For as long as I have worked with service dogs in training, I have known that putting a service dog cape or harness on a dog sends a clear signal: “ Now, you are working!” With many dogs, the working dog and the off-duty dog behave so differently they could be two different dogs. Wylie is an extreme example — on harness, he will work past distractions. He still notices cats, for example, but his strong work ethic keeps him focused on the job at paw. But take off his harness and he is all-dog — party dog. We call him the frat boy. All he wants to do is play. And, maybe, if we’d let him, drink beer.
Last week, The New York Times gave me an explanation for this phenomenon: enclothed cognition. The study’s authors say that we think not only with our brains but also with our bodies. It’s long been known that our clothing affects other people’s perceptions of us; now researchers are learning that how people dress affects the way that they see themselves and the way that they think and behave.
The study cited by the NYT found that people who put on a “doctor’s” lab coat were better able to notice subtle incongruities or differences in images they saw. For example, they noticed that the word “red” was colored green, or they found more differences in very similar photos. Those wearing the “doctor’s” coat did better than test subjects who merely saw the coat, better than subjects who wore the coat but were told it belonged to an artist, and better than a control group who had no white coat presented in any way.
“Enclothed” cognition is an extension of embodied cognition. Just as washing hands has been shown to be associated with ideas of moral purity and people who carry large clipboards feel important, dressing in certain clothing awakens specific associations in our minds — and these associations affect our behavior.
It’s not much of a leap to recognize that dogs are affected in a similar way.
Putting on a cape signals to a Pet Partner dog that it’s time to go on a therapy dog visit, and putting a cape on a service dog says that playtime is over. Some dogs even have better leash manners with their capes on. When two working service dogs, who also happen to be pals, meet while on duty, they might greet each other warmly and with a wag of the tail, but they will quickly settle back into their calm, unobtrusive working roles. Take those same two dogs on a walk together, or watch them at one of their homes when neither is on duty, and you will see very different dogs and a much higher level of energy!
Just as some people quickly exchange work clothes — and professional persona — for comfy yoga pants and an informal attitude as soon as they get home, some dogs, like Wylie, demonstrate a wide gap between “all business” and “let’s get this party started.” And there are dogs (and people) who clearly know that something special is expected of them when they are dressed for work but who maintain a consistent personality, on duty or off. Each dog’s different degree of “enclothed” cognition helps us respect the truth that all who live with and love working dogs quickly learn: a service dog partner is not a robot, but an individual who makes voluntary choices to do her job. The study’s authors wonder whether the effects of a person’s daily work uniform eventually wear off — or become habit. Do the clothes, in the end, define the dog?