Saturday, May 3, 2014

Confessions of a canine scientist: Interview with the awesome Mia Cobb

Canine researcher and science communicator Mia Cobb (photo courtesy Mel Travis,

Mia Cobb is a canine researcher and science communicator who according to the blog she co-writes says yes too often...but often enjoys the experiences this brings her way. She said yes to an interview with SAT. Mia is one of those people who is a positive force - she's always moving, always doing something to benefit animals, and is equipped with a sharp mind to question our assumptions, to analyse the science and to consider how we apply science to real life. 

Tell us a bit about who you are and what you do.

I have previously worked in animal shelter and working dog organisations. Growing up I had lots of different pets and always found animals fascinating. My education in science at university focused on zoology (animal behaviour and ecology) and my work experiences since then have led me to be very interested in animal welfare. I’m particularly interested in the welfare of our working and sporting dogs and how industry and scientists can work together to improve the welfare of these diverse and valuable dogs.

You’re passionate about all things canine, as evidenced by your research focus and your fantastic blog, Do you believe in dog? What is it about dogs that gets you?

Ah – dogs! Their diversity, adaptability and resilience is amazing. And of course – so much of this research is not just about dogs, but about dogs and the way they interact with people. As companions, as co-workers, as guardians – I think they have an incredible history and future with us. It would be nice to have a better understanding of the world from their point of view.

How do dogs see the world? (photo courtesy Mel Travis,
As a welfare science consultant, what sort of projects have you worked on?

I have been involved with some projects that were supported by the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy – a federal government initiative to improve the welfare of all animals in Australia. The first project was to benchmark the welfare of Australia’s working and sporting dogs, and then there was a follow up project to extend those findings into a strategic action plan to act as an industry road map to better working and sporting dog welfare. I’ve also been involved in some consultancy work, advising organisations and companies on things like kennel enrichment and facility design.

You founded the Working Dog Alliance which recently hosted a successful inaugural conference. What are the major welfare problems faced by working dogs in particular?

There are a couple of ways to look at the issues related to the welfare of working dogs: one is to look at the big picture efficiency of the industry sectors, the other is to look at the experiences of individual dogs.

Our benchmarking survey showed us that across the private (e.g. farm and guard), government (e.g. police, customs, quarantine, military), assistance (e.g. guide/seeing eye, assistance, hearing) and sporting (e.g. racing greyhounds) sectors, a 50-70% fail rate is normal. That means that in a litter of 10 puppies, only 3-5 are expected to be successful at working/racing for the purpose they were bred for. That’s a pretty low success rate!

For some sectors, the consequences of not being successful mean a career change for the dog to being a pet; in other sectors, the outcomes are less positive. There are lots of reasons dogs don’t succeed, these can relate to things like genetics, physical health, puppy raising, selection assessments, training techniques and trainer education.

On an individual level, our broadening understanding of animal cognition, motivation, social needs and complex behaviours over the last thirty years mean that we now accept animals can feel pain, be fearful and experience various forms of pleasure. So the way we house, care for, handle, train and manage unsuccessful dogs can have significant impacts on individual dog welfare.

What can we do about these?

Our research showed some key areas for improvement and we used these along with extensive investigation into what else is happening worldwide to put together the Australian Working Dog Industry Action Plan.

The plan can be summarised by its three main goals:

  1. Engage all industry stakeholders in a collaborative partnership, ensuring the optimised performance, productivity and sustainable development of the Australian Working Dog Industry.
  2. Promote an evidence-based best practice industry environment with an ethos of continuous quality improvement.
  3. Facilitate open communication and knowledge sharing between all working dog stakeholders on a national scale.

We were surprised by how little information sharing was taking place within and between industry sectors and by the absence of cross-sectoral, or whole-industry, professional networking and development opportunities there were for breeders, trainers, kennel staff, vets and others working in this field. That’s one of the key reasons we developed the Working Dog Conference in 2013 and made most of the content available online afterwards.

Some scholars claim that anthropomorphism is unscientific or downright misleading. What is your stance on this and why?

Great question! My blogging partner, Julie Hecht, actually studies anthropomorphism and what triggers us to assign human qualities to non-human animals – such an interesting topic! I think we do best by dogs when we consider their point of view first. I think this can be informed by considering what humans might think or feel, but that we can’t ignore major differences between our species (for example, we live in a very visual world, dogs are thought to similarly experience smell as their primary sense). We see this reflected in the scientific research.

Can you relate to this pic? Does anyone else get to work with their dogs? (photo courtesy Mel Travis,
Sometimes we find striking similarities between humans and dogs (perhaps in terms of physiological responses to stressful situations, like the way we respond to being separated from significant companions) and other times we see differences (for example the way humans attribute guilt to dogs, but what we’re seeing is most probably just dogs reacting to our behaviour).

You’ve written much about the human-animal bond. Why is this important?

Our lives with animals are just that – people and animals. Companion animals are dependent on us to care for them, working animals perform tasks we consider important. Our impact on the environment means we are also impacting wildlife by reducing their natural habitat or learning to live with them as they adapt to urbanised areas. I find it interesting that not all people feel the same way about animals – some are ambivalent, others are the opposite end of the spectrum and feel very passionately about the rights of animals.

I am fascinated by animals, their behaviour, our behaviour around them, the feelings they evoke in us and the ways we care for and utilise them in our lives. Science offers a wonderful framework to ask questions and explore these relationships. I guess I get excited by the topics and want everyone else to know about them too! So much excellent research is shared in academic journals but is not readily available to the public. Writing about it on a blog can help it jump out of the journals where everyone can know about it.

You’ve been podcasting for Human Animal Science. Who has been your favourite interview and why?

Oh no! You can’t ask me that! We’ve been so lucky to speak with so many wonderful people about fascinating areas of research… I suppose if I had to choose, I’d probably say Hal Herzog, who is recognised as one of the earlier researcher to focus on the study of human-animal interactions, or  Anthrozoology. Our conversation with him jumped from pets to zoos and many things in between. He was very easy to speak to (for a bit of a rock star in the field!).

Mia with companions. (photo courtesy Mel Travis,
Have you got any tips for veterinarians and vet students around improving our approach to working dogs?

Ooh! There’s so much exciting new research happening in the field of working dog and canine performance science right now – I guess I’d encourage them to stay abreast as our understanding of how health, stress, welfare and performance all relate to each other grows. Be aware that some people regard their working dog as a tool to get the job done while others consider them a vital companion – and being sensitive to their point of view if it differs to your own. We know from our research that most working dog owners take their dogs to see a vet at least annually, making vets one of the most important sources of new information and education for many working dog trainers and handlers. Don’t underestimate the importance of the annual health check for these dogs and owners!

Finally, you wrote a beautiful post about the loss of your dog Elke which was very moving and informative. How do you think your relationship with her changed you as a person?

Elke, a companion, muse and inspiration.
I’ve shared my life with many dogs. Hundreds up hundreds of them. Elke was the first dog I have had from a young pup (she was a cruelty case that came through the RSPCA when I was working there) all the way through to old age. So she will always be very special to me. She was a significant part of the landscape of my life – she was there when I moved out of home, there when my partner proposed to me, there when we brought our baby home, there whenever an apple was bitten into! So many memories of my bouncy, spotty dog. [To read Mia's very moving post, visit here].

Sharing a cuddle with the kids.
How did she change me as person? Hmmm… Like most dogs, she embraced every day full of energy and enthusiasm. I like to think she left me with some of that optimism – and I’ll keep it focussed on a brighter future for all dogs.

Thank you Mia for sharing this with us. If you are keen to read or hear more of Mia's work, head on over to Do You Believe in Dog? or Human Animal Science to check out some brilliant podcasts. You can also check out the Society for the Promotion of Applied Science in Canine Research page here.