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Psychologist takes deeper look into canine mind

Researcher seeks to understand effect of dog-human interactions

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Posted: Thursday, July 12, 2012 12:00 am

It has always been said that dogs are man’s best friends. While there are many preconceptions that working with dogs may better the person or the dog, scientific research supporting this notion has been difficult to find.

Because of this, professor Annmarie Cano, Ph.D., Wayne State Department of Psychology director is now studying the effects of relationships between humans and dogs using shelter dogs and adolescents from juvenile detention centers as her test subjects.

The research will be conducted with the Teacher’s Pet program, which pairs hard-to-adopt shelter dogs with at-risk adolescents in the metro Detroit area to help both subjects learn and adapt in social situations. The WSU study will be conducted with the help of 128 boys and girls from the Macomb County Juvenile Justice Center ages 14 to 17, according to a university press release.

Cano, whose expertise is in clinical health psychology, became interested in the project in late 2010 when there was a need for proposals for animal-human relationships.

“I had volunteered at the Michigan Humane Society in Detroit for several years and have always had a soft spot for animals, so the opportunity to blend my psychological science expertise and love for animals really intrigued me,” Cano said.

Cano received $152,000 to fund this study, which focuses on incarcerated teens improving their social skills by guiding dogs through basic obedience such as commands and behavioral training.

Her research is based on the notion that working with dogs helps people in some way, but control groups have not been used to measure any kind of emotional growth in this area – highlighting a major reason for Cano’s study.

According to Cano, the adolescents will participate in a 10-week program partaking in training class activities and training sessions with the dogs. The staff will rate the adolescents’ behaviors, but adolescents will also be responsible for rating their own behavior and reporting their general confidence and attachment to the dogs before and after they participate. Members of the control group will walk the dogs for two hours each week, while the rest of the participants will train the dogs, according to the WSU press release.

“These youth have gotten in trouble with the law and are in a juvenile facility, so we know they have problems,” said associate professor Rita Casey, one of the co-investigators in the grant.

Cano said her study is well -equipped to track the participants’ progress.

“We’ll be able to test with statistics whether there are changes in behavior over time and whether

some kids do better than others and why,” she said.

Yet some feel that there is no need to study this information or to study these interactions.

“I’ve had people tell me, ‘of course working with a dog would make you feel better, so why do you need a study to find out what we already know?’” Cano said. “But working with dogs might not always make us feel better.”

Cano said the results of the relationship could depend on the dog or on the person. The person may not feel better or the dog might not feel better. The study will determine if working with dogs will benefit all the teens or just some of them.

After the program, some of the dogs will be adopted by outside families and hopefully, the teens

will have bettered themselves by building relationships in some way.

“The youth have to go through the process of saying goodbye and letting go in a safe and nurturing

environment,” said Amy Johnson, director and co-investigator of the Teacher’s Pet program.

Through this process, Johnson said that some of the adolescents in the history of the program have

learned to mend relationships with others after building some with dogs.

In addition to relationships between dogs and humans, the study also focuses on the behavioral

patterns of pit bulls. Though the media show many cases of human and pit bull relationships, it is hard to determine which dogs in the shelter are considered pit bulls or “bullies,” breeds that originated from the Molosser dog of ancient Greece, according to Animal Planet.

Johnson said there needs to be scientific basis to determine if a dog is a “pit bull” or one of the bully breeds like bullmastiff and boxer. Most “pit bulls” come from retrievers, beagles, terriers or shepherds; others may include bulldog heritage as well.

“It is often difficult to determine the true breed of a dog and oftentimes, because of some similarities, they are designated,” Johnson said. “And truly, there is no “pit bull” breed – it more encompasses an umbrella of what are identified as bully breeds.”

According to, only one in 600 pit bulls is adopted –the other 599 are killed. Many of the dogs in the Teacher’s Pet program were abandoned or picked up by animal control. Pitbull populations in shelters range from 40 to 60 percent in the U.S.

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