SPARCS is a unique venture organized by Prescott Breeden and Patti Howard of The Pawsitive Packleader, Seattle Dog Training. From June 28-30, 2013, anyone in the world can see some of the leading canine science researchers in action—either in a conference hall in Redmond, WA, or streaming live to your living room.
SPARCS is short for the Society for the Promotion of Applied Research in Canine Science, which aptly summarizes the goals of the conference: (1) to promote research and education in canine science, and (2) to provide a platform for leading minds in canine science to present, discuss and debate modern behavior science.
Canine Science? Explain
If the phrase “Canine Science” gives you pause, I assure you it does not imply that dogs are meeting in the park to discuss the current issues of the day, such as:
- Owner Responses to Half Eaten Sandwiches: A Review
- Why Does the Cat Run Around at Night?: A Roundtable Discussion
- Where Are They Taking Our Poo?
Canine Science, generally speaking, is research devoted to the biology, ecology, behavior and cognition of dogs, wolves and related canids. It is a catch-all phrase that highlights the surge of research into canine minds and experiences. My article in The Bark, Dog Smart: Exploring the Canine Mind, describes this field in more detail. SPARCS brings together the following leading researchers to discuss their inquiry into the dog for a general audience:
Marc Bekoff is a long-time researcher and writer of more than 500 scientific and popular essays. In a book store? Check out one of his twenty-two books, including Minding Animals and the children’s book Animals at Play: Rules of the Game. He regularly updates a Psychology Today Blog, Animal Emotions: Do animals think and feel?
- Bekoff on dogs and their urine: Observations of scent-marking and discriminating self from others by a domestic dog (Canis familiaris): tales of displaced yellow snow.
- Bekoff on play: Social play and play-soliciting by infant canids.
Ray Coppinger has published over fifty papers on dog research. His favorite publication, however, is the book Fishing Dogs, a humorous and iconoclastic look at dogs, fishermen and professors. His book, Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution, is a classic text in the field.
- Coppinger on different behavioral sequences between dogs: Degree of behavioral neoteny differentiates canid polymorphs.
- Coppinger on improving assistance dog training programs: Observations on assistance dog training and use.
Michael W. Fox wears many hats. He is a veterinarian with a Ph.D. in medicine, and he also holds a degree in animal behavior (ethology). His career encompasses extensive research into dog behavior and development as well as holistic and integrative veterinary medicine. He encourages veterinary institutions to incorporate animal behavior and welfare science into their curricula.
- I covered Fox’s 1963 paper, Developmental Abnormalities of the Canine Skull in the Dog Spies post, Where Should Dogs Put Their Tongues?
- Fox on dog development during the first month of life: The postnatal development of neocortical neurons in the dog.
Alexandra Horowitz’s current research at the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College investigates animal communication and attention, dog olfaction, inter-species play behavior, theory of mind and anthropomorphisms.* She writes regularly for The New York Times, and her best-selling book, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, is essential.
- Horowitz on attention during dog-dog play: Attention to attention in domestic dog (Canis familiaris) dyadic play.
- Horowitz on the “guilty look” in dogs: Disambiguating the “guilty look”: Salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour.
Kathryn Lord received her PhD in organismic and evolutionary biology, which of course means she studies wolf pups. Her research focuses on the evolution and development of dog and wolf behavior.
- Lord on sensory development of wolves and dogs: A Comparison of the Sensory Development of Wolves (Canis lupus lupus) and Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris).
- Lord on the meaning of dog barks: Barking and mobbing.
Adam Miklósi leads the Family Dog Project at the Department of Ethology at Eötvös
Loránd University in Budapest, where I had the pleasure of conducting my Masters research (covered on SciAm by Jason Goldman of The Thoughtful Animal). In the last 15 years, the Family Dog Project research group has published over 100 scientific papers and organized the inaugural Canine Science Forum in 2008. His book, Dog Behavior, Evolution and Cognition is required reading in canine ethology.
- Miklósi on the building blocks of meaningful social interactions: On the utilization of social animals as a model for social robotics.
- Miklósi on other species’ use of human communicative gestures: A comparative analysis of animals’ understanding of the human pointing gesture.
Monique Udell has worked with a variety of species such as wild cats, megachiropteran bats, coyotes, foxes, mice, non-human primates and a range of companion animals including dogs, cats, and ferrets. She has a special interest in how the cognition and behavior of domestic dogs and wolves can be altered by lifetime experience.
- Udell on dog sensitivity to human behaviors: What did domestication do to dogs? A new account of dogs’ sensitivity to human actions.
Before Clive Wynne found a way to combine a childhood fascination with dogs with his day job as a psychology professor, he studied the behavior of animals ranging from pigeons to dunnarts (a mouse-sized marsupial) at universities in Britain, Germany, the USA, and Australia. Now head of the Canine Cognition and Behavior Laboratory, he is full of tales of everything from the tame foxes of Siberia to the dogs of the Moscow subway.
- Wynne on anthropomorphism: What are animals? Why anthropomorphism is still not a scientific approach to behavior.
- Wynne on the relationship between companion dogs and children: The other side of the bond: Domestic dogs’ human-like behaviors.
So, What’s This Conference About?
The SPARCS conference investigates dogs from three angles: “Origins in the Wild,” “Social Behavior and Emotions” and finally “Cognition and Development.”
Origins in the wild
“It is widely accepted that dogs are descended from wolves, but that is about the only uncontroversial fact about the origins of dogs…. I have come to a new proposal for the origin of dogs.” Clive Wynne
“In my presentation I shall talk about the emotional lives of nonhuman animals (animals) – beastly passions – and how they very much care about how we treat them.” Marc Bekoff
“The modern wolf and the modern dog diverged into their present forms, sometime, somewhere, and somehow. We should discuss those when, where, and how questions.” Ray Coppinger
Social Behavior and Emotions
“I shall also talk about why play has evolved – what it is “good for” and why it is very important that we come to terms with the details of what animals do when they play.” Marc Bekoff
“So the basic question is: What makes a dog skillful for living in the anthropogenic [human] environment, and whether we can claim that there is a parallel between some of the behavioral skills of dogs and those of humans?” Ádám Miklósi
“Dogs are socially and emotionally promiscuous and, given the right conditions, can form attachments to members of many other species.” Clive Wynne
Cognition and Development
“How the dog’s brain and behavior develop is integral to our understanding of critical and sensitive periods in helping facilitate a strong social bond and in enhance learning/trainability, emotional stability and stress & disease resistance.” Michael W. Fox
“[W]e must be careful not to forget the true diversity of the domestic dog population, or assume that the sum is more representative than its parts. Indeed, it is at the fringes of the species where we often discover examples of amazing cognitive feats, or hidden canine capacities unveiled by unique environmental or experiential contexts.” Monique Udell
“First, I aim to highlight and examine the attributions we unthinkingly make to dogs. Second, I use findings about the biology and cognition of dogs to create a better picture of the dog’s experience: the umwelt, or point of view.” Alexandra Horowitz
What About My Living Room?
Because SPARCS aims to make continuing education accessible, the conference will be broadcast live and free of charge: “As long as you have a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone, everyone will be able to watch our broadcast from anywhere in the world.”**
SPARCS plans to be a yearly conference, so keep it on your radar!
Ticket, Live Stream and Schedule
on Social Media
SPARCS on Facebook
SPARCS on Twitter
All photos courtesy of SPARCS
I manage the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, Columbia University. If you live in NYC, we are always looking for more dogs and their people to join our studies! Sign up here, and we’ll be in touch!
** SPARCS adds, “Donations are absolutely optional however graciously appreciated. If you watched our event online and enjoyed it, consider donating to SPARCS.”
Dog Smart: Exploring the Canine Mind at The Bark
Talking dogs: Welcome to the 3rd Canine Science Forum at Dog Spies
Inside the 3rd Canine Science Forum at Dog Spies
This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Julie Hecht is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer in New York City. She wriites a behavior column for The Bark. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Twitter @DogSpies.