A Conversation with Mia Cobb

On Wednesday I covered Mia Cobb’s new paper on working dogs and canine performance science. Mia's research has the potential to have a big impact on the lives of working dogs. She kindly agreed to talk to me about working dogs, animal welfare, and her new puppy Rudy.

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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How can we improve the training of working dogs?

One of the key things that would help to improve the success rates of trainee working dogs would be wider recognition of the sum of all the parts that make a successful working dog. It’s not just the training methods used, it’s not just the genetics, it’s also the socialization and puppy raising process, the diet and health management, it’s the way dogs are housed, the human and canine company they keep, the opportunities they have for rest and play as well as learn, that is relevant to a successful working dog. 

It can be easy for both scientists and practitioners to focus on just one element of the process – like breeding for sound health, or training for continued attention – which is important, but we all benefit enormously from stepping back and acknowledging the relevance of all the other pieces of the puzzle that contribute to successful working dogs. More directly, I think that improving our understanding of the relationship between training methods, canine stress, welfare, learning and performance with further research will help us understand what is most important for the best training and performance outcomes in dogs.

Canine performance science, working dog welfare & performance
Mia with Caleb in 2014 (also top). Photos: Mel Travis
Scientists can help by making their findings easily accessible to practitioners, through blogs (like Do You Believe in Dog?) and social media. Practitioners, people such as trainers and breeders, can also commit to staying abreast of the latest research by following research-sharing blogs (like Companion Animal Psychology and Do You Believe in Dog?), attending relevant conferences to share their own great ideas, experiences and practices with others, and making the most of online learning opportunities (like SPARCS or E-training for dogs).

Close collaboration between practitioners and scientists will pave the way to best practice training of working dogs. Combining the theoretical with the practical and having a fast-track opportunity for feedback between them is critical. Always being open to learning more, asking ourselves hard questions and considering new ways to approach old challenges will definitely help!

What skills or qualities should we look for in the people who train them?

Previous research has shown us that good dog trainers need to be consistent in their behaviour, engage well with dogs (keep their attention) and optimise the timing of cues and rewards. There’s more and more research emerging that shows us the attachment between a dog and their trainer/handler is important to dogs – they’re not just a tool anyone can take off the shelf and operate with the same level of proficiency. This can have real-world implications for the way working dog programs are run – one dog may have three handlers, but not work to the same standard for each one of them. This reduced performance may or may not be acceptable, depending on the work the dog is used for.

Story on working dogs & canine science. Photo: Mel Travis
Rudy. Photo: Mel Travis
A relevant and exciting new area of research that’s being tackled by the University of Sydney in Australia under the guidance of well-respected Professor Paul McGreevy is why are some people just better with dogs? What are the skills of successful ‘dogmanship’ that allows some people to communicate and read dogs so well and others not? Paul’s research group are trying to characterise the personality profiles, training techniques and other traits of successful trainers and how these traits relate to dogs’ arousal and emotions. I think their findings will be very interesting and relevant to working dog groups looking at new (human!) training recruits.

How did you get interested in working dogs?

After I graduated with my Bachelor of Science (Honours) in Zoology, I worked and travelled overseas for a year before working in Melbourne’s largest animal shelter which instilled in me the importance of animal welfare and the relevance of people’s role as caretakers. A couple of years later, I moved to working at Australia’s largest guide dog [seeing eye dog] facility. My role with Guide Dogs was as the Training Kennel and Veterinary Clinic Manager. I saw dogs not coping so well with the transition to kennel life after their puppy raising period and wondered if a structured enrichment program could help them to manage the transition better and achieve improved outcomes in their assessment and training tasks.

Because of my education, I turned to the scientific literature seeking an answer to the question, but while different elements of enrichment had been valued (like music, smells, toys, etc.), no one had tested a structured program in a real-life setting. So, with my employer’s support, I sought supervision through my former university, designed an experiment and started my PhD work part-time, while I was working full time. From there I got involved in the federal government’s Australian Animal Welfare Strategy (AAWS), leading the working group responsible for working dog welfare.

Some of my co-authors on this paper and I conducted some national benchmarking and strategic planning projects for the federal government that gave us better insight into other farm, security, government, assistance and racing dog welfare issues. I guess my education, work experience and personal interests all aligned, resulting in me wanting to better understand the links between working dog welfare and performance.

In your paper, you talk about how public perceptions will increasingly influence the treatment of working dogs. What concerns do you think the general public has about working dog welfare?

Photo of Mia and Rudy by Mel Travis What About Charlie?
Mia, Rudy & Melbourne. Photo: Mel Travis
Something that surprises me is how many people DON’T think about working dog welfare! Nearly everyone knows they exist – you’ve seen a guide dog [seeing eye dog] helping someone to walk safely down the street, or a sniffer dog at the airport and you know of racing greyhounds and livestock herding dogs. We’ve seen police dogs at music festivals sniffing out drugs on TV and also the military dogs finding explosives in war zones. But not many people actually stop to think about how they are bred, raised, trained, how they live and what happens to the dogs when they aren’t suitable or retired from work. When I speak to people and they start asking these questions, the answers often concern them.

Another part of my PhD research (currently in prep for publication) asked people how important the welfare of dogs is to them. An overwhelming majority (>90%) of respondents from around the world said it was important or very important to them. It wasn’t that long ago that people didn’t know or care about how their meat was raised, yet we’ve seen a recent trend to free range systems over factory farming because of public opinion. In Australia, we’ve had an entire export industry put on hold because a television program aired a damning expose showing that exported cattle were treated inhumanely.

One of the main points of the recent manuscript is to highlight that it’s important to the industry’s future to identify and be pro-active in overcoming any real and perceived animal welfare issues now, because it’s inevitable that the public’s focus will soon shift from the welfare of livestock animals in circuses and zoos, to other utility animal roles, like working dogs. Certainly in my personal conversations, the question that gets people most concerned is what happens to the unsuccessful dogs? Because generally more than half of the dogs bred for working and sporting roles aren’t fast enough or successful enough in training.

In 2013, you co-founded the Australian Working Dog Alliance. What does the Alliance do?

Canine scientist & her dog, photo by Mel Travis What About Charlie?
Photo: Mia and Rudy. Photo: Mel Travis
The Alliance has been set up to help the working dog industry. After we conducted the benchmarking and strategic planning projects for the federal government, the AAWS was sadly disbanded due to a change of government. Rather than lose all the good will we had raised from industry stakeholders (not just breeders and trainers of working and sporting dogs, but kennel facility employees, puppy raisers, veterinarians, canine scientists, working dog handlers, representatives from state government who are directly involved in legislating animal welfare requirements and animal welfare agencies advocating for social change), several of the working group members decided to set up the Alliance to keep driving the  initiatives of the strategic Australian Working Dog Industry Action Plan.

Its aim is to help connect all the industry stakeholders to work more effectively together towards better welfare and performance in their dogs. Help researchers gain better access to working dog populations to study, help industry have a voice to ask researchers to answer the questions they most want answered and help all those experienced practitioners share what is working well for them.

There are so many great things happening within our working dog industry, the Alliance wants to help share those good bits around, so everyone – the dogs and the people they work to assist – can benefit.

Your passion for communicating canine science comes across in your blog Do You Believe in Dog? (with Julie Hecht) and in the Human Animal Science podcast series. What do you enjoy most about this?

Helping the science get out in the world! I have enormous respect for my scientific colleagues and they do great work that I feel enthusiastic about. It’s a privilege to help their work get out of the peer-reviewed journals (where only other scientists can read them) and into the laps of everyone! Science has so much relevance in every walk of life, even if we don’t always realise it. I also think that by sharing the findings of my colleagues with the general public, we can help everyone recognise that science is interesting and useful, done by real people who want to answer questions that you have thought about too – not just the stereotypical lab coated, test tube wielding ‘scientist’ you might have seen in awkward science stock photography!

Tell me about the animals in your life.

Cat belonging to Mia Cobb, canine scientist & anthrozoologist
I currently share my home with my husband, our pre-school aged daughter, two cats (Tonto, who was found as a kitten in a cardboard box in a car park when I worked at the RSPCA, and Gidget, who was retired from her role as resident kennel cat at Guide Dogs Victoria one year ago after beheading a highly-venomous tiger snake. She came to us for intensive foster care because the snake bit her during their showdown – but once she recovered, she never left!) and we’ve recently welcomed a five month old shelter puppy Staghound into our lives, who revels in the name of Rudy and has THE  most incredible set of ears.

Thank you Mia!

Bio: Mia Cobb is a canine researcher and science communicator. She holds a BSc (Hons) with a focus on animal behaviour from Monash University and is nearing completion of a PhD researching the welfare, enrichment and work performance of kennelled working dogs as part of the Anthrozoology Research Group in Australia. Cobb’s work in various animal industry contexts, including over a decade in shelter and working dog facilities, has given her unique insight to a range of human-animal interactions and animal welfare issues. Cobb regularly attends and presents at scientific conferences, professional development workshops and public information/education sessions. She believes in helping scientific research escape academic journals and founded the popular canine science blog, Do You Believe in Dog? with fellow researcher, Julie Hecht, in 2012. She is also co-host of the Human Animal Science podcast series.Twitter https://twitter.com/DoUBelieveInDog Web: www.doyoubelieveindog.com

Cobb, M., Branson, N., McGreevy, P., Lill, A., & Bennett, P. (2015). The advent of canine performance science: Offering a sustainable future for working dogs Behavioural Processes, 110, 96-104 DOI: 10.1016/j.beproc.2014.10.012  
Photo Credits: Photo of Gidget, Mia Cobb; all other photos, Mel Travis, What About Charlie? Photography 

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