Conn. — When Porter the dog tries to figure out why
his owner has placed a toy bone under a bucket, his
response might provide some insight about human
development, autism and other learning disabilities.
the hope of Laurie Santos, who runs the Canine Cognition
Center at Yale, which opened in December. She pointed to
the 4-year-old chocolate Lab mix, brought in
by psychology grad student Kristi Leimgruber.
Porter is growing up in the same kind of environment as
human children, Santos said, so comparing how he learns
with the way people learn can tell us a lot about human
much more than primates, dogs are more cued into what we
care about and what we know," Santos said.
"And they might have been shaped in a way that’s
very different from any other animal species in part
because, in a sense, they (behave) more like a human
child who’s cued in (to humans) than, say, a
all that we ask of dogs — loyalty, companionship,
slipper-fetching — rarely have we asked what drives
dogs. That’s starting to change in the world of
academia, where the dog’s status as a research subject
has increased in recent years.
Canine Cognition Center — where Santos and her
researchers study dogs’ decision-making processes and
how they pick up on social cues — is the latest
example of a growing interest in how dogs can offer
insights into behavioral and cognitive science. Santos
is a professor of psychology, internationally known for
her research of monkey behaviors.
she still studies monkeys, Santos said dogs may offer
something to her research that monkeys can’t.
and more, we’re learning that, although monkeys are
really good evolutionary models because they’re
closely related to us, the environment they’re in and
the way they’re raised is completely different,"
she said. "So it would be great to get a new model
that experiences some of same environments and might
even experience some of the same selection pressures in
said Santos, is where dogs come in.
don’t have language and, obviously, they’re not
human, yet they grow up in exactly the same environments
as children and rely on some of the same kinds of
cues," she said. "So the question is, given
that they have similar environments, what does that tell
us about their cognition?"
benefit to studying dogs is practicality. Monkeys and
other animal subjects have to be housed somewhere. But
with the Canine Cognition Center, people bring in their
dogs for tests and bring them home.
a dog is enrolled with the center, the researchers
contact the owners about coming studies they might be
suited for. Studies typically last 30 to 45 minutes, and
none is more than an hour. Owners can watch their dogs
take part in the studies, which generally involve simple
said they have about 300 dogs signed up, and 40 dogs
enrolled in the studies.
are required to be spayed or neutered, vaccinated and in
good health and have no history of aggression.
that are accepted receive a letter of admission with the
same wording in letters sent to Yale undergrad
2011, the journal Comparative Cognition and Behavior
published a history of dog cognition studies, beginning
with Ivan Pavlov’s work with salivating dogs near the
turn of the 20th century. According to the paper,
the first wave of dog behavior studies peaked in the
1960s "but declined over the rest of the 20th
century before starting to increase in the first decade
of the 21st century."
of the paper’s authors, Erica Feuerbacher, a doctoral
candidate at the Canine Cognition and Behavior Lab at
the University of Florida, said the difference
between recent studies of dogs and earlier ones is the
motivation behind the studies. Earlier research tended
to use dogs as a convenient model that could tell us
things about ourselves. Only recently have researchers
taken up dog behavior studies simply because we’re
curious about how dogs’ minds work.
think recently, that animals — dogs and cats — are
seen more as persons in our home, and I think we’re
realizing how incredibly adaptive they are,"
not by accident, said Brian Hare, who teaches
evolutionary anthropology at Duke University.
a word it’s because of domestication," he said.
"Dogs have been selected not to be smarter in the
way we normally think about it; they’ve been selected
to be emotionally smarter. They like humans and they
want to be with humans more than they want to be with
other dogs. They really see us emotionally as
studying dogs because we really like them doesn’t pay
the bills. Hare said the National Institutes of
Health and other agencies that fund these studies
want to know that there’s a specific benefit to
studying dogs. To that end, he said, there’s no
share a long history with dogs, and dogs are not just
complex psychologically and interesting; they have all
sorts of jobs in the real world," Hare said. Their
many duties, he said, include serving as guide dogs,
detecting bombs and drugs and finding cancers in people.
busy people," Hare said of dogs. "Everything
we learn about them helps us identify the best dogs for
who co-wrote "The Genius of Dogs," is
considered among dog cognition cognoscenti to be a
pioneer in the field. His interest was sparked by an
adviser discussing a game in which food was hidden under
a bucket, and how bad otherwise intelligent bonobo
monkeys were at playing it.
said, "My dog can do that." He said that led
him to explore other ways dogs have been underestimated.
resurgence of using dogs as subjects didn’t come
without resistance. Alice Moon-Fanelli, a former
professor at the Tufts University Cummings School of
Veterinary Medicine, remembers when, about 20 years ago,
she began researching the possibility of obsessive
compulsive disorders in dogs.
thought that we were heretics to suggest that these
behaviors … might have the cognitive equivalent of
someone who might have OCD," said Moon-Fanelli, who
received her doctorate at the University of Connecticut
and now runs Animal Behavior Consultations
in Brooklyn, Conn. These days, canine compulsive
disorder is so well-accepted that dog owners often
insist to her that their pets have it. Usually, she
said, the dogs don’t have OCD — they just want
a bone to gnaw on.
of Santos’ questions about the canine mind is whether
dogs have what’s known in psychology as theory of mind
— the ability to recognize that what other people are
thinking is different from what you’re thinking.
Children generally begin developing theory of mind by
age 3, and it’s considered a milestone in cognitive
studies have shown that children with autism score much
lower on theory of mind tests. Santos said exploring how
dogs pick up on what others are thinking could shed some
light on specifically what goes awry in the development
of humans diagnosed with autism.
general, she said, dogs have a lot to tell us. For
centuries, she said, dogs have had to get along with
humans to get their food and other resources, so it
would make sense that they’re more in tune with us
sign your dog up as a subject at the Yale Canine
Cognition Center, go to doglab.yale.edu/your-dog-ready-ivy-league