Texas Tech University

New Companion Animal Program Offers Students Career Options

By: Sally Logue Post 

Companion animal research can help determine which dogs get adopted and which make good working dogs.

Nathan Hall, left, his dog Bessa, Sasha Protopopova and her dog Sonya
Nathan Hall, left, and Sasha Protopopova often use their own dogs Bessa, left, and Sonya as part of their animal behavior research.

As kids, both Sasha Protopopova and Nathan Hall loved animals and wanted to be veterinarians. After entering college and pursuing doctoral degrees, they found that there were many more ways to turn their desire to work with animals into careers. 

"As an undergraduate, I was a pre-vet major, but I also obtained a second degree in neuroscience as well, said Alexandra "Sasha" Protopopova, assistant professor of animal science at Texas Tech University. "I knew there was something about behavior that interested me, but I still wanted to be a veterinarian. Then I got involved in animal cognition research and realized that you don't have to be a vet to work with animals in a professional setting and that switched my career to animal behavior."

Nathan Hall, also an assistant professor of animal science at Texas Tech, has a similar story. It was reading research journals and working as an undergraduate researcher that opened his eyes to other options.

"My major originally was microbiology, because I was going to vet school," he said. "I spent about three years in a lab that was working on animal behavior. That led me to an interest in animal behaviors and olfaction and trying to understand what's going on in a dog's head." 

Protopopova and Hall knew each other while they were graduate students at the University of Florida. While they went their separate ways after earning doctoral degrees, they have reunited at Texas Tech to create a new undergraduate companion animal program. The program will provide an introduction to the myriad of opportunities to work with animals. Among those options: small animal nutrition and the potential to work for companies that make dog food; courses on dog training; how to run a business and small animal behavior consulting to name a few.

"I think the program that Sasha and I are putting together will be unique," said Hall. "This is the program that as an undergrad I would have jumped at. I would have been ecstatic to find something like this."

While both scientists study dog behavior, their research has taken them in different directions.

Furry Rewards

Protopopova is focused on dog welfare and behavior as well as human/animal interaction, specifically integrating therapy dogs into behavior analysis programs for children with disabilities, particularly autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

ASD can cause issues in social interaction, repetitive or restricted behavior and cognitive delays, which in turn can make it difficult for children to perform or complete some tasks. Inanimate objects such as toys are often used as a reward to motivate children with ASD to compete an education-orientated task. 

"I'm looking at whether we can incorporate the therapy dog as a reward for these children in educational settings," she said. 

Working with Texas Tech's Burkhart Center for Autism Education and Research and a local clinic, Protopopova is comparing how children with ASD react to spending time with a therapy dog as a reward for completing a task.

"When compared to the use of an inanimate object or receiving praise, we are finding that the therapy dog is beneficial for some children," she said.

Sasha Protopopova, director of the Human-Animal Interaction Lab, describes the work she's doing to improve pet adoption rates and how shelters could make the animals more irresistible to potential adopters.

Increasing Shelter Adoptions

Protopopova also is working with animal shelters to increase dog adoption rates by changing the behavior of both the dogs and the adopters. The project began by finding out what adopters really are looking for in a dog.

"We found that it's important that the dogs face the adopters and are alert," she said. "People do not like dogs that pace or refuse to look at them."

She found that shelter staff can train the dogs to face forward when they hear a bell or other auditory cues combined with food. While that helps, behavior isn't the key factor at this stage. Most adopters are looking for a size or a breed of dog. It's when an adopter selects a dog or two to spend time with that behavior really matters in successful adoptions.

"This stage doesn't really involve training a dog, but rather arranging the scenario for the best dog/human behaviors to occur," she said. "We have found that there are only two behaviors that impact the likelihood of success. Those are lying down in proximity to the adopter and taking a toy the adopter offers. We've found that a refusal to play with the adopter ensures there will be no adoption."

The key is to find the toy that the dog likes best. Protopopova says shelters can find out which toy the dog likes in about two minutes.

"We've found that we can structure the one-on-one interaction to be more successful," she said. "We can give the adopter the toy we know the dog likes. We can use a shorter leash or treats to encourage the dog to lie down near the adopter."

Protopopova began this project while a doctoral student at the University of Florida and is now taking this program to animal shelters nationally with the help of a grant from Maddie's Fund.

Protopopova also is expanding her shelter research to look at the effect of temperament and stress on immune function in shelter dogs.

"As with humans, when dogs are under stress, they are more susceptible to illness and having a lot of animals in one space can lead to quick transmission," she said. "If we can predict who needs to be quarantined or needs medication earlier, it will be helpful to shelters."

two dogs at treat machines
Sonya, top, and Bessa wait for food to drop from a machine. Part of Hall's research tests how patient a dog will be for a reward. The theory is that the more patient a dog is the better it will be as a working dog.

The Nose Knows

For Nathan Hall, his interest is studying a dog's sense of smell.

"We hear all the time how great a dog's sense of smell is, but we really don't know how true that is," he said. "There are a lot of popular culture things out there on the subject, but when you really look at the scientific literature there's really relatively little information on the topic."

It's a subject that's important when it comes to training dogs to detect everything from drugs to explosives to disease. Hall is looking at how familiarity with an odor affects a dog's perception and ability to detect the odor.

"Humans have odors that remind them of home or some other experience, and we are more sensitive to those odors," he said. "We have done different studies looking at if a dog gets experience with an odor over and over again before training begins, are they more sensitive to that odor and will they find it more quickly. It may be a simple way to enhance training procedures."

Hall has found that if the experience with a particular odor is associated with something positive, such as food, dogs do learn to find that odor faster and at lower concentrations, a skill that could be vital when asking dogs to find something with a combination of odors, such as a homemade explosive that could have any number of ingredients and smells.

Nathaniel Hall, director of the Canine Olfaction Research and Education Laboratory, explains the research tools he's using to discover which dogs are better suited as working dogs.

A Patient Nose

While Hall finds that yes, dogs do have superior noses, not all dogs are candidates to become working dogs. Hall has devised research looking at how to select optimal working dogs.

"I want to know what factors indicate that a dog will be excellent as a working dog or is better suited to be a pet," he said. "The idea is to identify what will be the predictors for success in terms of training a dog to detect odors."

One area looks at the dog's behavior to determine if they can change their behavior if a situation changes. Hall sets up a simple test where the dog pushes a lever and gets a piece of food. If the lever no longer works, how does the dog react?

"Think of it as a coke machine," he said. "If you put a dollar in the machine and you get your drink, then all is fine. But if the coke doesn't come out, some humans will continue to push the button over and over again whereas others may simply give up. Some dogs will do the same thing. Some dogs have trouble identifying that something in their environment has changed and they are not as adaptable to different tasks."

A second important trait in a good working dog is patience. The idea is that if a dog is impulsive, it won't be good at long-term search tasks.

The test is simple. The dog presses one lever on a box and gets one piece of food. A second lever is introduced and when pushed will give the dog multiple pieces of food, but only after a delay. The goal is to see if the dog is patient enough to wait a few seconds for more food or is willing to accept only one piece of food but get it immediately.

"We want to see how long we can increase the time before the multiple pieces of food are delivered before the dog says 'never mind, I'll just go with the one piece right now.'," Hall said. "The idea is that dogs that can wait longer for the larger reward will be more trainable and better over all working dogs."

A Growing Program

The Texas Tech companion animal concentration, offered in the Department of Animal and Food Science, is still very young, enrolling students for the first time in the spring 2017 semester, but it is already growing. An expert in equine assisted group counseling, Kathryn Shroeder, an assistant professor, has been added to the program.

"There are only a couple of universities out there that have somewhat similar programs," Hall said. "I think we're developing core classes that will be interesting to anyone interested in working with companion animals including pre-vet students. From nutrition to training and behavior, we're trying to cover the whole gamut for students interested in companion animals."