Dogs: Their Secret Lives

Written by Emily White.

Over the past few decades there has been a dramatic change in the relationship between man and his dog. As our lives have become busier, our pets are spending more and more time alone. University of Lincoln professor Daniel Mills joined forces with a research team on Channel 4’s new documentary Dogs: Their Secret Lives to find out how this time alone affects our dogs and what can be done to help. The Linc chatted to Professor Daniel Mills to find out more.

A rottweiler, similar to Bruno. Dogs, like humans, are susceptible to feelings of anxiousness and loneliness. Photo: Juan Ramon Rodriguez Sosa (via Flickr)
A rottweiler, similar to Bruno. Dogs, like humans, are susceptible to feelings of anxiousness and loneliness. Photo: Juan Ramon Rodriguez Sosa (via Flickr)

Q) Can you tell us a little about where your passion for veterinary science came from?

A) Well my father was a vet as well so we sort of grew up with it although he never pushed us into it; we all pursued our own passions. I just fell in love with the diversity of learning. I qualified as a vet, went into practice and thoroughly enjoyed it. Then the opportunity came up to study animal welfare and that’s how I ended up here.

Q) Here of course meaning the University of Lincoln. When did you start at Lincoln?

A) (Laughs) Well that seems like a simple question but there’s not a simple answer! What was the Lincolnshire College of Agriculture and Horticulture joined up with what was De Montfort University in 1994. De Montfort had just validated their first degree in equine science so they advertised for a vet that was interested in behaviour as they needed a couple of modules to be taught on animal behaviour. So I went for the job, got the job and then when the University of Lincoln was formed in 2002, De Montfort decided they would transfer the two Lincoln bases of agriculture and art and design to the new university.

Q) Okay, so I understand you do most of your research here at Lincoln; can you tell us what your research entails?

A) Sure, well I have quite a broad portfolio. Historically my interest has been in problem behaviour in animals. One of the things we’ve done at Lincoln is develop new approaches to understand how to make the inference of emotion in your animals. Everyone thinks they can read their animals but trying to do it with confidence is hard. So we’ve developed a new approach which we teach in our masters programme. Another element of my research is on perception so looking at how animals see emotion in others, so rather us reading animals it’s the animals reading us. The stuff we’ve done on dogs has been quite attractive to people because we have demonstrated that dogs can differentiate between human emotions.

Q) Speaking of dogs, your research was recently featured on the Channel 4 programme Dogs: Their Secret Lives. How exactly did you become involved with the programme?

A) Well if they’re interested in doing something which we think is good science then I’m usually happy to be involved. It may seem strange but although many of us appear on T.V, we’re not all bursting to do so. What we’re interested in is explaining what we do, showing our enthusiasm for what we do and trying to improve things as a result. They contacted us because they were aware of the work we do – they said we’re doing this thing, we’re looking at these cases; can we come and chat to you about your research? So I met them and during the course of the chat I said there’s one really neat thing you could do and that’s thermography –

Q) With the dog Bruno?

A) Yeah and we’ve been playing about with this technology, this is what we think goes on. It’s great for T.V and they love the visual aspect.

Q) So do you think it’s beneficial to take part in programmes like this?

A) I think it’s important because public money is spent on universities and the research that we do, so we have a responsibility to ensure that our research is disseminated and that they understand. And you know, as a result of this programme we’ve had so many people contact us locally about their dog’s behavioural problems saying they just thought it was out of spite and now they realise why. So if it makes the world a better place then yes.

Q) So as well as being beneficial to the public, was the research you did with Channel 4 useful to your work here at Lincoln?

A) Yeah it was. Actually it’s a good example of student produced work. We were getting certain readings from the initial work we were doing on an undergraduate project which was measuring the ear temperatures of the dogs and we were getting some remarkable readings. Unfortunately we were unable to get funding to take the project further and then by chance the programme came along and I thought this would be a great opportunity to further the project. Channel 4 were able to get military grade thermal cameras which were super sensitive and produced some outstanding results.

Q) Okay so to wrap up, do you feel there needs to be a change in the way we deal with our pets in the UK?

A) Yes I think there needs to be a change in our attitude. I am concerned with the way society is going; it’s becoming more and more sterile. I don’t want to belittle the fact that people get bitten, it’s better to have a safer world but I think to ignore the fact that it comes without a cost is dangerous and isn’t good for society. I would like to see change.

*Channel 4’s documentary Dogs: Their Secret Lives featuring professor Daniel Mills, can be found on 4oD.

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