A prominent pediatrician and safety expert recently concluded that using various electronic devices to monitor their infants’ vital signs did more harm than good, creating unnecessary stress with no evidence that the devices’ results were accurate. Being constantly on guard, it seems, is not necessarily good for nurturing relationships. And over diagnosis can lead to all manner of harm from unnecessary medical tests and interventions. A recent paper in Applied Animal Behaviour Science should give us cause to reflect on whether we might be encouraging similar hypervigilance in pet guardians toward the behavior of their dogs.
The researchers collected internet survey results from dog owners, some of whom identified themselves as having behavior expertise, and from dog professionals. All the participants first watched short instructional video samples of dogs snapping at or biting a plastic hand on a stick which was being used to interfere with them while they ate or chewed a rawhide. They also watched videos where the dogs responded by growling, snarling, freezing, avoiding the hand, or eating faster when harassed with the fake hand. They were then shown videos of other dogs reacting to the fake hand, and asked to identify which ones exhibited any of the behaviors from the demonstration videos. They could freeze and replay the videos multiple times if they weren’t sure.
With some behaviors owners had more trouble seeing when a behavior was not present than when it was. With others, the opposite was the case. And people who described themselves as having advanced knowledge of dog behavior or reported having attended dog training classes did a bit better than owners as a group, while dog professionals did not show any enhanced ability. Overall people were pretty good at determining when dogs showed no resource guarding or when they snapped and bit, but weaker at seeing more subtle behaviors that the authors describe as ones that “might” escalate to biting and snapping. The authors conclude that pet owners need more education in identifying “early warning signals” of resource guarding.
Previous studies that tracked recent adopters, however, have shown them to be relatively unconcerned with resource guarding behavior in their dogs, and generally able to easily manage it when it does crop up. All this leads to the question of whether this idea of people being in urgent need of education about their dogs’ micro behaviors might be pushing people into helicopter parenting of their pets with all the harms that result from over-diagnoses and stress over whether their dogs are behaving appropriately.