On the weekend, J and I went in to Melbourne's beautiful Royal Exhibition Building to check out the Dog lovers show.
Billed as an exhibition aimed at dogs and dog people specifically, the lower level was packed full of every dog product imaginable. Toys, treats, flashy collars, leashes, beds, training programs, id tags, vet services, pet sitters, doggy day care and boarding kennels...
The arena was dominated by big name pet celebrities with collies and shepherds performing impressive tricks. Dr Katrina Warren from the tv show Harry's Practice and Kelly Gill's Wonderdogs demonstrated some cute crowd pleasing tricks like driving toy cars and playing leap frog. A wonderful reminder to the audience that dogs need and enjoy intellectual stimulation. This was followed with a traditional agility session, again dominated by herding dogs like Border Collies.
Upstairs, there was free vet advice, where I tortured some final year vet students with questions about kennel cough, and the breed displays. Compared to the Melbourne Pet Expo that we attended earlier this year, the number of breed clubs in attendance was very disappointing, only occupying a quarter of the available space. Gossip around FB is that a number of clubs declined to attend due numerous impractical restrictions being put in place by the organisers. All of the clubs present had impressive set ups with great information on their breed and the support their club offers. All of the dogs upstairs looked happy and relaxed, with some quietly resting in crates at the back of areas, and others out amongst the crowd for petting and meet and greet. (There were a few dogs downstairs, but many of them looked stressed and overwhelmed with the dense crowds.)
The Australian Anthrozoology Research Foundation had a series of talks about dog/human interactions. We attended one on dog intelligence and empathy, by Pauline Bennett, a researcher from LaTrobe Uni.
First she set the context by talking about the intelligence of chimps - did you know that chimps don't understand pointing but dogs do? When you think about it, the idea to draw an imaginary line from the finger tip to the object is a pretty abstract one. Small children have to be taught this concept, but many dogs grasp it very quickly. Then she started to talk about communication - dogs who have mastered 1000 words - obviously they can't speak, but they can fetch the named object, and connect 2D images with the object in various ways.
Some of the LaTrobe research has asked questions about intelligence by setting up scenarios where dogs can see their owner or a bowl of food reflected in a mirror. These tests seem to demonstrate that most dogs don't understand that the real person or object is actually elsewhere and they are only looking at a reflection. In comparison, chimps, elephants and dolphins, can use a mirror to remove a sticker from their faces.
One of the key foci of the AARF is how pet ownership affects human health. They are researching how pets impact on rates of depression, obesity and other key health factors, but they need to understand more about how pets like dogs think and behave, to help them research the human factor. I'm hoping that we get to attend one of their Secret Life of Pets seminars in June!