When I was a Bachelor student I remember attending an extra-curricular lecture on the difference between, to put it in old-fashioned words, ‘man and beast’. That was 2007 in Nijmegen, the Netherlands. One of the philosophers began his lecture with, I paraphrase: “Obviously there’s something fundamentally different between humans and other animals! After all I do not see any animals in the audience…”
Years later I wish the very same philosopher had witnessed the 2nd worldwide free seminar of the Family Dog Project in 2016, live-streamed from the Eötvös Loránd university in Budapest (ELTE), Hungary. Dogs were allowed and abundantly present in the lecture hall, although the extent to which they could have followed the lectures is a matter of ongoing research, as one of the speakers – Dr. Attila Andics, would elaborate on.
The Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University (Hungary) has done considerable effort to enrich our understanding of the dog mind and this is another reason I felt reminded of the discussion I witnessed in 2007. Just how unique or not the human mind is, is an age-old question which has bothered philosophers, psychologists and biologists of all times. Dog-owners are a particularly grateful audience for this type of discussion. Bonding with another species confronts you with this question every day!
The treats the seminar had to offer dog-owners did not stop at the almost philosophical question about the dog’s inner life, although Dr. Andics and Dr. Fugazza offered valuable food for thought on the matter with their investigations into word-processing and imitation. The information presented covered an immense variety of dog-related topics, thereby tackling some more practical problems of dog-ownership, like Dr. Pongrácz presentation on whether dogs are more intimidated by men, or Dr. Gácsi’s talk on the sensory competences (specifically odor) of different dog breeds (and wolves). Some of the knowledge presented could one day easily translate to measures relevant for the welfare and dignity of aging dogs, a central topic in the research group of Dr. Kubinyi. The presentations went on to include issues relevant to the methodology of behavioral research (Bence Ferdinandy and Dr. Linda Gerencsér), wolf-human communication (Dr. Ujfalussy), dog-inspired robots (Dr. Kis) and many other topics…
Each speaker came along with their very own style, helping the audience to keep up a high level of attention throughout a long and informative evening. Dr. Andics used his own enthusiasm to infect the audience, whereas Dr. Pongrácz appealed to their sense of humor. Other speakers relied on highlighting special moments in their line of work and so the audience would catch a glimpse from the life of Hungary’s canine methuselahs (Dr. Kubinyi) or see wolves on leashes, or in other peculiar contexts that could create the illusion of them being good dogs (Dr. Gácsi, Dr. Ujfalussy). Of course, the scientists took good care to maintain a clear distinction between facts and fiction.
What made the seminar, as a whole, a worthwhile experience was also the welcoming atmosphere. The extra comfortable beanbag chairs for human and non-human animals, the affordable food buffet and the miniature book shop. Much in the spirit of diversity created by the choice of topics in the actual seminar, the book shop’s list of genres ranged from facts to fiction regarding the animal mind. All in all, the worldwide free seminar of the family dog project offered its visitors an interesting mixture of focus and diversity. The focus was on dogs, but the broader connection of canine research to the fields of evolutionary biology, comparative psychology, behavior, scientific methods in general, veterinary medicine, sensory processing, robotics and many more were setting a great example of how good science can maintain an eye for both detail and the big picture.
Pictures by Enikő Kubinyi and Krisztina Hegedűs-Kovács