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Dogs’ coping styles and dog-handler relationships influence avalanche search team performance

Diverio, Silvana, Menchetti, Laura, Riggio, Giacomo, Azzari, Costanza, Iaboni, Martina, Zasso, Renato, Di Mari, Walter, Santoro, Michele Matteo
Applied animal behaviour science 2017 v.191 pp. 67-77
animal behavior, disasters, dogs, locomotion, odds ratio, snow, space and time, teams
Avalanche search dogs are valuable resources in the event of environmental disasters. The aim of this study was to determine whether dog search strategies and dynamics of interaction with his handler influence team performance during a simulated avalanche search trial. This consisted in discovering a warm scented article, buried under the snow (−20cm), within a specific space and time frame (10min). Twelve dog-handler teams were enrolled in the trial. The dogs’ behaviour and dog-handler dynamics of interaction were video recorded and analysed using continuous focal animal sampling. The success of the trial was significantly related to the team (P<0.05). A negative relationship was observed between team performance and the time the dogs spent standing (odds ratio: OR=0.66, P<0.05), gazing at the handler (OR=0.85, P<0.05) or touching him (OR=0.55, P<0.05). Conversely, during successful trials the dogs spent more time exploring sniffing (OR=1.80, P<0.001) and digging intensively (OR=3.19, P<0.05) than during unsuccessful trials. Two principal components (PCs) were extracted. The “Dog’s coping style” PC described the strategy applied during the search. Traits scoring high in the “Dog’s coping style” PC indicated exploratory behaviours and a proactive strategy, while reduced locomotor activity and handler-directed behaviours had negative loadings reflecting the passive coping style of the dog. The “Dog’s coping style” PC predicted the outcome of the trial per se (unadjusted OR: UORDog=26.51, P<0.05). The dynamics of interaction established between the dog and the handler during the search was described by the “Dog-handler relationship” PC. A high score in the “Dog-handler relationship” PC indicated the independent attitude of the dog and the close attention paid to the dog by his handler. The “Dog-handler relationship” PC became a predictor of success controlling the “Dog’s coping style” PC, as shown by the adjusted OR (AORDog-handler=3.49, P<0.05). These findings suggest that a canine proactive strategy and high level of autonomy improve the performance of avalanche dogs. However, a dog’s independence does not preclude his ability to perceive the attentional state of the handler that may act as a positive reinforcement.