Finding Out How Dogs Think

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Published: August 17, 2015

Don’t you wish you knew what your dog was thinking? It would make all of our lives so much easier.

Several laboratories are working on questions related to how dogs think about the “physical and social world.” The Yale University Canine Cognition Center is one. It is devoted to learning how dogs “perceive their environment, solve problems, and make decisions.” Their findings will “teach us how the dog mind works, which can help us to better develop programs to improve how we train and work with our canine friends.”

The researchers use several different types of studies to investigate how dogs think:

Looking Measures — In “looking” games, dogs are asked to sit while being shown a small stage and a series of events. Sometimes one of these events will involve something that’s unexpected—an event that appears to violate physical or social principles. When dogs detect the violation, they will look longer at the display as if they are “surprised.” In this way, we can see what dogs know simply by measuring how long they look at certain events.

Social Cues — By using simple pointing and looking gestures, we can see if dogs understand our intentions and goals. In a typical game, dogs see one of our staff cueing the location of hidden food treats. We then give them a chance to search for the food and see what types of cues they naturally use.

Choice Measures — Dogs’ decisions reflect how they process the world. In a typical choice game, dogs get to choose between two different boxes that have different numbers of food, balls, or other toys. From their choices, we can tell whether they can distinguish between different kinds of objects and learn more about their understanding of numbers.

Touchscreen Testing — In this type of study, we teach dogs to make choices using their nose on a touchscreen. Once they become touchscreen experts, we can then show them new and interesting events to see how these events affect their decisions.

Sounds like a lot of fun for the dogs, owners (yes, owners get to stay with their dogs), and researchers!

Yale’s Canine Cognition Center is looking for dogs of all ages, sizes, and breeds to participate in their work. Dogs must be healthy (free from any contagious illness), have no history of aggression, be current on their rabies, distemper/parvo, and bordetella vaccines, and have a negative stool sample (including Giardia) within the past six months. Puppies must be over 16 weeks of age, have already received at least their third set of vaccinations, and have a clean stool sample.

If you live in the New Haven, CT area and want to see whether your dog is “Ready for the Ivy League,” take a look at the Canine Cognition Center’s webpage. For a peek into what a session in the lab might look like, watch this report that aired on the Today Show awhile back.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Javier Brosch / Shutterstock