Thursday, 30 April 2015

The advent of canine performance science: Offering a sustainable future for working dogs

Volume 110, January 2015, Pages 96–104
New Directions in Canine Behavior

The advent of canine performance science: Offering a sustainable future for working dogs


Working and sporting dogs are valuable and essential contributors to industries worldwide.
Inefficiencies throughout the working dog production process result in high failure rates.
Animal production must be transparent, traceable and ethically acceptable to be sustainable.
Canine performance science is a model offering the working dog industry a sustainable future.


Working and sporting dogs provide an essential contribution to many industries worldwide. The common development, maintenance and disposal of working and sporting dogs can be considered in the same way as other animal production systems. The process of ‘production’ involves genetic selection, puppy rearing, recruitment and assessment, training, housing and handling, handler education, health and working life end-point management. At present, inefficiencies throughout the production process result in a high failure rate of dogs attaining operational status. This level of wastage would be condemned in other animal production industries for economic reasons and has significant implications for dog welfare, as well as public perceptions of dog-based industries. Standards of acceptable animal use are changing and some historically common uses of animals are no longer publicly acceptable, especially where harm is caused for purposes deemed trivial, or where alternatives exist. Public scrutiny of animal use appears likely to increase and extend to all roles of animals, including working and sporting dogs. Production system processes therefore need to be transparent, traceable and ethically acceptable for animal use to be sustainable into the future. Evidence-based approaches already inform best practice in fields as diverse as agriculture and human athletic performance. This article introduces the nascent discipline of canine performance science, which aims to facilitate optimal product quality and production efficiency, while also assuring evidence-based increments in dog welfare through a process of research and development. Our thesis is that the model of canine performance science offers an objective, transparent and traceable opportunity for industry development in line with community expectations and underpins a sustainable future for working dogs.
This article is part of a Special Issue entitled: Canine Behavior.


  • Working dogs;
  • Welfare;
  • Sustainability;
  • Canine performance science;
  • Wastage

1. Introduction

Domestic dogs are represented in a wide range of contexts; as companions, guardians, stock herders, detectors, guides, assistants and as racing participants in sporting entertainment. These roles are sometimes indistinct, in that some dogs bred as companions may find themselves in working roles, some bred for work may end up living as domestic companions, and others may perform dual roles, perhaps working during the week and being a companion on weekends. This paper's focus is on working dogs identified by their functional context, acknowledging they do not always fall exclusively into distinct categories or placement on a continuum. In this discussion, we define a working dog as any domestic dog that is operational in a private industry, government, assistance or sporting context, independently of whether it also performs a role as human companion. This diversity of roles has led to fragmented public perceptions of working and sporting dogs, but the private, government, assistance and sporting sectors share many commonalities and can be considered as sectors of one broad working dog industry (Branson et al., 2012). Working dog roles are generally undertaken by dogs for reasons of economy, ease or ability; either humans or machines cannot do the task, or it is cheaper or easier for a dog to do it.
Although research assessing economic contributions from working dogs is limited, a recent estimation of Australian stock herding dogs calculated AUD$40,000 as the median value of a herding dog's lifetime work (Arnott et al., 2014a and Arnott et al., 2014b) typically providing a 5.2-fold return on investment. The cost to obtain a livestock guardian dog has been estimated as returned through stock retention within 1–3 years of the dog starting work (van Bommel and Johnson, 2012). The investment of resources to breed and train a guide dog to operational standard for placement with a person with visual impairment has been valued at up to USD$50,000 (Wirth and Rein, 2008). The economic value once placed with a handler with a vision impairment has not been extensively assessed, but research demonstrates positive changes to guide dog handlers’ definitions of self, social identity and public interaction are significant (Sanders, 2000). Across private industry, government, assistance and sporting sectors, working dogs add value and are valuable.
This is an important point because, although limited, available data suggest that success rates generally average 50% across working dog industry sectors (Branson et al., 2010, Arnott et al., 2014a, Arnott et al., 2014b, Slabbert and Odendaal, 1999, Maejima et al., 2007, Batt et al., 2008a, Batt et al., 2008b, Wilsson and Sundgren, 1997 and Sinn et al., 2010). This means that around half of all dogs being bred, or considered to work or race, fail to become operational. This so-called wastage is problematic for the financial sustainability of the industry, with considerable room for improvement, and subsequent economic advantage, being evident. It is also problematic in terms of public perceptions of the sector (Spedding, 1995). To determine where industry inefficiencies exist that contribute to this wastage rate, we draw on the emerging field of canine performance science to objectively assess the life cycle of working dog development. We also argue the importance of examining public attitudes so that issues of potential importance can be identified and monitored prior to industry disruption. This paper outlines the relevance of canine performance science to the future sustainability of dog-based industries and sporting groups as an important future direction in canine science.

2. What impacts sustainability of working dog production?

An overwhelming body of evidence confirms domestic dogs are social athletes capable of providing humans with emotional support and a wide range of health benefits. While we fully acknowledge dogs’ sentience and intrinsic value, working dog programmes can be objectively considered within the framework of an animal production system. Examples of other animal production systems include those that produce livestock for use in agriculture, or laboratory animals for medical experimentation. Although domesticated animals exist in many forms, from livestock animals through to companion species, evidence suggests that human-dog relationships may be particularly enduring and unique (Shipman, 2011). Human attachment to dogs may differ from attachment to other animals (Zasloff, 1996), and these inconsistencies can result in animal protection legislation safeguarding animals in some contexts more strongly than others (O'Sullivan, 2007). It is therefore important for industry stakeholders and scientists alike to remain mindful of possible bias in our perceptions and to clarify both the commonalities and differences of human interactions between various animal species (Zasloff, 1996) and in the complex case of domestic dogs, the potential for this variation to occur within a species.
Genetic selection, rearing of young animals, recruitment and assessment processes, housing and handling, training techniques, handler education, and health and end-point management are all aspects of this production system that can affect the quality of the final product: the working dog. It is important to emphasise that, in this context, the term quality no longer refers only to the observable end product. Of critical import are the efficiency of the production system and the ethical framework used to prevent, or sometimes justify, any compromised welfare of the animals’ involved ( Broom, 2010). Broom (2010) asserts that animal production systems that are not sustainable will not be present in the future. A system that is inefficient or results in poor animal welfare is likely to be unsustainable because it fails to align with the general public's values ( McGlone, 2001 and Broom, 2011). Growing awareness of the implications of animal use and management for welfare have led to rising public expectations and lower levels of tolerance for conditions perceived as inadequate. Animal welfare issues are demonstrably important to the general public and therefore relevant to governments responsible for establishing minimal levels of care. For example, more letters are received by European Union (EU) parliamentarians relating to animal welfare than any other issue and led to the development of EU legislation to improve animal welfare ( Blokhuis et al., 2003, Horgan and Gavinelli, 2006, Ransom, 2007 and Broom, 2010).