Meet Julie Hecht, a scientist who is devoting her career to understanding dogs. I’m not referring to mad scientist experiments on dogs in labs. Julie specializes in ethology, the study of animal behavior to investigate dogs and the dog-human relationship. Ethology combines evolution, biology, physiology, genetics and ethics to examine the condition of the domestic dog. On a quest to better understand our furry friends, Julie has studied and worked with leaders in her field such as Patricia McConnell and Alexandra Horowitz. Read our Q&A with the Williamsburg scientist for some insights into her current research. Also visit Dog Spies where Julie blogs about her work.
ABDL: Tell us about your current dissertation research.
Julie Hecht: My study is based on the companion dog “guilt look”. It is similar to Alexandra Horowitz’s study, but differs in that I examine the look in a different owner-reported context. We aimed to mimic and investigate the owner-reported anecdote that upon returning home, a dog who was disobedient in the owner’s absence, greets them displaying “guilty” behavior, thereby alerting the owner of a misdeed performed in their absence. In the anecdote that my study is based on, the owner is ignorant of a dog’s transgression and is only tipped off to the misdeed because the dog greets the owner with “guilty” behavior. An important component of the owner-reported anecdote is that the owner does not scold the dog, yet the dog shows “guilty” behavior.
ABDL: Can you share your results or findings?
Julie Hecht: More to come on my experimental results! I’m presently working on the manuscript for publication and it would be best to share the results at a later time. I’m presently attending scientific conferences in America and Europe and getting feedback on my study from other researchers. I do think a book is on the horizon. There’s lots to say about the findings of dog science research (my research and the research of others)!
ABDL: Do you have a dog?
Julie Hecht: I used to have the pleasure of a Chihuahua-Dachshund snuggling in my bed. She was from the shelter, looked like an anorexic Labrador and was great. When kids would come over to pet her, she would flip on her back and pee in the air like a water fountain. I wish I had half the knowledge back then that I have now. In the past, I’ve also had foster dogs.
ABDL: What advice would you give to help owners better understand their dog’s behavior?
Julie Hecht: So much to say!
1) Move away from stories. When we talk about human lives, we frame them in terms of stories with lots of emotion and intrigue. We often extend this framework to our dogs by saying, “I can’t believe Lassie did that” or “Lassie does this because of this”. Try looking at a dog’s behavior without a story line lumped on top of it, and see what the dog’s behavior might be showing you. While the emotional lives of dogs is an incredibly interesting area (particularly for researchers), for a dog owner who wants to understand a dog, stepping away from stories can help the them better see the dog for who he/she is.
2) Look at behavior. The whole point of ethology is to look, really look, at behavior, and to think about that behavior for that particular animal within its particular evolutionary framework. This is similar to not putting stories on a dog, but a bit different because I want people to look at what a dog’s actual body posture looks like. Behavior science is about looking very closely at different elements, whether they are for example, visual or auditory. Extend this watchful eye to your own furry friend.
3) Read books by scientists like Patricia McConnell, Temple Grandin and Alexandra Horowitz. For an awesome summary of the dog science experiments in the last 60 years, read Adam Miklosi’s book – Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition. He was one of my mentors in Hungary.