Life solved EP60

In the latest episode of the Life Solved podcast, Dr Leanne Proops talks about the psychology of relationships between pets and humans

20 min listen

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In the UK, around 12 million households have a pet. We share our lives, secrets and domestic worlds with our animal friends, but how much do they really understand

Research says it's more than you might think!

In the latest episode of the Life Solved podcast, Dr Leanne Proops talks about the psychology of relationships between pets and humans.

Why the long face?

Leanne's been interested in the social behaviour of domestic animals for a while. She's particularly focussed on exploring the complex social skills of horses.

Her research found that not only did horses distinguish between angry and happy expressions in pictures of humans, they remembered the experience hours later when the real person entered their stable.

But how do you go about researching the thoughts and emotions of a living thing when you can’t ask it what it’s thinking or feeling? An increased heart rate was one tell for horses perceiving an angry human but Leanne says that the team use a mix of behavioural observation techniques, as well as picking up on cues such as longer eye contact and even the choice of eye used to look at what’s going on:

Mammals and birds, if they see something as dangerous or potentially threatening, then they'll use their left eye, which activates their right hemisphere to sort of appraise and look at that stimuli.

Dr Leanne Proops, Associate Head of Research and Innovation

Therapy Dogs

The special bond between humans and dogs goes back a long way, but more recently dogs have been useful in more formal therapy, in hospitals, homes and other stressful environments. There's a lot of curiosity into exactly what causes so many of us to feel better when a four-legged friend is nearby.

Leanne took this chillout factor forward in a 2020 study, giving schoolchildren a reading aloud task to either dogs or human adults. Guess who made for a more empowering listener!

They (the children) showed far less indices of stress or fidgeting when they were talking to the dog compared to the human … they felt the dog was less judgmental so they felt more relaxed.

Dr Leanne Proops, Associate Head of Research and Innovation

The next step is to look at whether the benefits are the same without a real dog in the situation. Leanne is exploring the use of biomimetic or ‘social robot’ dogs, in interactions with schoolchildren and was interested to find that although both robot and living dogs made the kids feel good and got a similar share of time, the living dogs were still preferred.

Leanne says there’s much more to be explored – and gained – from finding out more about these relationships. For example, can we harness robots where animal welfare might be an issue? Or for those who are allergic to or dislike dogs?

Perhaps we’ve been underestimating the animals in our lives, and research like this really can lift the lid on deeper, more meaningful relationships between animals and humans in the future.

You can listen to the full podcast on Tuesday 8 March.

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Episode Transcript: Do Animals Really Know What We're Thinking

Anna Rose: Hello and welcome to Life Solved from the University of Portsmouth, the podcast where we explore how our research is changing how we live in and think about our world. This time, we’re looking at our relationships with our canine friends:

Leanne Proops: They showed far less indices of stress or fidgeting when they were talking to the dog compared to the human, they felt the dog was less judgmental so they felt more relaxed.

Anna Rose: We’re looking at how our furry friends are helping us in more ways than we ever imagined and ….what happens to the relationship between ‘man and beast’ when the ‘beast’ is not quite what it seems?

Leanne Proops: We’re trying to sort of manipulate the experience of aliveness so to make the social robot seem more alive and talk about it as a real living creature

Anna Rose: When is a dog not a dog? When it’s a robot. We’ll be finding out how technology is beginning to have an impact on the age-old relationship between us and our animals. Dr Leanne Proops is a senior lecturer in comparative psychology here at the University of Portsmouth. Her work is focused on something that so many of us have wondered about, how do animals’ minds really work, and what do they think of us?

Leanne Proops: My main research is looking at the cognition and behaviour across a range of different species, primarily domestic equids, so horses, donkeys and mules, but other species as well. And my main research interests are really in social behaviour. So, both how animals interact with other animals of the same species, but also human animal interactions as well. So, trying to determine the extent to which animals possess really complex social skills. Also interested in the nature of our relationship with animals and its effects on the well-being of both us and those species that we interact with.

Anna Rose: That’s the crucial part, that interaction. Leanne is trying to find out what the experience is like for both sides involved in the relationship. Of course, that’s not too difficult when it comes to the people. But how do you even start to try and understand how an animal is feeling, when the one thing they can’t do is tell you.

Leanne Proops: We can do that in a number of ways, really from very simple, just observing behaviour. And if an animal is kind of approaching something, you might assume that they're feeling pretty positive about it or if they're moving away, they're feeling pretty upset or they don't really like that particular object. But we can also use sort of more subtle behaviours, which we do to really understand what's going on for them. So one example is looking at laturalised behaviour. So, across a whole range of different species, we can tell a bit about how they are interpreting their world and how they feel about objects by which eye they actually used to look at an object. So quite universally, mammals and actually birds as well, we see that if they see something as dangerous or potentially threatening, then they'll use their left eye, which activates their right hemisphere to sort of appraise and look at that stimuli. And another example of one of the methods that we we've used before, and in fact, it's the same method that psychologists use with really young babies because we have the same problem with really young babies. You can't ask them questions about things is we use something called an expectancy violation paradigm. And what that really sort of builds on is the fact that across animals, including humans, when something unexpected happens, you tend to look at it for longer. So, we can find out what babies and what animals think are unexpected situations just by measuring how much time they spend looking at different situations. So, for example, one of the things we've done with domestic horses is try to find out how well they can distinguish between the voices and the appearance of their different owners. And if you present them with one of their familiar owners, but play another familiar person to them as if it's coming from them, then they'll act essentially surprised and spend more time looking at them the way you'd be a bit confused if one of your friends

Anna Rose: Yes, that would be unnerving for us! And it makes perfect sense it would be weird for horses, too. But how fascinating that, through Leanne’s work, we pretty much know that that’s the case. This is how Leanne and her colleagues are slowly piecing together a more detailed picture of how being with us affects the animals in our lives. But, it’s still an area with plenty of scope for investigation.

Leanne Proops: There's been a lot less research, I think looking at the effects of these interactions on the animal compared to the human. However, when it comes to pets and particularly dogs, there's been some really fascinating and interesting research recently looking at the effects of owners interacting with their dogs. It's been shown, for example, that there are positive physiological benefits for both of them. So, when humans, for example, stare lovingly into the eyes of their pet dog, then they get an oxytocin, a hormone boost that is sort of a bonding hormone that makes them feel positive. And you know, interestingly, actually, the dog has that same boost, so has that same hormone boost. So, they are also kind of bonded to their owners, and I think dogs are a great example of that. Personally, I'd be really keen to see if we see that in domestic horses, for example, or our pet cats. So, it's really only been shown in dogs at the moment.

Anna Rose: Leanne has a particular interest in getting inside the minds of horses. As humans we have a long history of interaction with horses, we train them to work for us, to take part in competitive sports like racing, show jumping, eventing, we keep them for leisure and in all these activities we form a relationship, a bond. Horses seem to respond well to us, they do what we train them to do but how much does our presence affect them? What do we know about ‘horse eye view’?

Leanne Proops: We’ve certainly found some interesting and surprising results that show just how much they are picking up on our emotions or what we’re doing when we’re around them. We showed horses pictures of happy and angry individuals in the morning, and then we went away for a few hours. And then either that particular individual or another individual they hadn't seen earlier in the day came back and sat in their stables with a neutral face, so not looking happy or angry. And what we found was actually the horses that had seen that person looking angry earlier in the morning showed these sorts of behaviours that suggested that they interpreted that person as negative. So, the laturilised responses that we talked about, a raised heart rate, for example, when they saw the person that seemed to be angry in the morning. But we did see those responses either if the person had been happy or if it was a completely different person. And what I think is really clever about this is not only are they be able to distinguish between our facial expressions of happiness and anger, but they also not only did that, but remembered the face of that particular individual and transferred that to the person coming into their stables a few hours later. So, I think that was a really sort of impressive example of them picking up on our behaviours without us necessarily realising.

Anna Rose: Experiments like this seem to tell us that the animals around us probably know more about what’s going on in our heads than we do in theirs! While we’re still finding out more about the impact we have, it’s pretty much accepted that for humans, spending time around living creatures is a positive thing. We do it because we get something from it.

Leanne Proops: I think people have recognised for a very long time the potential benefits of spending time with other animals. And there have been reports actually in sort of Victorian times of having animals in hospitals to help patients, but it's only really recently that I think this is really sort of taken off in our country and in other countries. We often see and there's beginning to be a lot of research trying to understand what it actually is and what the mechanisms are. And so how it is that animals seem to, essentially, make us feel better. But this kind of research is really still in its infancy, so there's still some contradictory research out there. We still don't really understand what it is about an animal, whether it's a dog or horse or whatever species it is. What is it about that experience that really tends to seem to make us feel better or to reduce our stress? Instinctively, I think we've all had that experience of having our pet dog or something coming up to us when we're not feeling great and feeling like that that has really kind of helped us. But in terms of the scientific research, we have also had studies where we might have had a reduction in our heart rate when we're stroking the animal or reduction in stress. But, not everyone likes dogs of course so it’s not going to work for everybody. Not everybody likes dogs, of course, so it's not going to work for everybody. So, it's really trying to work out exactly how it works under what particular conditions it works, what, what people or what context it is. There's also been, for example, a quite well-known study looking at dolphin therapy, so people going swimming with dolphins. But there's been lots of queries about whether that's just because it's such a unique and different experience. It's not the dolphin per se that has kind of produced that positive outcome. It's having some kind of amazing and unusual experience that was what counted.

Anna Rose: There’s still plenty to discover but, on the whole, the benefits of using animals in a therapeutic way are fairly widely accepted and the practice is becoming more and more widespread. And it’s psychologists like Leanne who are investigating how this kind of therapy can be used most effectively.

Leanne Proops: One more example of potential benefits of a therapy dog is a study that we did a couple of years ago with schoolchildren looking at their reading ability and their ability to read out loud. And what we did is we compared their fluency of reading any sort of signs of stress when they were reading to a dog compared to when they were reading to an adult. And what we found there is that they were far more fluent, they showed far less sort of indices of stress or fidgeting when they were talking to the dog compared to the human. And when we asked them how they felt about it, the students tended to say that they much preferred talking to the dog and that they felt that the dog was less judgemental, so they felt more relaxed when they were speaking to them. So, there's certainly potential in educational settings as well to put children at ease by using therapy animals.

Anna Rose: Finding new ways to help children learn and grow in confidence – especially with something as vital as reading – is obviously a good thing. But using animals in this way isn’t always straightforward. There’s the potential impact on the welfare of the animal plus not everyone likes dogs. Some people are allergic to them, others are frightened of them. What if you could get the benefit of being around a dog but with none of the risks? would it have the same positive effect?

Leanne Proops: We're actually conducting now a series of experiments looking at children's interactions with therapy dogs, but also with advanced social robots, so robots that are designed to mimic the behaviour of animals, so they have sort of face recognition, they avoid you or come towards you, they're sensitive to touch. And what we really wanted to find out here is, first of all, whether it's possible to have these positive experiences without bringing the animal into this. So, we’re really looking to see if, and in what context, social robots might be able to provide some of that positive interaction without some of the drawbacks you might have with a real dog. Another thing that's really interesting if we're using social robots is it helps us to try and understand the role of aliveness. If you like, so, just how alive, how realistic do they have to be? We have a new study that we're currently undertaking where we're trying to sort of manipulate the experience of aliveness. So, to make the social robots seem more alive and talk about it as a real living creature compared to in other contexts where it's seen as a sort of inanimate object, and looking at how that might affect the experience with the children. So, just trying to understand what it is about having that alive creature and whether we can mimic that in other contexts. So, we basically provide them with a free space to play with these different creatures. And we look both at their behaviour, what kind of interactions they have. And then we also ask them a bit about how they felt about those particular creatures so, the robots, a cuddly dog as well as a live dog. 

We went into both schools and into a science centre, and essentially just provided young children with the space to interact with them. And what we did is we looked at which animal or creature they chose to approach first, how much time they spent with them, what kind of interactions there were. So, was there sort of stroking or positive touch? What kind of play they were doing with them? And then we asked them basically just how much they enjoyed that experience as well. What we found with that is that the children did tend to prefer the living dog, but they seemed to spend a similar amount of time with the dog and the social robot. And they also certainly reported having positive experiences and positive emotions after both of those conditions.

Anna Rose: Which is good news for all kinds of reasons. But are we really looking at a future where we can re-create the benefits of being with animals without any of the downsides? Leanne thinks we might be. She did some of her post-doctoral research at the University of Tokyo, and she suggests that we need to look across the world for the best examples to inspire us.

Leanne Proops: So, in Japan there’s much more widely accepted use of social robots, I think there’s a kind of predisposition in Japan to accept and to really identify and have beliefs about this sort of animism, there’s a culture of appreciating there may be spirits in rocks or mountains and inanimate objects. Perhaps that is why there is much more use and acceptance of this sort of social robot in Japan. So, we’re really keen to do some sort of cross-cultural comparisons to really sort of see the differences between the UK and Japan.

Anna Rose: Leanne’s focus on the emotional lives of animals, how much they pick up from us, and how we can benefit from being around them is giving us more and more insight into those animal minds that we’ve wondered about for so long. It’s fascinating but what does she think makes her work significant.

Leanne Proops: The reason this kind of information is important I think, is really twofold. First of all, it's more from a sort of theoretical point of view. So, understanding where these cognitive abilities lie, understanding what different species possess. And really, I think we're more and more appreciating just how complex some of the cognitive abilities of other species have so that we're not really alone in some of those abilities. But secondly, on a very practical level, I think it's really important to understand what animals can and can't do and especially with domestic animals or animals that we are managing so that are in our care, then it's very easy to either underestimate what they can do or overestimate what they can do. And there's so many anecdotes and general beliefs about how pets and our domestic animals. I think it's really important for their welfare to have an accurate appraisal of what they can and can't do. The areas that I think are really interesting at the moment are really looking at our relationship with nature and with animals in general. So, there's a hypothesis called the biophilia hypothesis that suggests that we really do have an innate desire to affiliate and to spend time with other living creatures and to be out in nature. But there's not been a great deal of research really trying to get at this and trying to understand this process. And I think this is a really interesting avenue for new research. I think it's incredibly important now at this time, with people increasingly moving out of the countryside, moving into urban areas, with climate change and the environmental issues that we have really trying to understand those psychological mechanisms that link us to our environment and to other species is really important.

Anna Rose: Thanks for listening to Life Solved. You’ll find all our other episodes at or wherever you get your podcasts. We cover all kinds of topics from palaeontology to parasites, giving you special insight into the huge range of cutting-edge research that we do here at the University of Portsmouth. In fact, if you’ve been fascinated by Leanne’s work, you can hear an interview with her colleague Juliane Kaminski on how dogs use their eyebrows to makes us fall in love with them in the episode ‘The Power of Puppy Dog Eyes’ in Series 2. Please do share the link using the hash tag ‘life solved’ and click ‘follow’ or ‘subscribe’ on your app so you don’t miss an episode. Plus, if you’ve enjoyed the podcast, do please leave us a review. It really makes a difference to how many people can find us. Thank you for listening. See you next time on Life Solved.

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