Imagine dreaming as a child of studying, being close to and working with animals, but not really knowing how to go about it. There is a clear path to becoming a veterinarian. But Una Kranzelic was more interested in studying what animals do and why they do it. She especially wanted to focus on her favourite species: dogs and dolphins. But were there really jobs associated with this? And what education would be suitable?
“Even better than I imagined”
Una followed a winding road of different jobs and educational choices until, approaching the age of 30, she decided to reevaluate her life and what she wanted to do. With a clear vision in mind, she googled courses in animal behaviour and ended up in Sweden, studying Applied Ethology and Animal Biology at Linköping University.
“I knew this was the one for me and it actually exceeded my expectations. It's even better than I imagined. So, yes, I’m very lucky,” Una laughs.
Photo credit Anna Nilsen Unfortunately, the pandemic had a big impact on Una's first year of education, so her planned study trip to South America in year two was cancelled. Instead, when it was time for her degree project, she got a scholarship to Hungary and spent nine months at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest.
“It has the best dog research right now in the world. They have the greatest lab for doing all kinds of dog experiments. Yes, it was quite nice and very interesting, too.”
Una describes days in the lab that sound like heaven for a dog lover. Before the tests, the dogs need to calm down and be focused, which requires pampering and cuddling. And after the tests, they want nothing more than to play.
“It can be challenging mentally for them, but generally it's quite fun. None of the dogs were stressed or anything like that. We made sure that they were familiar with everything and felt good. You have to be calm yourself and wait for them to just calm down. But after the test, of course you have time to play.”
A typical day at the lab in Budapest
So, what did the tests involve? What has Una written about in her master's thesis "The role of texture in object generalisation in typical dogs (Canis familliaris)"? What was a typical day at the lab in Budapest like?
“At first it was about finding dogs, usually through inquiries on Facebook. Then waiting for the dogs, or rather their owners, to finish work for the day. Most of the tests were done in the evening or during weekends.”
Photo credit Anna Nilsen The 19 dogs were released one by one into a 30-square-metre room and observed by four cameras. They would then choose one of two items to take back to their owners. It was then determined whether the items chosen had a particular shape or texture. They were not balls or dog bones, but "neutral" objects cut into different shapes and covered with different materials that the dog could not associate with previous experiences. Una's conclusions indicate that, unlike human infants, the dogs in the study appeared to rely less on object shape and more on texture for object generalisation. While texture seems to have played an important role in their ability to generalise objects, it is possible that other factors such as colour and smell were also involved.
“One aspect could also be that the materials themselves have different odours, so that could also influence their choice.”
Una is often asked which dogs are the most intelligent. Those who find it easiest to learn new things on command are called "Gifted Word Learners" (GWL), and are usually border collies, which is one answer to the question. In Una's study, however, border collies were not assessed as GWL but as "typical dogs" (T-dogs), to be used in later comparative studies.
“Dog owners are similar to parents who think that their own child is the smartest. From a scientific perspective, that’s not actually the issue. You can train the dog very well, and think `Oh, my dog is the smartest´, but that's a very different criterion. Some dogs can pick up cues very easily from their owners, so they will do certain things that will look very, let's say, smart or intelligent. But that doesn’t mean that they are more intelligent.”
Wants to continue working with animals
Una wants, somewhere and in some way, to continue working with animals, because she is so fascinated by their behaviour. The increasing use of dogs in, for example, healthcare and elderly care can open new avenues. It is not just their superior sense of smell that is used for detecting everything from drugs to cancer, their trust and the sense of safety they provide are also appreciated. An example is provided by veterinarians who "hire" dogs to calm other dogs during visits to the clinic. And wherever Una ends up, there are sure to be dogs.“Unfortunately, since I travel a lot, I don’t own a dog yet. But I plan to in the future. First get a dog and then a family!”