Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Can Science Improve Man's Best Friend?

Australian Shepherd. (Credit: iStockphoto/Virginia Hamrick)

If you could design the perfect dog, what would it look like? Tall, short, fluffy, wiry, black, white, tan or brindle?

While animal buyers often look closely at physical characteristics, behavioural traits can make the difference between a dog becoming a much loved and pampered family member, or a mistreated or neglected unwanted animal.

According to Monash University researcher Dr Pauleen Bennett from the School of Psychology, Psychiatry and Psychological Medicine, science and breeding can be used to produce dogs that have characteristics desired by average dog owners and are well suited to the domestic environment.

"For many people the dog is the only living animal with which they have any form of regular personal contact and of course, many pet dogs are treated like royalty," Dr Bennett said.

"Yet, animal welfare shelters are forced to put to death thousands of unwanted dogs each year, and many pets are still subject to cruelty, neglect or inappropriate care. Even the most well-intentioned owner can place their dog's wellbeing at risk through exposure to the stresses of high density living, anxiety triggered by long hours spent alone, and even obesity or diabetes caused by overfeeding."

Characteristics Australian owners want in their pet dogs include being friendly, obedient, affectionate and healthy, while undesirable behaviours included nervousness, destructiveness and excitability.

"Canine behavioural traits are highly heritable, so in theory at least, we can genetically fix desirable characteristics in dog breeds. Just as we have previously produced dogs able to herd sheep or pull sleds, so we should be able to breed dogs better suited to their role as companions," Dr Bennett said.

"Successfully matching the dog, its requirements and behavioural traits with the understanding and desires of the owner should mean the animals are more likely to enjoy good welfare throughout long, healthy and happy lives."

Dr Bennett said it was an exciting time to be working in her area. She presented her research at the 2008 International Animal Welfare Conference on the Gold Coast, Sunday 31 August to Wednesday 3 September.

"The whole issue of animal welfare is gaining momentum socially and Australia is well-placed to lead the world in developing socially responsible relationships with animals," Dr Bennett said.

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