Monday, April 30, 2012

Eavesdropping isn't Always Bad

Fifteen 4th and 5th graders, an emphasis on science, and a week at HAWS = HAWS annual Spring Break Camp.  This year's camp was made possible due to the generosity of an Arrowhead High School's DECA donation which covered all of our expenses and enabled HAWS to offer 4 days of camp free to Hadfield Elementary Boys and Girls Clubs

Last year I blogged about the adventures of the 2011 Spring Break Camp.  This year, as in last year, the kids had an opportunity to observe our veterinary staff in action, spend a lot of time with animals, and put together an experiment.  This year's experiment was based on an actual study on "Social Eavesdropping in the Domestic Dog" (Marshall-Pescini et al. 2011. Social eavesdropping in the domestic dog. Animal Behaviour (2011), doi:10.1016/j.anbehav.2011.02.029).   Julie Hecht, MSc is a researcher of canine cognition and was kind enough to suggest this as a study might interest the kids -- and she was right since the kids really had a good time with it!

Social eavesdropping involves an individual watching interactions between other individuals.  In some cases it can provide information that will benefit someone in a decision making process.  In the social eavesdropping study the dog observes a person begging for food from two different people -- one of whom is generous and hands out food, and the other is selfish and refuses.  The dog is then released to see if he's learned which of the two individuals is more likely to give him food.  

The original study consisted of 100 dogs and found that most dogs went to the generous person after eavesdropping on the interactions between the beggar and the two individuals with food.   Our goal with the kids wasn't to replicate the study and have it pass a scientific peer review, but to teach the kids about how experiments are conducted, and show them that science can be fun.  For our purpose we only used eight dogs, and the goal was to find out if age made a difference in being able to socially eavesdrop. 

The kids really enjoyed the experiment and I was very proud of how much effort they put into it.  And while good experiments only have one variable, we had to work with the dogs that were available and there ended up being two.  The dogs two years and younger were shelter dogs, and the dogs three years of age and older were staff owned dogs.

I didn't think the kids would notice that discrepancy, and was initially dismayed when one of the girls pointed out that this could be a factor in why the older dogs were better at social eavesdropping than the younger dogs -- that having owners could have made a difference.  But when I thought about it a little longer it made me proud that at least one of the kids took in the information about keeping all the aspects of an experiment constant except for one variable, and that she was perceptive enough to notice we hadn't done that. 

Here's video of the experiment with the kids talking about it. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I find the concept of social eavesdropping to be fascinating. To think that a dog would observe with such intensity and intuitive intelligence that he would then 'know' the difference between stingy and generous is amazing. I found this blog to eye-opening.