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Ambiguity, Ambivalence, and Affective Encounters: An Ethnographic Account of Medical Detection Dog–Trainer Relationships

By Katrina E. Holland

Category Journal Articles
Abstract

A relatively novel application of dogs’ olfactory capabilities involves training them to detect and alert to the odor of human diseases. Drawing on research using ethnographic methods of participant observation and semi-structured interviews at two medical detection dog training and research facilities, this paper examines interspecies relationships and knowledge production during the medical detection dog training process. This study aimed to understand how trainers experience this work. However, the analysis moves beyond a wholly anthropocentric focus by considering the agency of both human and nonhuman animal. Within the medical detection dog domain, ambivalent human perceptions towards the dogs are identified. On the one hand, the dogs are perceived as machine-like, extra-sensory tools that can be employed to identify odors imperceptible to the human nose. Simultaneously, however, the trainers understand the dogs as agentic individuals: a perception associated with the potential for unpredictability or ambiguity in a dog’s search behavior. To overcome such ambiguity, trainers learn to “listen” to the dogs and rely on interpretive flexibility in order to successfully interpret a dog’s behavior. The analysis finds medical detection dog training encounters to be mutually affective as both parties are changed in the process. In this context, knowledge is produced collaboratively, though not equally as attention to the power relations that underpin this interspecies work reveals asymmetries reflected in the training system. This study builds on previous literature that shows ambivalence to be central to the relationships between humans and other species, and extends our understanding of interspecies work practices.

Publication Title Anthrozoös
Volume 35
Issue 2
Pages 259-271
ISBN/ISSN 0892-7936
DOI 10.1080/08927936.2021.1974702
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Tags
  1. Dogs
  2. Human-animal relationships