Thursday, May 8, 2014

Bringing canine science to the world: Prescott Breeden reveals the spark behind SPARCS

Bright spark: SPARCS founder Precott Breeden doing what I want to do right now!!!
Are dogs conscious and sentient beings?  Are they capable of empathy and theory of mind? How can we give dogs a better life? How does their biology influence their behaviour? These are big questions.

We've been fortunate enough to chat with US-based researcher Prescott Breeden to chat about the Society for the Promotion of Applied Research in Canine Science (SPARCS). SPARCS isn't just about good science - its about sharing knowledge. Specifically, knowledge about dogs. And that can have a massive impact on their welfare. 

The story behind SPARCS is inspirational.  And everyone - vets, vet students, pet owners, dog trainers, biologists, psychologists, YOU - can enjoy the benefits. In the words of canine scientist Mia Cobb, "its a bloody brilliant idea".

Who are you and what to do you?
I'm a biologist and graduate student at Arizona State University studying dog behavior.  My research primary interests are in ecology, evolutionary biology, emergent behavior, behavioral neuroscience, and biophysics. [Ed - And proving that you don't need to wait to graduate to take on the world - nice work!]

Prescott and Wotan.
How did the idea of SPARCS come about?
To be honest, SPARCS as it stands now is the product of an extremely fast evolution.  Initially I wanted to host a conference in my hometown of Seattle because I was frustrated that prominent speakers rarely made their way through my neck of the woods.  Knowing that there are others like myself who cannot afford the expenses of travel, I decided that I would not only gather an array of prominent scientists but that I would also broadcast the conference live.  Of course, I cannot lie that a large part of me just wanted to be a kid in a candy store and invite brilliant scientists to come to my town so I could learn from them.  

So I sat down with my mom and laid out what I wanted to do.  She probably had no idea what I was trying to accomplish but thanks to her generosity and support she agreed to finance our first conference and the invitations were sent out to the speakers [Ed - what an awesome mum!].  It was actually quite funny, as the speaker list began to fill out, one of the speakers asked me if I planned on having security present for the panel discussions.  

By the time we reached 8 speakers, I had somehow managed to build a speaker profile that was unheard of. Clive Wynne was massively important in this process.  Not only was he one of the first speakers to accept my invitation, but he spent hours with me designing the programs and helping reach out to other scientists.   He was the first person I asked to join the board of advisors and we agreed to have an equal number of psychologists and biologists to influence the board.  After all, what good are advisors that all hold the same biases?

By this point though, I was still calling SPARCS the “Seattle Pawsitive Association for Research in Canine Science”.  I knew I wanted to raise funds for researchers because getting funding as a canine scientist is extraordinarily difficult.  Truly, talk to graduate students and they will tell you how even $100 for dog treats is incredibly helpful for their research.  Outside of this, it was in Seattle and “Pawsitive” seemed like a good P word as any.  I believe it was about a month or two before the conference when my friend and mentor, Jim Russell, said that SPARCS was becoming something truly special and recommended the change to the Society for the Promotion of Applied Research in Canine Science.  It was the word “society” that made me realize that SPARCS could be more than just a one-off conference but rather a new paradigm in continuing education for everyone who passionately loves dogs and wants to learn more about them.  There are many things that inspire me about the success of SPARCS, but one of them is without a doubt the passion shared by these professors and researchers to want a new medium to reach out to the dog world with.  Thus the SPARCS Initiative finally took shape. 

Global reach: This is where SPARCS online conference attendees are coming from.
You broadcast your annual conference at no charge. This is incredibly generous - why so?

Generally speaking, it takes about 50 years for modern science to become popular knowledge.  A large reason for this is because scientists publish in journals with expensive paywalls and write in a language and style that is impossible of the general public to understand.  This timeline is further challenged by the woes of an increasing internet and cable TV medium where there is no system in place for ensuring the quality of information.  

I want people to be able to tune in with no payment gates, no membership requirements: just their computer or smart phone and their companion beside them so that they can learn from real scientists about what we know about dogs and what we still have yet to learn.  I want the dog-loving world to come together to a single place to learn from the best, united by our common love for dogs and our passion to give them the best life possible under our care.   

People want to be equipped with the most accurate and groundbreaking knowledge to inform the way that they train and live with their dogs, but nobody should be required to pay thousands of dollars to continue their education.  I believe that everyone in the world, whether dog owner, enthusiast, or professional, has the right to continuing education and so SPARCS is making the science accessible to enable this.

Can you tell us some of the hot topics in canine science at the moment?
Where to begin!  Just off the top of my head; have dogs co-evolved with humans?  Are dogs conscious and sentient beings?  Are they capable of empathy and theory of mind?  Are dogs really descended from wolves?  Do dogs form social relationships and attachments like people do?  Do we have reliable means to test the temperament of dogs?  What do we do with a dog population of 1 billion dogs and growing, with 85% of those dogs not under human reproductive control?  What are the causes of increasing bite statistics?  Is it breeding?  Training?  Life-style?  Are there ways to increase the adoption rates of dogs in shelters?  

I’m sure many readers will say there are incontrovertible answers to some of these questions however the fact is that there are brilliant scientists from every corner of the globe working day in and day out on these questions who are in tremendous disagreements. 

How can people get involved?
One of the best ways for people to get involved is to spread the word.  Last year we had over 20,000 viewers over 3 days watch from all around the world.  Australia and Iceland are not the easiest places to travel to (or out of) and so nothing brings me greater joy than reading the emails from low-income individuals who so rarely afforded the ability to learn from the best in canine science.  Perhaps my favorite email so far was from a veterinarian in Namibia who wanted to travel to SPARCS.  He was hoping we would have travel scholarships for third-world countries and it broke my heart that SPARCS simply doesn’t yet have the membership base to provide these kinds of opportunities. 

The next best way to get involved is to become a member. In only about 10 months we have already surpassed 400 members and so to all our current members who might be reading this, thank you, it is because of you that SPARCS is heading into its second annual conference with an even better line up of speakers than last year.  All of our videos are available online to all of our members.  

In celebration of our current content and the content we will be adding this year and in future years, we are launching a new website in June and soon after that we will be releasing SPARCS in French.  By the end of 2014, SPARCS will be available in both French and Spanish.  The more members we gain, the more we can reach out to non-English speaking countries and move the conference overseas.  

I want to bring SPARCS everywhere.  Australia, the UK, Europe, India, Japan, China, Russia, Africa.  As the world comes together, our resources will become less and less expensive and our ability to give out the largest grants in canine science to graduate students will become realized.  This has untold importance because it is these graduate students around the world that are the future of animal welfare.

Wow. That is some palpable passion there. Thanks Prescott for that incredible interview!