Dr. Stacy Lopresti-Goodman
Former Laboratory Dogs Make Good Companions
Original Air Date: February 1, 2023
Considering adopting a former laboratory dog but not sure what to expect? Dr. Stacy Lopresti-Goodman joins us to discuss the negative impact that confinement, social isolation, and physical abuse have on the psychological well-being of animals rescued from laboratories. Her latest published research paper is on the adoptability of former research beagles and their ability to overcome trauma of life in a lab. This groundbreaking work shows that former laboratory dogs make good companions and should be given that chance.
Dr. Stacy Lopresti-Goodman, Guest
Dr. Lopresti-Goodman is a professor of psychology at Marymount University. In addition to teaching undergraduate psychology classes and working with Honors students on campus, she has led four study abroad programs to primate sanctuaries in Kenya and Spain, where students learned how to conduct naturalistic observations of chimpanzees.
Dr. Lopresti-Goodman also actively engages in research. Currently, her work is aimed at understanding the enduring negative impact that confinement, social isolation, and physical abuse have on the psychological well-being of nonhuman animals rescued from laboratories, including chimpanzees, monkeys, and dogs. She also conducts research on alternatives to the use of animals in psychology education. She has presented her research at academic conferences nationally and internationally, including meetings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, World Congress on Alternatives and Animal Use in the Life Sciences, the International Primatological Society and American Society of Primatologists, and the National Institute on the Teaching of Psychology. She has published in peer-reviewed journals such as Neuroscience Letters, Behavioral Sciences, Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, Psychology and Education, and the Journal of Animal Ethics, and has been featured in media outlets such as the Washington Post, Nature, NPR, and Science.
Ellie Hansen, Host:
You are a professor of human psychology but you also actively engage in research in animal psychology primarily studying the emotions and behaviors of chimpanzees, monkeys and dogs who’ve been rescued from research laboratories. Where did this interest in helping laboratory animals originate from?
Dr. Stacy Lopresti-Goodman:
I got involved in animal rights and I became a vegan through hardcore punk music in the mid-1990s when I was in high school, and so learning about animals being used in testing and experimentation was something that I personally cared about. But when I went to college academically I was interested in psychology and I didn’t see at the time how my personal and academic interests could intersect. But as a graduate student studying experimental psychology at the University of Connecticut in the mid-2000s, my husband was also a student there and we started an animal rights group that was targeting a monkey lab on campus. And so it was around that time that I started to see how I could combine my two passions into a future career.
So in addition to our joint work on that campaign—which we successfully shut down—I was a guest speaker a number of times in an animal behavior class just talking about what it’s like to be a student earning their doctorate degree in a field that is so dominated by animal experimentation. I testified on behalf of a state bill that would allow students to opt out of dissecting animals. That bill was passed and I was teaching my own students in my psychology courses about the harms of using animals in experiments. So when I was hired at Marymount University in 2009 where I currently work that’s when I really started turning my own research program away from the curiosity driven behavioral research that I was doing with humans as an undergraduate and graduate student and pivoting towards research that I could do to help animals in laboratories to highlight the negative psychological impact that this research has on them even after they’re rescued from laboratories as well as investigate alternatives to the use of animals in psychology education.
You’ve led study abroad programs to primate sanctuaries in Kenya and Spain with your students. Could you describe where those primates came from in these sanctuaries and what is the one thing that strikes you most when you visit?
So I’ve been fortunate enough to bring students to chimpanzee sanctuary in Kenya called Sweetwaters Chimpanzee Sanctuary three times, and I brought them to a macaque and chimpanzee sanctuary in Spain called Fundació Mona. In Kenya those chimpanzees were orphans of the illegal bush meat and pet trade. So in equatorial Africa chimpanzees are hunted for their meat which is then sold on the black market as a delicacy and oftentimes the poachers will go after a mother who is carrying her infant because they’re slower and they’re easier to kill because they’re trying to protect their infant. But also they will not only get the meat from the mother to sell, but then they get the infant whom they can sell as a quote on quote pet–so two for the price of one.
And in Spain those chimpanzees were all former ex-pets who lived in people’s homes or tiny cages in their back yard, or they were ex-performer chimpanzees who were used in TV commercials and films. And a lot of those chimpanzees were actually found living in tiny cages in the back of a tractor trailer parked in a junk yard. And it was just deplorable captive conditions. They have footage of this when they went to rescue them. They never had access to fresh air, sunlight, exercise, or even physical contact with one another which is especially cruel.
And so at the sanctuaries these individuals were then slowly integrated into the large social groups and allowed to learn what it’s like to be a chimpanzee for the first time in their life. So having access to outdoors, learning how to be a part of this dominant hierarchy, interacting with one another, eating foods that are natural to their diets–not spaghetti and you know wearing pajamas.
And so I think that the thing that strikes me most about these chimpanzees is how resilient they are. So with a little bit of support and care and freedom and time to heal, they really learned what it is like to be a chimpanzee and they have successfully been into integrated into these social groups. And I think most importantly they don’t hate all humans, which I think would be really hard for me if I was in their situation. And so to see how resilient and forgiving they are is really remarkable.
I want to touch on a paper that you had published back in 2015 on chimpanzees called “Psychological Distress in Chimpanzees Rescued from Laboratories.” This is different type of rescue situation than what we were just talking about, and there is a case study of a chimpanzee named Seve. Seve was taken from his mother at age two and put into research where he lived in isolation, was tranquilized hundreds of times, almost died on the operating table multiple times, was infected with harmful diseases and basically went through an incredible amount of pain and suffering. After a decade of life in research Seve was released from the research facility he was in. Can you talk about the psychological effects laboratory life had on Seve and how this compares to dogs who also endure similar procedures and experiences in a laboratory? Even though they are different species what do dogs and primates share psychologically in terms of the trauma associated with life in a laboratory?
Yeah so as you briefly outlined Seve was subjected to what I would call prolonged and repetitive trauma while he was at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health, and I know what happened to him through Freedom of Information Act requests and having some of his laboratory files transferred with him out of the laboratory when he moved to Save the Chimps Sanctuary in Florida. And that’s where I met him and did that work.
And so, all of these horrible things that happened to him: his maternal separation; prolonged social isolation; being confined in a really tiny cage; repeated invasive experimentation…all of this resulted in him exhibiting behaviors that we would characterize as Posttraumatic stress disorder or PTSD.
He was hyper vigilant, he was always on guard, he was easily startled, he just couldn’t relax, he was socially withdrawn, and he also engaged in self-injurious behaviors. So he would scratch at his flesh at the top of his head and pull his hair out and he actually had to be treated with anti-anxiety drugs.
So what Seve endured is similar to what dogs in laboratories are also subjected to. So this includes living in small cages or enclosures that don’t provide for the necessary social, emotional, or cognitive stimulation that they need. They’re not afforded the opportunity to engage in these species-specific behaviors or things that chimpanzees have evolved to do in the wild, or that dogs been domesticated and bred to do for thousands of years.
On top of the similarities and what happened to them, we’re also all mammals right? And so we have similar responses to stress and prolonged trauma, and so when you think about humans who develop PTSD, it often comes from a singular traumatic event where their life was threatened…maybe a car crash. For these chimpanzees and these dogs in laboratories they are experiencing trauma and their lives are threatened every single day. So it is necessarily going to cause changes in their brain development, their brain functions, and it’s going to lead to persistent abnormal or fearful behaviors that are going a be there even after they’re removed from those initially traumatizing conditions.
Is PTSD something that’s recognized in the veterinary world as an actual animal condition?
Yeah that’s a great question. So my paper on PTSD in chimpanzees…I actually have two out…was one of a handful of studies that have been published on this issue. And I think it’s a lot easier for people—people of the public, but also veterinarians and you know psychologists and scientists—to see the responses in chimpanzees who look like us and who act like us and say, “Okay, that’s Posttraumatic stress disorder.” Mine is the first paper that has been published calling what we see from dogs in laboratories Posttraumatic stress disorder. And so the only other time it’s been mentioned is there’s a veterinarian at Tufts University who talked about dogs who were used in the military—so military working dogs having Posttraumatic stress disorder. But there was actually no scientific article on it and so mine is the first that’s done that and it was hard to get this paper published because of that.
Yes, but I think it’s so important to formally acknowledge that dogs and other animals are negatively affected by trauma, because maybe that will eventually change the way we treat them. The Institute for Laboratory Animal Research (which is a pro-animal research organization) actually states that “maximizing successful experimental outcomes in studies with dogs involves ensuring that the animals are healthy, providing a suitable environment, minimizing stress, and preventing or alleviating distress.” I believe this is what laboratories refer to as “refinement”…meaning trying to refine the living spaces and experimental procedures for the dogs to make the dogs less stressed about being experimented on. Do you think refinements are realistic expectation for dogs in research laboratories given their environment and the procedures that they must undergo like isolation and having devices implanted and oral toxicity testing that make them sick. Can you ever really make dogs less stressed about that?
I don’t know if you looked at my curriculum vitae, but I gave a talk a few years ago at the World Congress on Alternatives to Animal Use in the Life Sciences titled “Refinements Are Not Enough.” So my answer is no, they are not enough. So you mentioned refinement which is one of what we call the Three Rs. So yes “refining” the procedures. The second would be “reducing” the number of animals used, and the third would be “replacing” them with other models.
I think of course not socially isolating them, giving them larger more enriched environments, access to exercise and being outdoors would make them less stressed, but I do not think that they would be less stressed while they’re being experimented on. Can you refine the process of sticking a tube down a dog’s throat and forcing them to ingest toxic chemicals such that they are not distressed? I do not think so. Can you refine a technique where you are inserting latex into a dog’s arteries and having them run on a treadmill until they have a heart attack? I do not think so. So my answer is no. The nature of this work necessarily involves keeping them in small spaces because they’re easier to experiment on and making them sick. So I do not believe that we can continue doing this and act as though we are really trying to abide by these principles of the Three Rs.
So we’ve been talking about the trauma dogs experience inside the laboratory and one might wonder how it’s even possible after all that for dogs to recover psychologically and learned to live a normal life outside a laboratory. I know from my personal experience that it is possible, even in the toughest cases, but there has been little scientific research on the adaptability of former research dogs until now.
When you and I spoke a few years ago you had just finished a research project comparing the behavioral characteristics of former laboratory beagles compared to non-laboratory beagles. You recently had this paper published—which is actually a pretty big deal in the world of science. What inspired you to do this specific research and what were your findings?
I had been working with chimpanzees at sanctuaries for a few years before I actually attended a fundraiser outside of DC for the Beagle Freedom Project or BFP. And they’re a nonprofit organization that helps re-home dogs released from laboratories. And beagles are the preferred species of dogs as you know because of their gentle docile nature. They’re small and it’s easy to keep a lot of them in a really small space. So, I was at this fundraiser and I was meeting some of these survivor dogs. Two in particular…Hammy and George Washington..to give a shout out to them… but I met them and I heard about their stories and what happened to them in the labs as well as some of the behaviors that persisted even after they were rescued and I thought this sounds exactly like what I’ve been studying in chimpanzees and no one has studied this yet in dogs. And so hence I started with this project. And so what I did was I actually used a free online questionnaire hosted by the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school, and it’s called the C-BARQ and that stands for Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire.
So anyone who has a dog can go online and fill this out and it gives you your responses. And so what this questionnaire does is asks you about your dog’s emotional state and every day behaviors. And U Penn has been collecting data on dogs for the past two decades. So what I did was reach out to them and ask if I could use this for my specific sample of dogs who have been rescued from labs by BFP and if they already had data on any beagles. And it turns out they had data on 230-something beagles already that I had access to. So I then worked with BFP to recruit humans who rescue dogs though their organization and I had those humans can complete this questionnaire for the dogs who they care for.
And so what I found was that the former laboratory dogs are significantly more anxious and more fearful than the dogs who were never used in a laboratory. And so this fear includes just being afraid of strangers, of non-social situations, of stairs, loud noises. They’re really sensitive to being touched by vets or their groomers. So that was one big difference I found. But what was really nice is that I found this increase in fear did not result in increased aggression. Instead the dogs from labs were significantly less aggressive towards other dogs, towards strangers, and towards their care givers. And I think what’s also really important to stress about this research is that I found no significant differences on a number of the behaviors that we would typically associate with being a good dog. Meaning they were just the same as the dogs that had never been used in the laboratory and that included on behavior such as separation related urination or defecation, chewing on things around the house, pulling on the leash if taking a walk, chasing other animals, and their ability to be trained.
So despite the persistent fear and anxiety that lasted even after being removed from the laboratories, my study found that these dogs make amazing companions. And other researchers have found that the longer that dogs are outside of the lab the more relaxed they actually will become. And you’ll even see a significant increase in that anxiety and fearfulness kind of going away.
Did this conclusion surprise you at all?
I was definitely expecting the increased fearfulness and anxiety but I was really surprised that a majority of the behaviors there was no significant difference on. I would have thought that the trauma would have resulted in more persistent changes and they weren’t there, and so it was a happy surprise right? Because I don’t want to just dwell on the negative because I want people to understand that these dogs make amazing companions and that with a little extra love, attention, and a care giver who is really willing to be patient and understand what they need they can be a wonderful member of the family.
I’m wondering what your experience was with getting this paper published in a scientific community that is still very much pro-animal research?
Yeah, my field is dominated by animal experimentation and so it really has been challenging for me at times and I definitely felt it with this paper. So in academia when you submit an article to a journal for publication they will send it to two or three people who are experts in the field to review your paper and they’re the ones who decide whether the paper should be published or rejected. So in this case when I submitted my article to the journal they were sending it to people who use dogs in laboratories right? The people who whose work I’m uncovering and saying you’re causing psychological harm to these dogs. And so it’s not uncommon to have your article rejected from a journal and have to re submit it to another one. But I was rejected a few times and it wasn’t because of the quality of my science or the merit of my work. It was purely because of the message…the tone…the language I was using and what the results showed.
And so I would get one review back that would say, “This is such important work. This study is well done,” and obviously came from someone who was sympathetic to what I was doing. And then I would get another review on the same manuscript that would say, “We follow the laws. Dogs are not traumatized. We treat our dogs so well.” And they took particular issue with my calling the trauma Posttraumatic stress disorder or PTSD. And so by the time my paper did get published, the discussion of PTSD really was watered down, but it still was is in there.
But yeah it was just difficult because I’m calling people out for the work that they’re doing and trying to show the negative psychological consequences of their work. And if we recognize that, then we might have to change the laws right and change what people are allowed to do to animals in laboratories and they don’t want that to happen. So they’d rather just try and reject my article but I persisted and it was published. So I’m happy about that.
It’s interesting to me, and you know I’m not a scientist, but I can attest to the fact that most of us who own former research dogs can clearly identify signs of PTSD in our dogs. And so it’s always surprising to me that people who actually work in the laboratory with these dogs every day doing these procedures cannot see that.
And the other thing that’s really interesting is that researchers use animals as models for PTSD in the lab right? But that’s what they always say. This is a “model” of Posttraumatic stress disorder. They never want to say that we are inducing Posttraumatic stress disorder because if they framed it that way then again think about how morally reprehensible we would find their work so instead they always use the word model…model… but I think it’s a defense or coping mechanism for them to continue doing what they’re doing and not really think about the consequences on those poor animals.
So on a more positive note, how can this information gained from your beagle study help get more dogs adopted out of laboratories?
Like I mentioned before I think not only dwelling on the harms but looking at all of the behaviors that were no different between my two samples showing that they are just as trainable, they’re significantly less aggressive, can really paint a different picture of what these dogs lives can be like outside of the laboratory and can show they a make great companions. Another thing I found is that the dogs from the labs actually had increased attachment to their care givers and based on my interactions with some of their caregivers…you know this was a reciprocal relationship…like they also had a really strong attachment and bond with their dogs. And they said that they would absolutely adopt another dog from a lab if they were given the opportunity to. So again I think we have to focus on that, but I think my work can also help rescue organizations prepare future care givers for knowing there is going to be some generalized fearfulness. There is going be anxiety. They are going to be really attached to you and just kind of know that so you can help them adjust to their life outside of the lab. or avoid circumstances that might increase those stress responses.
You are also conducting research on alternatives to the use of animals in psychology education… because that is our real goal–to replace dogs and other animals with better more effective methods. Many people may not even realize how animals are still being used in psychology education. Could you describe how psychology education right now is still using certain animals, but importantly, what more humane, non-animal methods could they be using instead?
So I teach General Psychology; General Psychology Laboratory; Biological Basis of Behavior; and Learning and Cognition at my institution. And so a lot of other psychology instructors use animal dissection to teach basic anatomy in these courses. They might use mice and rats for classical or operant conditioning demonstration. So this is learning demonstrations and they might even induced brain lesions mice or rats to study the effects of brain damage in the Biological Basis of Behavior course. So it is still really common that live animals and animal specimens are used in psychology education. And as someone who is morally opposed to that, but also got my doctorate in experimental psychology without ever having to do so things myself, I think it’s really important that we use alternatives but also that we have science backing up why it is important to use these for our student learning.
So for example I have a plastinated human brain. So this is a brain that was donated to science and was basically turned into plastic so it can be safely handled and I use this in my psyche classes as one way to learn about brain anatomy. I have students build clay models so they have different colored clay and they have to build the different major lobes of the brain to see where they are and how they relate to one another. And I know this sounds right like elementary school coloring and playdough but it’s actually kinesthetic learning and it’s really important for students to understand the relationships between these parts of the brain.
I use computer modeling of brain anatomy and function to see how different drugs affect the nervous system. How brain injury can affect every day behaviors. And my students’ favorite is the program called CyberRat. And this is where they have to classically and operantly condition a computer program rat to perform different behaviors and they really love it. And they approach it as a game and they try and compete with one another and see who could train their rat the quickest and again all of this is done without harming any animals.
And so what the science shows us is that these alternatives help students learn the same as, if not better, than dissection and animal experimentation. And that’s because so many students are morally opposed to do these things and when there’s a power differential in the classroom and your teacher is telling you, you have to and you don’t want to, you start shutting down emotionally right? There’s an “ick” factor. Students don’t want to have to do this. So they’re not engaged. All of these other emotions and feelings are actually distracting them from learning the material. And also if you’re trying to learn about human brains and you’re dissecting a sheep brain they’re not that similar and so they’re just not going to be learning as well as if they were actually using a plastinated human brain.
And so it’s really important that we as psychology educators use these ethical alternative methodologies to teach our students because we don’t want to turn away compassionate future educators from pursuing these fields. We need more compassionate people in the field. So I think it’s really important that that we explore and use these alternatives and spark their intellectual curiosity by showing them compassionate ethical ways that they can still learn about this information without harming other animals.
Agreed. You don’t want students to give up on their dreams of being a scientist, because of having that icky feeling of having to do experiments on animals. I can imagine that can have a long-term effect on some students.
Research shows that young women particularly will be turned off from pursuing the sciences in general if they are forced to dissect. As a woman in the sciences, I think it’s really important that we don’t do that. And you know circling back to what I talked about when I was a graduate student, I testified on behalf of the bill that would give students the option to not dissect. And as an educator and as someone who is also morally opposed to this I think it’s really important that we also have more high schools and colleges and universities that are pursuing these dissection choice bills or policies such that we can tell students that you will not be penalized for not doing this. I’m not going to force you to do something you find morally reprehensible, and I’m going to give you this alternative assignment that you can complete use one of these computers simulating programs, or do something else to learn the material and again not turn them off from pursuing—like you said—their dreams.