Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Canine Behavior Studies of Dr. Udell

By Linda Cole

I'm always interested in reading new studies done about dogs that help us better understand our relationship with them. Dr. Monique Udell is someone who has her name attached to many of these studies. One recent study conducted by Dr. Udell and her research team explores whether dogs can read our minds. I may not always agree with her findings, but she is an important researcher who is unlocking our dogs mind so we can properly care for them by understanding how they think, their amazing ability to understand us, and why they do the things they do.

Dr. Monique Udell is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. In 2006, she helped set up the Canine Cognition and Behavior Lab at the college to primarily study the social behavior of dogs and the human/dog bond. Her research deals with the social behavior of dogs and how they understand us through observation, reasoning and instinct. The studies ascertain that dogs show remarkable awareness in decision making when interacting with us, and explore how well dogs can understand our gestures, facial expression and body language. Shelter dogs that have never been in a home environment or have been in a shelter for a long time don't respond to humans as well as a dog living in a home or wolves that have daily interactions with their caretakers. Pet dogs and wolves both show they have us figured out and can read us pretty well.

Her work involves canines with different life experiences, like shelter dogs versus family dogs, and compares them with tame wolves, foxes and coyotes to see how they respond to our gestures and body language. She studies the adaptability of the canine social behavior and how it corresponds to living with humans. We have the ability to influence dogs through training and reinforcement. The research done by Dr. Udell and her team is a new way of trying to understand the importance of our interactions with dogs and other canids in the Canidae family. This new way of thinking about our relationship with dogs came after she had visited the Wolf Park in Battle Ground, Indiana and studied how wolves raised by humans and dogs interacted with each other and with their humans. The studies done at the Wolf Park help researchers learn how they read and respond to us, and what kind of signals they show to us.

One interesting ongoing behavioral study Udell is conducting at Wolf Park is showing how early socialization and interaction with humans changes young wolves and coyotes behavior towards us. They are able to pick up on our behavior and understand the signals we put out just like a properly socialized dog can. Dr. Udell has worked with a variety of different species as an animal behavior consultant to zoos, and is an instructor for an online course dealing with dog training and consulting for dog owners, breeders and trainers. Dr. Udell and the findings of her research team have been highlighted in Psychology Today, the New York Times, Huffington Post, Science Daily, Discovery News, Nova Science Now and a variety of other publications.

The research Dr. Udell and her team do is important in that it gives us a better understanding of how dogs react to us. It took centuries for dogs to become domesticated and the interaction we have with them is due to their ability to adapt to us. By working with human-raised wolves and comparing them to dogs living with a family, she's has given us important insight into the mind of both animals to understand and interact with us. And that insight can also give us an idea of how man was able to domesticate dogs. Or maybe it was dogs who figured us out a long time ago and it was humans who adapted to them. Either way, our relationship with our dogs is a unique interaction with an animal that has the ability to observe our gestures, body language, moods and tone of voice.

We share the earth with different species, some more wild than others, and the important work of researchers like Dr. Udell help us see an animal kingdom filled with amazing creatures. Researchers working with wolves have given us a different view of a misunderstood animal that has the ability to adapt to humans just like our domesticated dogs did centuries ago.

Photo by Dave Wild

Read more articles by Linda Cole


  1. They may not be able to exactly read our minds but they sure can read what we are thinking by our body language and tone of voice. Just from working with feral cats, wild animals can or at least some of them can be tamed to a degree. It is so much better if they are started when they are tiny babies. I have seen all kinds of different ages.

  2. I've always marveled at how well my dogs can read me. A simple raised eyebrow and they just know that I'm communicating.


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