What is my dog thinking?

Dr. Clive Wynne, UF animal behaviorist


Dr. Clive Wynne, UF animal behaviorist

Erica Brough/Staff Photographer
Published: Thursday, January 31, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 25, 2013 at 10:50 p.m.

After years of studying pigeons, Clive Wynne felt he still didn’t have enough to talk about with those who sat near him on airplanes. the behavioral psychology professor, who

Facts

Current Studies

Clive Wynne and his graduate students are constantly looking for dogs to participate in their research. Go to www.caninecognition.com to add your dog to the list of interested and available canines.
Canine Compulsive Disorder: Similar to obsessive compulsive disorder in humans, the canine version of this involves excessive tail-chasing or licking, for example. Researchers are looking at reasons behind the behaviors, as well as methods with which to treat them.
Thunderphobia: This study aims to help dogs overcome their fear of thunder, fireworks and other sudden noises.
Play habits: Researchers with this project are looking for owners with multiple dogs. Why do they play? When do they play?
Sniffer Dogs: The methods used to train dogs to sniff out explosives, drugs or even medical conditions haven’t changed for decades and have never been subjected to scientific analysis. Maybe there’s a better way?

has long been intrigued by the relationship between humans and animals, proved in 1990 that pigeons have some capacity to reason. But it wasn’t enough.

“At some point, I suddenly realized that if I’m so interested in the relationship that people and animals have, there’s no animal we’ve had a longer relationship with than the dog,” he says.

Since getting his Ph.d. from Edinburgh University in Scotland in 1986, Wynne studied animal behavior in Britain and Germany. Following a stop in Australia to research marsupials, Wynne came to Gainesville and the University of Florida in 2002.

Now, armed with a fleet of graduate student researchers, Wynne studies pet dogs’ reactions and behaviors at the UF Canine Cognition & Behavior Lab. While most dog owners know there’s something special about their four-legged friends, very little of their behavior has been scientifically studied or understood.

Wynne compared dogs’ reactions to human cues to those of captive wolves at a sanctuary in Indiana to show that, contrary to what many owners think, dogs are not specially programmed to interact with people on a different level. the wolves performed as well, if not better, than household dogs on the tests, showing that canine behavior comes from genetic dispositions instead of human interactions. In his 2004 book, “Do animals think?” Wynne took aim at the romantic notion of crediting pets with human qualities. While animals might appear and act uncannily human at times, Wynne says that is strictly in appearance only.

“You are your dog’s project,” he says.

“He really has nothing to do all day but watch your every move and try to detect even the smallest difference in your activities that could predict that something is about to happen to his benefit.”

Wynne, who hails from the isle of Wight off the southern coast of england, finds himself drawing from many different disciplines when trying to learn about dogs. Currently researching a book about the origin of dogs, he has relied on experts in zoology, agriculture, archaeology, anthropology and veterinary medicine.

“One needs to try and be an expert in a diverse range of sciences,” Wynne says. “dog-ology, or dog science, is one of those things that exist in the gaps between several established areas of science.”

Currently, Wynne oversees several projects at the Canine Cognition & Behavioral Lab, which largely relies on local shelters and owners who are willing to volunteer their animals for interactive sessions.

Because the research is based in psychology, Wynne is quick to add that there are no drug treatments or punishments for bad behavior. instead, researchers interact with dogs similar to how they might work with children — reward the good and ignore the less suitable reactions.

“Everything we do is completely behavioral,” Wynne says. “Everything we do is gentle and designed to be fun. there’s no coercion in anything we do.” Humans’ love for dogs is well-documented, but why do they seem to love us back? One of Wynne’s students is looking at the relationship from canines’ perspective. do dogs really listen to our schmoozy baby talk?

“Dogs like being petted, they like being touched, and they certainly like being given treats, but it doesn’t look like the talk is all that interesting,” Wynne says. “Obviously, we’re assuming you’re not saying one of the magic words like walk, food or squirrel.”

That being said, Wynne says he doesn’t plan to give his dog, Xephos, the silent treatment.

“She sort of looks like she’s listening, so I can pretend I don’t know about the research,” he says with a laugh. “That bond is just too important.”

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