Animal Behaviour Centre
The Animal Behaviour Centre was established within the School of Psychology in October 1999. The Centre, directed by Dr Deborah Wells, leads exciting and novel research programmes on both fundamental and applied aspects of domestic and zoo animal welfare.
Much of the group’s research on environmental enrichment takes place off-site and involves fruitful collaborations with organisations including rescue shelters and zoos. Pet-owner related research and studies focused on canine olfaction are frequently carried out in the Animal Behaviour Centre (ABC), a purpose-designed research facility housed within the School of Psychology. As well as reception and preparation areas, the ABC comprises two large study rooms, both equipped with inbuilt video-cameras and audio recording facilities. The Centre has access to large tarmacked and grass areas for external testing.
The Animal Behaviour and Welfare team have secured research grants from a wide variety of sources over the years, including UK research councils (BBSRC), animal welfare charities (e.g. RSPCA, Dogs Trust), academic organisations (e.g. Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour, Universities Federation for Animal Welfare), governmental bodies (e.g. Belfast City Council) and industries (e.g. Nestec Ltd, Microsoft).
Laterality and Animal Welfare
Research has recently been secured from BBSRC to examine the relationship between laterality and animal welfare. Specifically, the project is exploring whether lateral bias, in the form of paw preference, can be used as a tool for assessing welfare risk, using the domestic dog as a model. Studies are investigating the association between motor bias and measures of physical/psychological well-being, and tests that measure emotional vulnerability.
Ultimately, the research will determine whether behavioural asymmetry can be used as a reliable, harmless and independent predictor of welfare risk in animals, offering a viable tool for the early targeting of vulnerable individuals.
The Centre is heavily involved in finding ways of improving the psychological well-being of captive animals through the implementation of scientifically tried and tested environmental enrichment schemes. Over the years, researchers have led the way in evaluating the efficacy of various types of sensory stimulation (auditory, visual, olfactory) and other enrichment schemes on the behaviour and welfare of animals housed in rescue shelters (dogs, cats), zoos (primates, cats, elephants) and on farms (pigs). Funding for this work has been provided by a variety of organisations including DEFRA, the Universities Federation for Animal Welfare and the British Psychological Society. The findings from the work have attracted prestigious research awards, informed policy and practice, and helped to improve the housing of animals kept in institutional settings.
Pets and Human Health
The notion that pets are good for us is by no means a new one; scientific evidence for a link between companion animals and human health, however, is still relatively sparse. Researchers at the Animal Behaviour Centre have thus been exploring the ability of animals to serve as social facilitators and act as mediators to stress. Studies have explored the effect of pets on people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome/ME (funded by the Society of Companion Animal Studies) and the ability of dogs to serve as detectors of hypoglycaemia in people with Type 1 diabetes (funded by Diabetes UK).
In addition to exploring the value of odours as a method of environment enrichment for captive animals (see above), researchers at the Centre have been investigating the tracking skills of domestic dogs and, more recently, prenatal olfactory learning in dogs and cats. This work has shown that dogs are proficient at following the correct direction of a human-laid trail, and can successfully following trails after only a small number of footsteps have been laid.
The olfactory acuity of the great apes is also the focus of research attention, exploring, for the first time, the importance of odour cues to one of our closest living cousins.
Wells, D.L., Morrison, D. & Hepper, P.G. (2012). The effect of priming on perceptions of dog breed traits. Anthrozoos 25, 369-377.
Wells, D.L. & Hepper, P.G. (2012). The personality of “aggressive” and “non-aggressive” dog owners. Personality and Individual Differences 53, 770-773.
Hepper, P.G. & Wells, D.L. (2005). How many footsteps do dogs need to determine the direction of an odour trail? Chemical Senses 30, 291-298.
Wells, D.L. (2004). A review of environmental enrichment for kennelled dogs, Canis familiaris. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 85, 307-317.
Ellis, S.L.H & Wells, D.L. (2010). The influence of olfactory stimulation on the behaviour of cats housed in a rescue shelter. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 123, 56-62.
Ellis, S.L.H & Wells, D.L. (2008). The influence of visual stimulation on the behaviour of cats housed in a rescue shelter. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 113, 166-174.
Wells, D.L. & Egli, J.M. (2004). The influence of olfactory enrichment on the behaviour of black-footed cats, Felis nigripes. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 85, 107-119.
Courtney, N. & Wells, D.L. (2002). The discrimination of cat odours by humans. Perception 31, 511-512.
Hepper, P.G. & Wells, D.L. (2012). Olfactory discrimination in the western lowland gorillas, Gorilla gorilla gorilla. Primates 53, 121-126.
Hepper, P.G. & Wells, D.L. (2010). Individually identifiable body odors are produced by the gorilla and discriminated by humans. Chemical Senses, 35, 263-268.
Wells, D.L., Hepper, P.G., Coleman, D. & Challis, M.G. (2007). A note on the effect of olfactory stimulation on the behaviour and welfare of zoo-housed gorillas. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 106, 155-160.
Wells, D.L. (2005). A note on the effect of zoo visitors on the behaviour and welfare of captive gorillas. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 93, 13-17.
Laterality in Animals
Wells, D.L. & Millsopp, S. (2012). The ontogeny of lateralised behaviour in the domestic cat, Felis silvestris catus. Journal of Comparative Psychology 126, 23-30.
Wells, D.L. & Millsopp, S. (2009). Lateralised behaviour in the domestic cat, Felis silvestris catus. Animal Behaviour 78, 537-541.
Wells, D.L., Irwin, R.M. & Hepper, P.G. (2006). Lateralised swimming behaviour in the California sea lion. Behavioural Processes 73, 121-123.
Wells, D.L. (2003). Lateralised behaviour in the domestic dog, Canis familaris. Behavioural Processes 61, 27-35.
Pets and Human Health
Wells, D.L. (2012). Dogs as a diagnostic tool for ill-health in humans. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 18, 12-17.
Wells, D.L. (2011). The value of pets for human health. The Psychologist 24, 172-176.
Wells, D.L., Lawson, S.W. & Siriwardena, N. (2011). Feline responses to hypoglycaemia in patients with Type 1 diabetes. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 17, 99-100.
Wells, D.L. (2009). The effect of animals on human health and well-being. Journal of Social Issues 65, 523-543.
Wells, D.L. (2009). Associations between pet ownership and self-reported health status in people suffering from chronic fatigue syndrome. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 15, 407-413.
Wells, D.L., Lawson, S.W. & Siriwardena, N. (2008). Canine responses to hypoglycaemia in patients with Type 1 diabetes. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 14, 1235-1241.
Wells, D.L. (2007). Domestic dogs and human health: an overview. British Journal of Health Psychology 12, 145-156.