dimanche 22 février 2015

PostDoc Programme 2014

PostDoc Programme 2014
Project to be mentored by Dr. Zsófia Virányi,
Comparative Cognition, Messerli Research Institute
PostDoc Programme 2014

Title: Behavioural biology and behavioural medicine hand in hand: The role of social environment in the development of behavioural problems in pet dogs

Mentor: Dr. Zsófia Virányi, Comparative Cognition, Messerli Research Institute, University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, Austria

Project summary
Background and relevance
Behavioural problems have a negative influence on the relationship pet owners share with their animals and on the life quality of pets. They may even lead to severe consequences such as euthanasia or relinquishment to animal shelters. Several studies suggested that the social environment of dogs, including the number of humans or other dogs living in the household, being kept close to the family or outside the house, as well as the owners' attitude and the training techniques they use, influences the occurrence and severity of behavioural problems, such as separation anxiety, social and non-social fear or aggression towards family members, unfamiliar persons or other dogs. Most of these studies rely on data gained from questionnaires filled in by pet owners, and suggest effects of the social environment based on correlations and results of regression models. However, in order to treat individual cases successfully, veterinarians and behavioural consultants need 1) a more precise definition of the social conditions influencing the development of behavioural problems that is based on 2) more objective data and 3) a better understanding of the biological mechanisms of such effects.
The behavioural, cognitive and emotional study of dog-human and dog-dog relationships and interactions can immensely improve the field of behavioural medicine. Given proper socialization, dogs (in comparison to wolves for instance) have a strong predisposition to accept humans as social partners and to adjust to their behaviour. They fast develop attachment to their owners, a relationship that has been suggested to be analogous to the bond between human infants and their mothers. An inherent characteristic of this relationship is that separation from the owners evokes stress in the dogs, but also that in stressful situations the owners can ameliorate the fear of their dogs. Encountering novel situations, dogs seek information not only from their owners but also from unfamiliar persons and adjust their fearful or relaxed reactions to the emotional signals of those, a phenomenon called social referencing. Dogs pay close attention also to the behaviour of other dogs so that based on their observation they can find food or learn how to solve certain problems, Beyond this, however, little is known about the relationship dogs develop with each other when living in the same household.
Proposed project
Our goal is to investigate the effect of human and non-human family members on the development of social behaviour of pet dogs (clients of the Clever Dog Lab and of the Clinics of the Vetmeduni) ranging across abnormal, undesired normal and desired normal behaviours.
For this aim, we will develop a test battery that can help 1) to detect potential problems related to separation anxiety and social fear and/or aggression in pet dogs, 2) to assess the relationships dogs have developed with their owners and with other dogs living in the same household, and 3) to collect objective behavioural data on the interaction style of owners. 
Importantly, we aim at developing a set of tests that can be used as diagnostic tools in behavioural medicine of pet dogs. To facilitate this, in case the project is approved, we will give preference to PostDoc candidates who, beyond a degree on veterinary medicine or biology and a strong scientific background, have practical experiences in behavioural therapy. 
Further on, in order to tackle the biological mechanisms underlying effects of the social environment, in collaboration with the Institute for Population genetics, Department I, Vetmeduni Vienna, we will investigate the epigenetic effects of different relationships with human and dog partners and of different owner interaction styles.
The project is to be connected to the Research Profile Area of the Vetmeduni "Animal behaviour and human-animal interactions".