Researchers embark on leftfield dog study

18 July 2006

Paul McGreevy: studying pawedness in dogs
Paul McGreevy: studying pawedness in dogs

Just like human beings, dogs are innately left- or right-handed. For the family pet, it may be of little consequence - but for guide dogs and police dogs, which are always required to work on the left of their handler, the issue is more critical.

With the help of an ARC linkage grant worth $73,950, Dr Paul McGreevy and his colleague Dr Alan Wilton from the University of New South Wales are embarking on a study of motor laterality - or pawedness - in dogs. They will look at breed differences and whether laterality is inherited.

"Laterality in dogs can possibly affect dogs' ability to undertake certain tasks, so we will explore its effect on their ability to work on just one side of handlers, as in the case of guide and police dogs," said Dr McGreevy. "The project will examine the extent to which pawedness predicts success in working dog training and more general temperament traits."

By reducing the wastage that comes from recruitment of unsuitable dogs, the project could potentially save time and money.

"Once working-dog trainers know more about the strengths and limitations of left- and right-preferred dogs, they will need to train fewer dogs because they can select the preferred ones at the outset of training. At the same time, having a significant motor preference may make a dog generally less able to work on a given side of the handler's body," says Dr. McGreevy. "The study should serve to challenge the world-wide left-of-handler convention and allow dogs to be deployed effectively despite an otherwise unhelpful behavioural tendency.

Ninety trainee guide dogs and 45 trainee police dogs will be monitored by the team at the NSW Guide Dog Training Centre and the NSW Police Dog Unit, undergoing a range of tests until the completion of their training at 18 months.

Potential benefits include a better understanding of the way in which companion animals can be selected for family homes and improvements to the breeding stock of popular breeds. It could also improve the relationship between dogs and humans by exploring brain lateralisation, one of the most profound influences on dog temperament.

"This four-year ARC linkage project is concentrating on dogs, but it will also add to the growing body of knowledge about laterality in other species including humans," says Dr McGreevy.

In humans the emotional consequences of laterality include an increased risk of accidental injuries among left-handers and schizophrenia among mixed-handed patients. Several studies also indicate that left-handed people have a lower life expectancy than right-handed people.

Contact: Richard North

Phone: 02 9351 3720