Spotlight on Research: Dr. Tammie King

Written by IAABC Editing Team

Dr. Tammie King works at the WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition  in the U.K., the fundamental science centre for Mars Petcare that is engaged in a variety of behavior-related projects, in addition to conducting research on pet health and nutrition. Tammie  has published on a variety of companion-animal behavior topics that behavior consultants will find interesting. For example, she developed a measure of canine personality that focused on amicability as the key to a successful human–companion dog relationship, and wrote about the traits of an ideal companion dog in Australia. More recently, she co-authored a paper titled “Breeding dogs for beauty and behaviour: Why scientists need to do more to develop valid and reliable behaviour assessments for dogs kept as companions.”

We talked to Tammie about her research and how she moved from academia to her current role at WALTHAM, one of the most well-known and privately funded companion animal research facilities outside of a university.

What initially attracted you to studying zoology? And what led you to companion-animal behavior in particular? 

I grew up in rural Australia on a small farm (well “small” by Australian standards), surrounded by a menagerie of animals both domestic and native.  Cattle, horses, sheep, pigs, ducks, chooks, dogs, cats, and birds were kept on the property, plus we had the local kangaroos, possums, wombats, emus, goannas, cockatoos, galahs, and so on who would visit frequently! I was totally fascinated by animals and how they behaved; I spent my childhood watching, interacting with, and learning about animals. I became incredibly passionate about increasing my knowledge and spent considerable time with all of the animals, particularly the dogs, cats, birds, horses, and cattle. My family was involved in the racehorse industry, along with the pedigree dog world, and as I matured I had many questions about how humans interacted with these species and how it impacted the animals, both positively and negatively.

As a result of my childhood and embedded desire to learn more about animal behaviour, coupled with my father’s stories of life growing up in Africa, I decided I wanted to be a zoologist and embarked on a science degree at the University of Melbourne. Although my peers were researching spiders, possums, platypus, and kangaroos, I was desperate to conduct research that investigated companion-animal behaviour—specifically dogs. Back then, it was considered absurd that a zoologist would conduct a scientific study on dogs or cats—these animals who live in our homes, alongside us. It was like they weren’t considered “real” animals by these hardcore zoologists. However, the resistance of university faculty at the time to acknowledge the importance of learning more about companion animals spurred me on further, and after much searching, I sought a mentor in the Agriculture Department (Professor Paul Hemsworth), who was willing to supervise me for my research project investigating the fear of novel and startling stimuli in domestic dogs. After I completed my undergraduate degree with honours, I returned to academia about eight years later, after travelling the world, to embark on a PhD again focusing on dog behaviour. By this stage, companion-animal research was more widely accepted, and the field of anthrozoology was becoming increasingly popular. I became part of the Anthroozoology Research Group led by Associate Professor Pauleen Bennett.

Can you tell me some more about your research into amicability in dogs? How do you define it in terms of behaviors, and why did you choose to focus on this trait? Is there anything your research told you that you’d like every behavior consultant to know? 

I didn’t originally set out to measure “amicability” in dogs, but after conducting a national survey that asked the general public what characteristics they consider “ideal” in a pet dog, it was clear that the most common responses related to behavioural traits (rather than physical characteristics), and that these behaviours grouped quite nicely under the construct “amicability.” Amicability also emerged as a canine personality trait in the Monash Canine Personality Questionnaire-Revised (MCPQ-R) study conducted by Dr. Jacqui Ley, consisting of behaviours relating to calm, relaxed, easygoing dogs. Essentially, it captures how tolerant a dog is with other individuals, regardless if they are people or other animals, mainly by measuring pro-social, non-aggressive behaviour. I was keen to explore this trait further and establish if we could objectively measure this using a standardised behavioural assessment. It was assumed that pet dog owners would be more willing to assess their dog for amicability rather than focusing on the traditional screening evaluations that tend to explicitly focus on aggression, and therefore we could learn more about both “desirable and undesirable” personality traits and behaviour in dogs.

The thing that I found during my research that I’d like every behaviour consultant to know (and no doubt many already do) is that despite how well you think you know your dog or cat or parrot, or how well your clients think they know their pets, they may behave differently to how you or they expect. This became apparent when dogs were left alone during part of the assessment and owners had the opportunity to view their dog, via live video feed, in the room with a stranger. Often, I would hear, “I didn’t think he’d do that!” That highlighted to me that owner-reported questionnaires on their dog’s behaviour may not always be accurate. Additionally, many owners are unaware how frequently they use constructs or labels to define how their pet is behaving, which often does nothing to explain how the individual is actually behaving. This often influences how the owner interacts with their dog, which may lead to suboptimal training approaches being implemented, which in turn can damage the human-pet relationship.

You worked on the Canine Amicability Assessment in Australia, and then traveled the globe. Do you think different personality or behavioral traits in dogs might be valued differently by different groups of people? 

This is a good question and something we investigated further by administering the questionnaire in Japan, the U.S., and later also in Italy. It was evident that different characteristics were considered more or less desirable by different cultures and regions. For example, “a dog who doesn’t escape the property” was considered more important by Australians than the Japanese. This is most likely due to the way different populations keep dogs. In Australia a large proportion of dogs are kept outdoors in back yards, whereas this is less common in other countries where dogs predominantly are kept indoors. This wasn’t surprising and something that I had personally observed whilst travelling. The ways in which people keep and interact with dogs varies considerably in different parts of the globe. I have been fortunate enough to travel to over 65 countries and observe dogs in most of these places. It still fascinates me how adaptable our canine companions are.

You published a study in 2012 that highlighted the role of breed in the development of challenging behaviors in pet dogs, in which you made the point that the majority of pet dogs are rarely able to express the behaviors they were initially bred to perform. What do you think about so-called designer mixes, which are not bred for any particular work?

That’s an interesting question, and I think we need to think about the co-evolution of humans and dogs. Our lives have changed, and many of the dog breeds that were purposely developed by people in the past to undertake particular functions, like guarding, herding, retrieving, and so on, are not required to undertake these activities as much as they once were. What we tend to see is these dog breeds not necessarily retaining these once-desirable traits, and other characteristics take precedence. The popularity of “designer breeds” may be due to a number of factors. Clever marketing possibly plays a role in people wanting to acquire such dogs, but also (and probably more influentially), these dogs exhibit characteristics that people find highly desirable in a companion dog and they most often suit people’s current way of living. As such, this is likely to be the designer dog’s “work” and they are therefore selected for “success” in this role with people. Although I am immersed in the pedigree dog world, I am not anti-designer dog as lots of “purists” seem to be. They seem to forget that their beloved breed was also, once upon a time, a mixed breed/designer dog, before it became “pure bred.”  Dogs and humans are constantly evolving so it is expected that how both species look and behave changes over time, based on environmental pressures.

What attracted you to working at The WALTHAM Centre for Pet Nutrition? 

I was working six days a week in Australia—undertaking post-doc research at a number of universities, teaching a psychology module for university students, vet nursing and running my behaviour consultancy business. I was keen to find a job that consolidated all my skills. Although miles away from Australia, WALTHAM appealed to me as they are the fundamental science centre for Mars Petcare and conduct high-quality research in a range of areas including pet nutrition, digestive health, oral health, human-animal interaction, and feeding performance, all of which generates knowledge to inform the business. Furthermore, they take a  Caring Science approach to working with animals, and I am proud to work in a business that places animal welfare as a high priority.

What do you do there? What does your typical day look like?

I lead the Applied Behaviour team within the Feeding Performance research area. We are primarily responsible for using behavioural sciences to develop novel approaches to measuring pet food palatability that aren’t solely reliant on intake. Additionally, we provide pet behaviour expertise to the wider business. I also manage a number of Human Animal Interaction (HAI) projects.

What do you think the most fundamental change in people’s perceptions of the human-animal relationship has been since you started your career?

I think the biggest change I have noticed is that overall, people consider pets to be more part of the family and they provide real benefit to human’s lives, in various facets. This is evident in the increase of pet-related products available on the market. However, unfortunately what I am not noticing in parallel is an understanding of animal behaviour related to natural species-specific needs, awareness of body language that pet’s display which infer emotional states, as well as knowledge and application of appropriate training methodologies. This is a detriment as I often see a breakdown in the human-animal bond when pets are simply “behaving” but the owners do not have the knowledge or skills to address these often simple issues. It is my ambition to influence and inform the pet industry along with the general pet owning public as much as possible to facilitate positive change. I feel with  skilled professionals sharing up to date knowledge on behaviour, as well as implementing welfare friendly and effective training approaches we will indeed make a better world for pets and their people.