Ruffing it: University researcher talks dogs with actor Jeff Goldblum
Evan MacLean's research on the behavior of dogs has attracted plenty of attention – most recently from an actor perhaps best known for his work with dinosaurs, Jeff Goldblum.
MacLean, assistant professor of anthropology and director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center, is featured on the first episode of season two of "The World According to Jeff Goldblum." On the Disney+ show, the actor takes a deep dive into things we all love, like sneakers, ice cream and, in this case, dogs.
In this Q&A, MacLean talks about his research, his experience on the show and the impact his work has on his own interactions with dogs "in the living room or in the lab."
How did you become interested in dog behavior, and what are your specific areas of research?
While I have always been interested in animal behavior and animal cognition broadly, early on, I was most interested in questions about what makes humans unique. That led me to pursue work with our closest living relatives – chimpanzees and bonobos. But one thing we have learned from those studies is that while chimps and bonobos are very intelligent animals, there are some basic things we, as humans, start to do early in development, like pointing to share information with others, that other apes just don't do.
Surprisingly, even from a very young age, dogs are a lot like human children in these contexts. There is something they "get" about nonverbal cooperative communication. Studying those processes was my entry point to studying dogs, but it was really driven by questions about humans. Once I started working with dogs, though, it just got better and better, and more and more interesting. In addition to being a charismatic species that many people know and love, dogs offer us so many rich scientific opportunities. There are thousands of them all around us – in our homes and just about everywhere you look. Breeds are a beautiful example of biological diversity and evolution, and we can often study dogs in contexts that have very important real-world applications, such as service or detection dogs.
These are just a couple of things that make working with dogs attractive to me. A full answer would require a book-length response.
Do co-workers and fellow researchers ever find themselves jealous of the four-legged research subjects you get to work with?
Most certainly. But in reality, most of my time is spent analyzing data, and writing grants and papers. It's rare that I actually get much direct contact with dogs in our research, but it's certainly deeply rewarding when I do!
How did you first hear about "The World According to Jeff Goldblum" being interested in your work?
When I first heard from them, I was mainly feeding some ideas to their team about interesting angles one might consider in an episode about dogs. It's a pretty common thing that I get calls from folks in the media when they are preparing some sort of production about dogs and need a little direction from a scientist. And I thought that's all this was. Then they started inquiring about my availability to come out for filming and it sunk in that this was more than the typical information-gathering routine I was used to.
Can you give us a bit of a play-by-play of how your day of taping went?
It was a lot more spontaneous than I expected it to be. I imagined I'd meet Jeff before the cameras were rolling and that we might make plans and do a few takes for different scenes. etc. In reality, the cameras were on and I was in a room full of puppies when I met Jeff for the first time. And everything after that was totally unscripted.
How was it working with Jeff Goldblum?
Incredible. He's just such a nice and genuine person. And he's as funny off camera as on. We talked about a lot of things, following any train of thought he had, which really kept me on my toes and made things interesting.
Tell us about the pets you have had. What impact has your interaction with your own pets had on your research, or the other way around?
I have two dogs, Sisu and Napoleon, and I grew up with several wonderful dogs. Sisu is an older Labrador retriever who was released from Canine Companions, the service dog organization I collaborate with regularly and where our episode of this show was filmed. She's the friendliest dog you'll ever meet, and our unofficial lab mascot. Napoleon is a little Yorkshire terrier who very much lives up to his name. He's on the older side now, but still has real spunk and spirit.
Having pet dogs hasn't necessarily led to any eureka moments in my research but, rather, it has allowed me to always be studying them in one form or another – in the living room or in the lab. Some of the great researchers in animal behavior insist that no matter your age or career stage, you always need to be spending lots of time observing the animals you study. As a dog researcher, that's a pretty easy thing to do.
What is next for you and the Arizona Canine Cognition Center? What are you working on currently?
Lots, to both questions! One thing we're fundamentally interested in is individual differences. Sure, we study dogs generally, but what is it – from a biological and psychological perspective – that makes each dog unique? To work on those kinds of questions. we've been developing cohort studies where we study dogs from birth into adulthood, not only characterizing their behavior and cognition, but also integrating approaches from genomics and neuroendocrinology to try to understand the biological bases of individual differences. And while we've done a lot of work on puppies and early development, we've increasingly become interested in how dogs' minds age. It turns out that, like humans, aging dogs often develop dementia that can compromise their well-being. And in the brain, the neuropathology associated with dementia can be very similar in dogs and humans. So, we're part of some much larger teams trying to understand these aspects of aging, and ultimately to develop interventions that might benefit people and dogs alike.