Researchers may be inadvertently undercutting our relationships with our dogs

It’s tough to figure out what’s going on inside congressional members’ minds, let alone my wife’s mind, or even mine at times, but for some reason I’m supremely confident I know what’s going on in my dog Haley’s mind.

But according to a recent Time magazine article, new university-based research centers are studying what’s going on inside a dog’s mind. Alexandra Horowitz from Barnard College, who wrote a new book called “Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know,” says people think they know, but few have tested those beliefs. I don’t need it. I know.

Nevertheless, Duke University has opened a Canine Cognition Center and has invited pet owners to bring their dogs to have them tested. Harvard’s recently opened research lab already has 1,000 dogs lined up as subjects. Europe has centers. Researchers claim the purpose is to learn how to better train dogs for service work, police work and individualized dog care.

I suspect there are other reasons for opening centers. Government research funds are tightening and cognition experts have been the first to figure out dog owners could be suckered in to underwriting the entire cost of research animals. Pet owners buy them, feed them, house them, treat them, cart them back and forth and isolate them from being influenced by other dogs. Plus accompanying owners cut the cost of hiring lab assistants.

Conniving canine researchers also avoid the difficulty of getting approval for research proposals from animal rights review committees. Who could question fair treatment of animals at research centers when dog owners are present? Treatment at home is already overseen by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals. It’s our right, and unquestionably a universal practice, to suspect hidden agendas.

Institutions mining research data with our dogs may undermine our self-esteem. Researchers told the Time reporter, “Look, you may have intuitions about your dog that are valuable, but they may be wrong.” Even the lick Haley gives me may not be a kiss of love — it may be hunger. At a time when consumer confidence in our economy and our politicians is threatened, researchers want to undercut our belief that our dogs worship us?

I suggest we immediately insist canine research projects include a review of human rights for pet owners. The public needs to know research won’t be used against them. We need to prevent covert governmental agencies from getting access to the data. Human subjects need permission to destroy evidence on the basis of their sole judgement, either because it is detrimental to their dog’s psyche or their own. And finally, if any of the results indicate superior potential for their dog’s cognitive skills that could lead to financial rewards, both the pet owner and the dog should be guaranteed an equitable share of the profit.

We must stand by our dogs.