BLANCH : Just as humans tend to be more dominant on one side than the other, it's now been accepted for almost twenty years that animals also have a preferred side. So if dogs and horses are right-pawed or left-pawed, right-hoofed or left-hoofed, what difference does that make? To find out exactly, the first study of laterality in working dogs, (and 'laterality' is the word scientists use for 'handedness') this first study is about to begin under the leadership of Dr. Paul McGreevy, a senior lecturer in the University of Sydney's Faculty of Veterinary Science.
BLANCH : And Paul, you've won an Australian Research Council grant to work with guide dogs for the blind in your state and the New South Wales police dog unit, in other words, these are working dogs. So why is it important to know whether a dog is left or right-pawed for these roles?
DR PAUL MCGREEVY : Well the important thing is that these guide dog and sniffer dog trainers have a lot of dogs coming through that actually fail the training programs and sometimes that failure rate can be 50 per cent, very expensive indeed for those associations. So what we were trying to do is ensure that we select the right puppies for those tasks. And we're aware that in sniffer dog work you want a very exploratory dog, a real investigator and in contrast, in guide dog work, you want a steady dog that keeps to the same path day after day.
Now, there are behaviour traits that are associated with steadiness and a will to explore and we're trying to link in the dogs for the first time the relationship between certain parts of a puppy's behaviour and ultimate training success.
Now one of the features of the puppies that we'll be looking at is 'laterality' which is what we call in humans 'handedness'.
We're aware of a study in the University of New England that has shown that dogs without a bias to the left or right are high risk for noise phobia and they're the dogs that get freaked out by thunderstorms.
Clearly they aren't the best dogs to be using as sniffer dogs, so there's a good reason to begin with to start using these sorts of predictive tests to work out which puppies are worth pursuing in a training program.
BLANCH : Well as you say, a dog's temperament may be linked to it being left-pawed or right-pawed, so, what personality traits do you believe are typical of each, the left-pawed and then the right-pawed?
DR PAUL MCGREEVY : Well that's the huge question and that's why we've won this grant to look at that question over the next three years.
So far we've looked at 270 dogs and we've found that left-pawedness is a feature of the male dogs--not exclusively, but when you're a male dog you tend to be more likely to be left-pawed than right-pawed and the reverse is true for females.
So we're beginning to realise that there are some strong links between the biology of the dog and the way it responds to the left and right sides of its world.
This is important because there's a national and global convention to train and work dogs on the left-hand side of the handler, and that's what you'll all be aware of if you take your dog to puppy school or dog training club. You'll be required to put the dog on the left hand side of your body and work the dog that way.
I feel that that is going to disadvantage some dogs and I really think that we can improve the way in which we customise each dog's training for its own natural bias.
BLANCH : Are there any differences in pawedness between breeds? You've mentioned males, females.
DR PAUL MCGREEVY : Well, that's a very good question. In horses, we have found differences in the laterality of breeds. With race horses, those are the galloping and trotting race horses--are having a tendency to be left-hoofed in contrast to the quarter horses which are used for cattle work. But we didn't find that when we looked at four very different breeds of dog. We looked at pugs and boxers because they have this characteristically short nose and whippets and greyhounds because they have long noses. And even though we're aware from previous work from my laboratory, that dogs with different nose lengths have different eye sight and therefore a different sort of neurology, the evidence we found in the study of laterality in those breeds showed no difference between breeds. So it countered the horse work and surprised us a lot really.
BLANCH : How would it affect the training of a dog to know which side of its brain is dominant?
DR PAUL MCGREEVY : Well, if we can work out whether the dog is left or right in its motor bias--that's the way it moves its body--rather than the sensory bias, which is the way it perceives the world, then we can start to establish a preference for the dog turning left or turning right or even managing itself around the human, coordinating itself with the movement of the human. And if there is a lateral difference, a preference in each dog, then that will also have an effect on the way the dog does sense the world, so that it'll have one eye that's stronger than the other. Now, if you put a human in the way of one of the dog's eyes and it happens to be the dog's good eye, then it's clearly going to less useful as a guide dog. So we want to make that the way that the dog works around the human and the way the dog perceives the world is understood, and that that dog's training is customised appropriately.
BLANCH : The New South Wales police dog unit is going to need fifty extra dogs to patrol the World Leaders Summit next year, so what form does your testing take with each dog, its obvious they're going to need some of that background before they start choosing their dogs for that training, aren't they?
DR PAUL MCGREEVY : Well yes, that's part of what we're preparing ourselves for. And we can also look at the dogs that are currently in training and currently in work. The dogs that are currently in work may already have a bias, because they're the dogs that have succeeded in training and are working successfully. So they're worth looking at even though they're already at work, because they can give us clues about which side is better for that sort of work or even whether bizarrely enough a lack of preference, a lack of laterality happens to suit dogs in that job.
The way we test them is that we give them a cylinder called a Kong; and it's a dog toy that many of your listeners will be familiar with and we fill the central cavity of this cylinder with soft dog food and then we start to just sit down and watch the dog and we look at the paw that it uses to restrain and steady that cylinder as it eats the food out of the central cavity.
Now it's not just as simple as watching once, and saying oh look, it used its left paw, therefore it is left-pawed. You actually have to watch for one hundred interactions with that Kong; so, it takes up to four hours in some cases. But after that sort of data collection, we can say with some certainty that the dog has a strong bias or has no bias at all.
BLANCH : Away from working dogs, where else do you believe this research will be helpful?
DR PAUL MCGREEVY : Well, it will certainly help us understand human handedness and it certainly points towards the strong possibility of us all having a common ancestor, because, every species that has been looked at has shown some evidence of either a population laterality or an individual bias to the left or right.
BLANCH : What about the training for child-friendly pets, is there something there? Because you haven't actually really pointed to whether a left sided brained dog is more aggressive or less aggressive. Have you got any clues along those lines?
DR PAUL MCGREEVY : Well, we're certainly doing temperament tests at the same time as our laterality tests so the jury's still out on whether it's better to have a left-pawed or a right-pawed dog or a dog without any preference.
The evidence from the study that I mentioned at the beginning, the University of New England study that showed that dogs without a bias are high-risk for noise phobia is very important, because the dogs with noise phobia are the dogs that don't really cope well when they're left on their own in a thunderstorm. And in fact, dogs with noise phobia are also high risk for separation anxiety. So we've got a whole gamut of dogs that need to be understood as well as possible, because up to 50 per cent of dogs in some studies have been shown to have separation anxiety. It's a huge problem for the companion dog, because we've selected dogs to be so social and so quick to bond with us and yet we keep them on their own, we leave them alone during the day. So if we can help to understand those pet dogs by getting some more data from the working dogs, then I think there's going to be a great outcome.
BLANCH : And finally, what happens to the dogs that have negative behaviour traits because of their laterality?
DR PAUL MCGREEVY : Well, so far, nothing. We don't know which dogs are falling foul of the current system. But I hope that we can look forward to a time where dogs are tested for the jobs that they're going to be doing and they are either given a more suitable task if they happen to have the wrong sort of laterality or that their training is customised, so that any particular needs are met.
BLANCH : So it sounds as though we should be talking again in three years time at the end of this study, Paul.
DR PAUL MCGREEVY : Absolutely, we'll have so much more to tell you about it in three years time.
BLANCH : Doctor Paul McGreevy, from the University of Sydney's Faculty of Veterinary Science.
And for your interest, Paul has given us a link to a document he's prepared on how to test your dog for laterality.Download the Laterality Test in PDF format here