown Dog.

Brown Dog endured a procedure – a repeat procedure, because the previous attempt had failed – meant to demonstrate to students that salivary pressure and blood pressure operate independently. He was affixed to a board and tightly muzzled. A large incision was made in his neck. “In his struggles”, Lind-af-Hageby and Schartau wrote, “he again and again lifts his body from the board, and makes powerful attempts to get free.” Following the demonstration, the dog was killed. A firestorm ensued when this material went public; In 1906 a statue was erected of a Brown Dog at the Latchmere Recreation Ground in Battersea. It a “lightning rod”, with became and medical researchers in violent opposition.

Gradually things got better for dogs – though with missteps along the way. In 1947 the Swiss ethologist Rudolph Schenkel published a “ground-breaking account” that firmly connected dogs with wolves and caused people to see dogs in our homes as wishing to be the alpha, requiring us to apply “brute strength, aggression, bullying, and often … force”. But the wolves Schenkel had observed were captive, so he misunderstood the social dynamics in wild wolf packs, which are organized not around alphas, but around the family. A brighter spot came through the work of the Americans John Scott and John Fuller, who “wrote the manual on the life events that shape the personalities of adult dogs”. This pair advocated for a far kinder approach: keeping puppies with their mothers longer for their emotional wellbeing and exposing young dogs to all manner of persons, noises and objects during a sensitive period when they can adjust and learn to cope. Howard effectively frames these research vignettes around evolving theoretical trends in psychology and ethology. Scott and Fuller, for instance, were at work when the grip of BF Skinner’s behaviorism – with its pulling away from free will – was beginning to fade. Konrad Lorenz’s research into the imprinting behavior of graylag goose chicks during a sensitive period was already well known.

The Family Dog Project ushered in a “new era in dog cognition studies”, beginning in 1994. Led by Hungarian scientists, including Vilmos Csányi and Ádám Miklósi, this work revealed how exquisitely affected dogs may be by their emotional environment, manifesting in states of joy or separation distress. Later, evidence emerged for the astonishing extent of canine cognition from the behavior of famous dogs such as Chaser, the border collie that recognized more than 1,000 toys and play objects by name, and grasped the meaning of some sentences. There’s relief on top of enjoyment in reading this part of the book, where dogs become valued research partners. Indeed, it’s downright soul-pleasing to peer over the shoulders of researchers like Alexandra Horowitz, in the US, who currently look at the “rapid signals and micromessages that dogs give one another” during play in natural settings such as dog parks.

Howard writes, however, as if the time of abuse of laboratory dogs is over. His conclusion that the work of Scott and Fuller “would forever change the fortunes of dogs used in research” is all too easily rebutted. To take just one example, I have written about the suffering of dogs bred in a US university laboratory to exhibit symptoms of muscular dystrophy (MD), including severe muscle weakness. Their lives were described in a Houston newspaper as ones of “general misery”. Moreover, the dog form of MD doesn’t fully track the human form, so the research is of limited use, even apart from the cruelty. At another US university a breeding colony of dogs has been established for use as animal models for MD, then experimented on via gene therapy. The notion that animals used in medical research, including dogs, universally receive “appropriate care administered under the watchful eyes of ethics boards” is a myth.

Howard finishes by asking if dogs love. The evidence on multiple fronts pushes towards a vigorous “yes”: imaging data showing how dog brains light up when dogs reunite with their favorite people, or on hearing human crying and laughter; hormonal data mapping a cascade of the hormone oxytocin when humans and dogs maintain eye contact; And, of course, just opening our eyes to the visible expression of dog emotions. In concluding “That dogs feel love like we do is no longer an outlier’s opinion”, Howard acknowledges that he has been sceptical in the past on this topic. “My logic was faulty … gracefully, warmly, joyfully – I give in.”

Still, in an essay written to accompany the book’s publication, Howard does remain sceptical about the expression of grief in animals. That’s too bad, because it’s the very experience of loving someone that may lead to a dog grieving a loss. Still, his transformed view of love is a fitting end to an account describing the arc of dog research as bending towards just treatment for dogs. We are not there yet – not as fully as Jules Howard would have us believe – but for humans’ best friend there is much reason to hope.

Barbara J. Kingis the author ofAnimals’ Best Friends: Putting compassion to work for animals in captivity and in the wild2021

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