One of the many ways that the domestic dog (Canis familiaris) is unique is in how many different roles that dogs have in human society. Most who read this blog share their lives with dogs who are well cared for and who are deeply loved. However, around the world, some dogs lack homes altogether and others live in shelters or in free-living groups. Horrifically, some dogs are used in ways that most rational people consider to be cruel, such as for dog fighting or as a food source. Between these extremes lie a number of roles in which dogs are trained for different sports or to work for us in varying capacities. Examples include Greyhound and sled dog racing, livestock guarding and herding, service/guide dog work, hunting, protection, search and rescue, and detection of drugs or contraband. It is without question that no other single non-human species exists in so many different contexts and is expected to conform to such a wide assemblage of functions, forms of housing and care, and types of relationships with people.
Perhaps one of the most iconic examples of a cherished canine role is that of Lassie, the fictional Hollywood Collie (a girl in the movie, but portrayed by several male dog actors). In addition to being depicted as a beloved family member, Lassie was the protector and emotional support dog (using today’s parlance) to little Timmy, a freckle-faced youngster with a predilection for tumbling into wells.
Was Lassie Happy in Her Work?
Although Lassie was a working girl of the mid-20th century, the welfare and life experience of dogs who are used for working purposes today is an important question. Dr. Mia Cobb of the University of Melbourne in Australia studies animal welfare science, with a specific focus on dogs. She and several colleagues are interested in how people perceive the welfare (aka quality of life) of dogs who serve various functions and live in different contexts. This is an important area of study because how we view dogs collectively as a society will directly impact laws and regulations that ultimately govern their care and treatment. Recently, a study conducted by this group asked the following question:
How might our perceptions of a dog’s welfare status vary with the dog’s function or role in society?
The researchers surveyed more than 2100 people, living in 12 different countries. The four-part survey collected the following information: (1) Whether the participant was a dog owner and if so, how they rated their own dog’s current welfare (defined as their dog’s quality of life) using a 5-point standard Likert scale; (2) participants then rated how they perceived the welfare of dogs in 17 different roles. Examples included fighting dogs, street dogs, hunting dogs, Greyhound and sled racing dogs, police dogs, service dogs, and pet dogs, among others; (3) In Part 3, participants rated how important, overall, they perceived dog welfare to be; (4) Last, they were asked to provide demographic information plus details regarding whether or not they worked with dogs professionally.
Results: Here are the study’s findings:
- Owner and gender differences: Overall, the majority of participants stated that they believed the welfare of dogs (all dogs) to be highly important. However, people who owned dogs, not surprisingly, rated welfare significantly more important to them than those who did not own dogs. In addition, women’s average importance of welfare score for all dogs was slightly higher than men’s average score.
- My dog is doing great; not sure about yours: Almost all (> 95 %) of the dog owners rated their own dog as having a high or extremely high quality of life. Conversely, when asked in Section 2 to rate the welfare of other pet dogs living in homes, their ratings were significantly lower.
- Perceptions varied with dogs’ roles: Perhaps not surprisingly, participants rated the quality of life of street dogs, fighting dogs, and stray dogs to be extremely low. Also getting low scores were racing greyhounds, guard dogs, and dogs used to hunt pigs. Moderate welfare values were assigned to show dogs, herding dogs, and oddly, other people’s pet dogs. The highest welfare scores were given to several types of scent detection dogs, service and seeing eye dogs, and search and rescue dogs. Oh, and each person’s own dog? Highest score of all.
Reflections on Perceptions
The highest welfare scores (following our own dogs) were assigned to working dogs in roles that serve to directly benefit humans and which tend to be highly valued, even revered one might say, in society today. You know, the Lassies of the dog world. Specifically, these are various types of service dogs that aid the disabled and working detection dogs who function to help to keep humans safe. There are probably several reasons for these perceptions, such as positive and sensational media coverage (everyone loves a hero dog), general trust in established working dog roles, or simply assumptions that dogs who have undergone extensive training and economic investment will always be well cared for. However, these assigned scores reflect beliefs and do not represent a measure of the actual welfare or quality of life of the dogs in question. Not to put too fine a point on this, but although the welfare of dogs trained to perform professional working roles were consistently rated as very high, it does not necessarily follow that dogs used in these functions are known to actually be experiencing high life quality. It is possible that the current social status of these roles may lead to widespread perceptions that these dogs naturally enjoy their jobs, are beloved and well-cared for, are trained with humane methods, and are experiencing exceptionally high qualities of life and welfare. Whether or not this is true must be determined objectively, however.
What the results of this paper tell us is that we may be susceptible to biases that influence how we regard a dog’s quality of life based upon what that dog does or does not do in his or her working life. In other words, while we may think that Lassie loved her job (and never tired of rescuing Timmy from that well), and while we may have perceived Lassie to be living her best life, our perceptions may be a result of how we thought about Lassie’s role in the world and the benefits that she brought to Timmy, rather than how Lassie actually felt about things. Of course, the best judge of her life quality is Lassie herself.
Take Away for Dog Folks
Perceptions of dogs’ welfare (and I would say happiness) may differ according to the type of work that the dog is used for or the role that he or she plays in human society. These perceptions may or may not reflect the reality for the dog, however. Therefore, when considering welfare, as the authors of this paper argue, we must consider the actual experience of the dogs themselves. Questions to ask are whether or not dogs trained for certain working functions are experiencing high life quality (do they enjoy the training, the work, where they live) or do we project expectations of good care and life enjoyment onto these dogs because we, as humans, value the work that they are trained to do? Would the dogs confirm our beliefs when asked? The results of this study should motivate us to look closely at how we perceive the quality of life of dogs living in different contexts and performing different roles. Though such an examination may be uncomfortable, we must consider that even a highly trained dog who is performing what is considered to be a vital and highly valued function to an individual or to society, may not necessarily or consistently be experiencing a high quality of life. Just because we value a particular form of work that a dog may do and believe that it contributes in a positive way does mean that a dog’s welfare is being considered properly. Researchers who are looking at these issues continue to gather evidence from the dogs themselves, and the humans who train them, care for them and live with them. As we learn more, we can begin to develop clear and consistent welfare and care standards for all dogs, in all of the roles and contexts in which we find them. Many thanks to Dr. Cobb and her team for pushing the peanut forward a tad bit more with this work!
Cobb M, Lill A, Bennett PC. Not all dogs are equal: Perception of canine welfare varies with context. Animal Welfare, 2020; 29:27-35.