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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Animal Instincts

A recent research study by UC Davis scientists may help bomb-sniffing dogs and their handlers become more accurate in their searches.

Lisa Lit, a neurologist at the UC Davis Medical Clinic and a former dog-handler, recently led a study to see the behavior between bomb-sniffing dogs and human handlers. The study had dog-handling teams try to find scents of explosives or drugs in four different rooms. The rooms had mixture of decoy scents – sausages and tennis balls – and false clues like strips of red construction paper. In these rooms where there should not have been any target scents – drugs or explosives – dog-handling teams mistakenly alerted the researchers of the presence of dangerous scents.

This experiment shows that humans may influence dogs’ behaviors through subtle cues. Lit said the types of cues could not be confirmed in this particular study because the teams’ trials were not recorded by video.

“It may be possible, through careful video analysis, to find common handler behaviors or common dog behaviors that are predictive of correct alerts,” Lit said.

“The purpose is not to mitigate abilities of teams to find the scent; if we can address particularly common behaviors, we can train handlers and dogs to recognize these things [the cues],” Lit said.

Anita Oberbauer, animal science department chair at UC Davis, also believes that future studies, like Lit’s, can help identify cues handlers might give to their dogs.

“Many people in training techniques will inadvertently train dogs to respond to cues they don’t even know they are giving,” Oberbauer said.

Dogs need to be less guided by their handlers’ influence.

“Sometimes a dog might know that there’s nothing in the box, but the dog really wants to please the handler, so if the handler believes there’s something there, the dog will oblige,” Oberbauer said.

She said that cues given by humans to dogs may be inaudible or audible. It could be as simple as a swift intake of air, a shoulder drop, a certain step or even the change of tension on the leash.

Oberbauer said she believes that greater methods of training can definitely be uncovered.

“In training a guide dog, you train the dog to be wisely obedient, he needs to use his own cognitive judgment to make a decision,” Oberbauer said.

Julie Schweitzer, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, believes that the study could help future studies assessing what cues handlers give to dogs.

Schweitzer likened dogs’ abilities to pick up on cues to the abilities of children.

“Subtle, nonverbal cues – such as facial expressions and posture – whether positive or not, are given all the time and dogs, much like children, are able to pick up on them,” Schweitzer said.

The study hopes to further enhance our understanding of the dog and human relationship. Nevertheless, Lit said that the study was conducted in a controlled situation with manipulated variables and is not reflective real-world situations. She hopes to emphasize – through her studies – the unique nature between dogs and humans.

Lit said that dogs display amazing social interactive behaviors. She contrasted the fact dogs and cats respond in different ways when a human points. Lit said that when you point to a dog, it will look at where you are pointing; meanwhile a cat will just look at your finger.

Lit said that one of the most amazing things about dogs is just how strong their ability to pick up scents is. According to Lit, dogs can use their noses to find scents in the parts per trillion. To get an idea of just how strong this is, she referenced recent research which found that dogs might be able to tell if a person has colon cancer just from smelling that patient’s breath.

“The work we do will add something to our knowledge-base; the relationship between dogs and humans can be enjoyed in very positive ways, to benefit the dogs and human society as well,” Lit said.

ERIC C. LIPSKY can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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