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Best paw forward - Canine volunteers sought for study

Published on: 2 May 2018

Canine volunteers are being sought in a bid to better understand one of the most common health problems affecting the nation’s 8.5 million dogs.

Mobile research lab

Newcastle University’s DogBox, a unique research lab created especially for dogs, is heading around the country. The mobile lab has been kitted out with specialised technology including thermal and high speed cameras and activity sensors to better understand dog behaviour and dog welfare.

The first of its kind in the UK, DogBox allows researchers to observe interactions between dogs and owners, dog behaviour, their movements and even their facial expressions.

One of the first studies DogBox is being used for is to improve understanding of how arthritis affects dogs. The disease is a common problem in older dogs and it has been estimated that the number of cases has grown significantly in recent years, with around one in five dogs diagnosed with the condition.

Like humans, some of the symptoms can be present at a younger age but are only evident later when dogs may be visibly stiffer, have difficulty or pain when moving, or be less willing to go for walks.

DogBox will help researchers identify with greater accuracy where exactly arthritis is affecting a dog by helping them to spot more subtle signs of discomfort and reduced mobility. 

The research team hope that eventually DogBox could help automated ways of detecting chronic disease and pain in dogs to be developed, potentially leading to earlier diagnosis.

Dr Lucy Asher, Research Fellow at Newcastle University’s Centre for Behaviour and Evolution, runs the DogBox lab. She said: “Because arthritis affects so many dogs, it provides a good model for understanding chronic pain in dogs. Our dogs can’t tell us when they’re in pain and when we notice that things aren’t right, the disease is often quite advanced.

“The technology in the DogBox allows us to take detailed measurements of how a dog is moving or to spot tiny changes in their facial expression that might give us an earlier indication that they’re experiencing discomfort.

“DogBox will let us drive to dogs rather than them coming to us. It will let us conduct research all over the country with the same state-of-the-art lab facilities for our behaviour research, making it easier to reach a greater number of dogs.” 

Dr Lucy Asher, left, with border terriers Pippin and Sammie and their owner, Lucy Robinson

Special collar

A typical session in the DogBox lasts no more than an hour and dogs are in the company of their owner at all times.

During the sessions, the dog wears a special collar which records how they are moving. If the dog is fit enough and the owner thinks their dog will feel comfortable doing so, they are asked to do different exercises such as walking around, negotiating a small jump adjusted to the height of the dog, and walking up three small steps.

After the session at the DogBox, dogs then go home with the collar and wear it at home for a week to collect more data about their day-to-day movements. In particular, the research team hopes to get a greater insight into how arthritic dogs behave at night when they can be more active as they move around looking for a comfortable sleeping position.

Dr Asher added: “We are always looking for more doggy volunteers to help out with our studies, so would love to hear from owners of a cross-section of breeds. As well as dogs with arthritis, we would really like to hear from owners of healthy dogs aged seven or older.”

To be added to the list of DogBox volunteers, or to find out more, email



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