Featured News A dog’s life – they’re not all equal

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Wed, 18 Aug 2021

A dog’s life – they’re not all equal

Image: Jonathan Daniels

New research from James Cook University has found people support the use of assistance dogs – such as those used by visually and hearing-impaired people – and believe the dogs are happy serving humans.

Almost 40 per cent of Australian households have a pet (or companion) dog, but there had never been a study in Australia on attitudes towards assistance dogs, such as those used as guides for the visually or hearing impaired, service dogs for those with mobility impairments, or as medical alert dogs responding to medical issues such as diabetes and epilepsy.

JCU psychology lecturer Dr Jessica Oliva said public perceptions of working animal welfare are highly influential, as human attitudes can influence industry regulations and standards – as seen in greyhound and horse racing, live animal exports, and sheep and dairy farming - as well as the lives of the owners and their dogs.

“A rise in awareness of animal use and management has meant the public has increased expectations and lower tolerance levels for inadequate working conditions, and animal welfare is now considered the most important of these factors,” said Dr Oliva.

“We surveyed 258 people and the results revealed people are highly supportive of the use of both assistance and companion dogs, and perceive both to have high levels of happiness.

“However, the assistance dog role was rated as a slightly better use for dogs, and they were also perceived as slightly happier than companion or pet dogs,” said Dr Oliva.

She said that difference in happiness ratings may be explained by the common belief that companion dogs are sometimes neglected while assistance dogs enjoy working and the constant companionship with their handler, though several people were also concerned over the restrictive nature of the assistance work.

“Participants believed that for both assistance and companion dogs, the quality of love and treatment from their owner had the greatest influence on their happiness,” said Dr Oliva.

She said 40 per cent of participants also believed assistance dog happiness was contingent on the animals enjoying their jobs, with most who endorsed this theme believing that the dogs’ work gave them purpose and joy.

“People commonly attribute human emotions to things which are non-human, such as animals. This is known as anthropomorphism, and is an almost universal trait among animal owners.

“While absence of evidence does not mean evidence of absence, research has not yet been able to show that dogs can feel complex emotions such as pride or have the social cognitive awareness to feel purpose. This would be a fruitful area for further research,” said Dr Oliva.


Dr Jessica Oliva
E: Jessica.oliva@jcu.edu.au