How does owning a pet change us? How do animals impact on the health of their owners? How do we rethink the way we address human-animal relationships in natural disaster situations? These are the questions Pauleen Bennett and her students ponder.
When world anthrozoology expert Pauleen Bennett left high school, she had a passion for animals, an incredible amount of energy and a simple dream to meet and marry Prince Charming.
Life didn’t pan out exactly how she had planned. She turned her previous hobby of horse-riding into a job, but after several years of 5AM starts with no sign of Prince Charming this career path rapidly lost its shine.
A careers advisor suggested she enrol in a behavioural science degree through La Trobe University. A decade later, Bennett had two bachelor degrees, a master’s, a PhD and a position as an academic at Monash University. Most of her research activities were centered around behavioural neuroscience and clinical neuropsychology.
Bennett was working so hard she needed a break.
“I’ve always had dogs and they were the only thing that made me stop working,” she said. “I had to stop and take them for a walk every day, so I thought I would do that a bit more seriously.”
Bennett and her partner Ron began breeding Jack Russell Terriers before they became involved in breeding Australian Shepherds. That is where her foray into the study of animal welfare really began. She docked the tails of the first litter, as per the breed standard.
“I thought about that quite a lot and decided I wouldn’t dock the second litter. I was teaching animal welfare and animal ethics and I could not come up with a good reason for cutting the tail off a dog.”
The decision made her unpopular – she received hate mail and threats to poison her dogs.
“I became embroiled in the whole thing but really I wasn’t trying to prove a point so much as understand a point: I was not anti-tail docking, I was anti-tail docking without a reason.”
It was a tough time. That year, for Christmas, one of Bennett’s students, Eloise Perini gave her a folder filled with research papers on tail docking and related issues.
“There were papers on phantom limb pain, breeding and the human-animal relationship, it was wonderful. I spent the whole Christmas writing a paper about the issues around tail docking .”
That paper was published in the Australian Veterinary Journal in 2003, at a time when Governments were assessing the issues around tail docking.
“I was quoted as someone who had come up with evidence against tail docking, which I wasn’t, but I had to wear that,” Bennett said.
That cost her some friends – but won many more. Bennett found herself knee-deep in the field of animal welfare – and fascinated with the relationships people share with their pets. She embarked on a career in anthrozoology.
Anthrozoology, taught in most Australian veterinary schools, is derived from the Greek ‘anthropos’ meaning human, and ‘zoon’ meaning animal. It is the study of human-animal interactions.
“From a scientific point of view, pet ownership makes no sense,” she said. “We put all our resources and time and energy into looking after someone else’s babies – we spend heaps of money on pets, let them disrupt our lives – I think the reason is we get so many benefits out of the relationship.”
According to Bennett, the human-animal relationship didn’t evolve in a vacuum.
“When we see animals that are contented we feel pretty safe – we look to animals for cues to assess the world,” she said. “One advantage is that they don’t get caught up in all the hype we get caught up in. They live their lives every day as if it’s great – like you or I thinking ‘Today is Thursday…how great is that?’”.
In the field of positive psychology, there are five components to a good life: pleasure, engagement, meaning, relationships and achievement. Bennett said that pets tick at least four of the five boxes – five for those who use their animals in achieving (for example those who show dogs or compete in agility).
Bennett is also fascinated by our somewhat irrational approach to animals.
“Here we are, thinking we are so smart and so much in control, when nearly all of us go totally gaga over a cute little piglet, at the same time as we chow down on a pork chop. This seems to make no sense.”
But Bennett is no idle navel-gazer. When she poses a question like this, she answers it with a scientific study. Bennett is recognised as one of the world’s foremost authorities on anthrozoology, reflected in her roles as the current president of the International Society for Anthrozoology and the Chair of the Australian Anthrozoology Research Foundation. She is Director of Regional Operations for the School of Psychological Science at La Trobe University and continues to supervise PhD candidates at La Trobe, as well as at several other Australian universities.
Bennett doesn’t have a lot of time to run her own projects these days, but she supervises a large group of students.
“Cynthia Brown and Pinar Thorn are looking at the relationship between humans and animals and whether the physical appearance of the animal impacts attachment. When we choose our pets we choose them on the basis of their appearance, but behaviour and temperament are more likely to affect the quality of that relationship long-term. We want to know how our perception of a dog’s attractiveness maps onto our relationship with our dogs, and ultimately how we can help people choose the right dog.”
“Janette Collier [is] completing a PhD on the way human-animal relationships can get in the way of human health – you’ve got older people who won’t go to hospital when they need medical attention because they don’t want to leave their animal. She is looking into that, we want to know how we can use that relationship [with the animal] to help people.”
In a similar vein, former Honours student Josh Trigg is looking at the role of pets in natural disasters.
“Some people are dying in these situations because they won’t leave their pets when told to evacuate. But there may be some way we can encourage people to evacuate to save their animals – and we may save more human lives in the process,” Bennett said.
Tammie King is evaluating tests of amicability, so this can be measured and bred for, while Kate Mornement is studying the way dogs are assessed in shelters. Mia Cobb is looking at ways to ease the transition from foster family to Guide Dog training for prospective guide dogs, who may otherwise find leaving a foster family after twelve months a stressful experience.
Dom Trescowthick is comparing attitudes to cats in Australia with New Zealand, where registration and microchipping of cats is not compulsory. Bennett is also co-supervising two Queensland University students who are investigating problems around re-homing cats, a major challenge for Australian shelters.
“We’ve also been involved in a project with the Victorian Bureau of Animal Welfare looking at how people look after their pets. In other animal industries such as farming we have regular audits, but when it comes to pets we have no clue as to how people are actually looking after them – so the aim was to do some benchmarking around issues like frequency of feeding and exercising dogs.”
“One benefit is to put together an auditing tool for pet owners so they can see how they compare,” she said. “It’s not that people are being bad, it’s that we just don’t know. For example, do most dogs sleep inside or outside? Does it matter? What does a dog need to have good welfare in our community?”
In her spare time, Bennett breeds Lagottos.
“That is because I got together with my students and brainstormed the best dog for today’s world.” PhD student Tammie King also did a big survey asking the Australian public what they want in a dog.
Not all cat and dog breeds are suitable. Most traditional dog breeds, for example, are working breeds, with qualities such as barking at intruders, warding off strange dogs and people and killing rodents sought after traits.
These days, owners want the opposite – a friendly, not-too-energetic, easily managed and trained dog who fits in as part of the family.
“The lagotto romagnolo fit the bill the most.”
Bennett is hoping to raise more funds through the Australian Anthrozoology Research Foundation to support further research into human-animal relationships. While historically perceived as a somewhat “soft science”, anthrozoology’s time has come.
“We know now in human medicine that social relationships have a huge impact on outcome. We are just beginning to understand the importance of the human-animal relationship in relation to outcome. For example, having people come and visit their hospitalised animals can be very important.”
And acknowledging that human-animal bond is important to the bottom line.
“If I don’t like the vet or the vet doesn’t seem to like my dog, I wouldn’t go back. From a veterinary perspective, managing that relationship is really important.”
Bennett may have started out without a roadmap, but she knows exactly what she hopes to achieve.
“What I am really trying to do is save the planet,” Bennett says. “We can’t save the planet without fundamentally changing how we think about the environment and animals in it. Most people think through their pets – they don’t think about the polar bears in the Arctic going extinct, they don’t think about the chickens in factory farms. But every single day they are confronted by their cats, dogs and rabbits – and forced to think about how these animals experience the world. So if the only hope of saving the planet is to change the way we think about things, our pets are absolutely instrumental in that. It’s a fairly lofty goal when you think about it.”
Pictures Pauleen Bennett
Bennett PC & Pereni E (2003) Tail docking in dogs: a review of the issues. Australian Veterinary Journal 81(4):208-218.
Bennett PC & Pereni E (2003) Tail docking in dogs: can attitude change be achieved. Australian Veterinary Journal 81(5):277-282.
King T, Marston LC & Bennett PC (2009). Describing the ideal Australian companion dog. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 120 (1-2), 84-93.