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Published: 4/5/2005

Researcher studies dogs to understand humans

BY JENNIFER FEEHAN
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Dr. Tim Reichard, the fired zoo veterinarian, found that canine behavior had relevance for his own situation. Dr. Tim Reichard, the fired zoo veterinarian, found that canine behavior had relevance for his own situation.
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Smuts Smuts
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FINDLAY - With researchers in agreement that all domestic dogs descended from wolves, a University of Michigan professor wants to know not only how similarly dogs and wolves behave but whether their behavior might shed some light on how human beings interact.

"It can provide interesting food for thought for three-way interactions of our own species," said Barbara Smuts, a professor of biopsychology at the University of Michigan. "In our own species, we have our own personal involvement and biases we can sometimes see more clearly in other species."

During a presentation at the University of Findlay yesterday, Ms. Smuts discussed her research into "triads" or three-way interactions between animals. Much of her conclusions stemmed from a study of social behavior in dogs begun four years ago at UM.

By videotaping and analyzing hundreds of hours of dogs at play, researchers looked at what happened when two dogs were playing and a third was thrown into the mix.

Like many species, the third dog would at times take a protectionary role and attack the dog that appeared more dominant. The dog might try to build a coalition of strength by teaming up with the dominant animal or it might try to separate the two that were playing together.

As a panel of experts from a variety of fields later suggested, getting three dogs or wolves together may not be so different from sending a third youngster to play with two others or a third party to interrupt a married couple's dinner.

It wasn't hard for the panel to come up with their own examples.

Former Toledo Zoo veterinarian Dr. Tim Reichard, who was fired Feb. 28 after 22 years at the zoo for what zoo officials said were administrative and management difficulties, couldn't help but draw a parallel to his own situation.

"I've been able to draw a lot of comparisons of triads of some of my animals to operations at the zoo as far as human beings," Dr. Reichard said.

He said a fair leader who separates people of opposing views and acts as a peacemaker is far more effective than one who sides with the person in the stronger or weaker position. "If that person takes sides with the winner or loser versus separating the two parties, it can have a very profound impact on the organization," he said.

After the panel discussion, Dr. Reichard declined to be more specific but said, "These things happen in organizations. I think some of that has gone on at the Toledo Zoo."

Anthony Wilgus, an associate professor of social work at UF, said the triad approach reminded him of the late Pope John Paul II who had the impressive ability to connect with various political and religious groups without forming alliances and always knowing where he stood.

He said the concept has numerous applications with human behavior.

"I'd like to know what someone would see if they took a video camera to a playground," he said. "What would someone see if they took a video camera to a faculty meeting?"

While the University of Findlay has degree programs in equestrian studies and pre-veterinary medicine, yesterday's presentation was attended by students in social work, animal behavior, and even comparative religion.

Panelist Jason Slone, an assistant professor of religious studies at UF, said, "Even human religious behavior has patterns," and suggested Jews, Muslims, and Christians in the Mideast form a human behavioral triad of sorts.

Contact Jennifer Feehan at:

jfeehan@theblade.com

or 419-353-5972.



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