Promoting attention: welfare and social issues

Our studies on horses have demonstrated that a lower welfare state is associated with lower cognitive abilities and especially of attentional levels or skills while social and non-social attention is a major requirement for the daily functioning of individuals. Therefore, it seems major to identify how to promote and trigger attentional skills of individuals, especially if they have encountered altered developmental conditions.
Ethos Equipe Pegase

Visible indicators of welfare

Our team plays an important international role in characterizing welfare indicators and measuring welfare in horses more particularly. We have thus been able, through methodological innovations, to show that welfare alterations lead to chronic postural alterations both in horses and pigs (Coll. GIS CCS, INRA). We are now using this methodology to assess the impact of working conditions on these postural changes. We also try and disentangle common beliefs from scientific evidence and have shown, in horses and macaques (coll. Team 3), that adult play in such species is not a reliable welfare indicator and may even be considered as an alerting signal in terms of conditions of life offered. Overall, we have made critical contributions to the international debates around welfare indicators and welfare assessment in horses.

An acoustic indicator of positive emotions in horses?

We have found acoustic signals (snorts) that are produced when horses are in more positive situations whether at rest (e.g. pasture) or at work (e.g. riding phases when the rider technique allows more comfort for the horse). Interestingly, these acoustic signals are also known to happen in other species, such as rhinos which produce them also at more relaxed positive times (Coll. UniV. Hanover, Germany). We also found in horses that there are more snorts heard in facilities where the welfare conditions are better, showing further that horses in good welfare (a chronic state) are more prone to experience calm positive emotions when placed in more positive situations.

The horse as a model for approaching the mutual relationship between welfare, cognition and emotions

Research in cognitive psychology has repeatedly shown how much cognition and emotions are mutually related to one another. Psychological disorders are associated with cognitive (attention, memory and judgment) biases and chronic pain may affect attention, learning or memory. Laboratory studies have provided useful insights about the processes involved but observations about spontaneous animal models, living in different stress/welfare conditions may help understand further how cognition and welfare are interrelated in the « real world ». Domestic horses constitute such a model as they live in a variety of conditions that impact differently their welfare state. We have tried and provided an overview of the scientific literature on cognition and welfare of domestic horses and their interrelationship, addressing how emotions and welfare may affect cognitive processes in horses and impact the way they perceive their environment (including work). We are proposing new methods for assessing the relationship between welfare and cognition and discuss how this can relate with the evolution of the brain and the part domestication may have played.

Attentional cues may trigger social cognition in human newborns

Human newborns are sensitive to the attentional state of humans addressing language to them: they prefer faces with a direct gaze towards them rather than a gaze towards them but looking slightly above. More interesting still, in this latter case, they do not discriminate familiar versus non-familiar faces (Coll. Univ. Paris V, Paris 10).

Identifying best practices for triggering social attention in children with developmental disorders

Redirection of attention during animal-assisted interventions could be a way of triggering attentional behaviours in children with autism spectrum disorders, by letting them be « actors » of the interaction and lowering the « invasiveness » they can feel when adults are addressing them repeatedly. This last research is very important as it reveals unexpected social skills in these children, such as an interest for social interactions, the ability to sustain visual attention, some form of « empathy » since they then tend then to intervene in the adult-dog interactions.