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Science & Space

Many scientists unwilling to study dogs

By Marsha Walton

Scientists say researchers are unwilling to study wagging tails.
Scientists say researchers are unwilling to study wagging tails.

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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- There are more studies on the call of the red winged blackbird than on what different dog barks mean. And there's more data on the head movements of some lizards than on what a dog's tail wagging means.

This dearth of details on humans' most loyal companion might have something to do with scientists distancing themselves from anything that goes beyond cold, hard facts, said zoologist Patricia McConnell

"Science has always been uncomfortable with emotions, so there's a real bias against studying domestic animals," said McConnell. "Especially canines that may sleep in our beds and eat off our plates and otherwise get spoiled."

Inspiring research

Both a scientist and a dog lover, McConnell hopes studies like those in Science this week -- which trace the origins of man's best friend -- will spark more studies of dog behavior.

"Scientists who study wild animals often admire and love them deeply," she said. "But they don't talk about it. It is certainly possible to study animals and to adore them."

Swedish geneticist Peter Savolainen also was astonished by what he could not find when he first began his genetic research on dogs. He was doing forensic work on some dog hairs found at a crime scene nearly a decade ago. Some of the genetic patterns and variations in the samples he was studying fascinated him, so he began looking more deeply into the history of the domestic dog.

"When I first started, I got really irritated when I went to book after book and found nothing but guesses," he said.

Quest for mother of all dogs

So, with little formal funding and often on his own time, he began the quest for the dog equivalent of Eve. Savolainen hopes further research will pinpoint exactly where in East Asia domestic dogs originated, and get a much better idea when that happened. He says that will probably take both genetic and archeological work.

Brian Hare says some scientists believe that domestic animals, especially dogs, are seen as somehow "tainted" by their close association with humans.

"There's also been a bias that nothing interesting could be learned about cognition by studying non-primates," he said.

He hopes his study will show scientists that dogs have plenty of new tricks for humans to uncover.

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