Jana and Wylie Go to College

Jana and Wylie got accepted to Eckerd College and, last week, attended their first class, a math class. They were students in the Dog Behavior Project, a cognition study run by the psychology department. Your dog can participate too, if you live in the Tampa Bay area! The application is simple.

The dogs were excited when we got there. A human class was just letting out, and some of the students said hello. The dogs got to explore the psych lab for a few minutes, and they could tell that other dogs had been there.

Then it was time for class. Jana got to go first, so we went into the testing room. There was a chair for me, two bowls on the floor at the other end of the room, with one student serving as tester and a student who recorded what Jana did.

The current study is hoping to determine whether dogs can count or judge quantities. The tester drops treats into bowls, and the dogs get to choose one of the bowls. For each trial, she drops a different number of treats into each of the two bowls, with the dog watching. Jana got Charlee Bears, which she loves.

We went in and sat down. I told Jana to wait and held her collar loosely. She sat facing the tester. Once the treats were in both bowls, Jana was allowed to choose which bowl she wanted, run to the bowl, and eat the treats. The researcher is supposed to grab the treats in the other bowl while the dog is eating. Some “control” trials have treats in only one bowl.

No one looks good in these graduation hats!

Jana watched intently each time treats were being dropped into the bowls. When I said OK and let go, she ran to a bowl. She chose the larger number of treats eight out of 10 times; I have no idea what happened those other two times. She was definitely paying attention. She also, not surprisingly, ran to the second bowl each time she finished eating her treats and barked at the researcher when she found it empty. What tells me that she was really paying attention is that, in the “control” trials, when the researcher had not placed treats in the second bowl, Jana did not bother going there.

When Jana finished the last trial, she brought me the empty bowl. I am sure Jana thought this was the best class ever! She would happily have done 20 or even 50 trials.

Then it was Wylie’s turn. Unfortunately,  in his first two trials, the researcher forgot to pick  up the treats from the second bowl, and he was able to get both sets of treats. From then on, he showed a clear “side bias,” always choosing the same bowl. He only got the larger number of treats six out of 10 times, but in his defense, I think he was misled about the nature of the task. My guess is that he figured that it didn’t matter which bowl he went to first. Also, he’s just not that excited about Charlee Bears. If she had put tennis balls in the bowls …

Both humans and dogs enjoyed participating in this study, and we’d do it again. Some of the studies are longer-term, with the same dogs coming back for several sessions. It’s a fun way to spend time with your dog and learn more about how her mind works.

It also shows how far dogs have come. Even as recently as 15 years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find published academic research that focused on dogs. Now, researchers all over the world are exploring dogs’ thinking and problem solving abilities. Some of the best work is being done in Hungary, at the “Family Dog Project” at Eötvös Loránd University.

But it’s not necessary to go that far afield. Eckerd is just one of several U.S. colleges and universities where dog cognition labs recruit local canine “students.” Others are the University of Florida, Duke University, Barnard College, and the University of Kentucky. Researchers are looking at a variety of topics ranging from canine facial expressions, such as the “guilty” look to dogs’ responses to human gestures to how dogs form trusting relationships.

I get excited about anything that gives me a window into my dog’s mind. I often wonder what she’s thinking. These studies might help us better understand of our doggy best friends and improve our relationships with them. Then again, the researchers might confirm something that I have long suspected about Wylie — that he regards humans as bumbling, inept, and not very smart, and he knows that, if only dogs had opposable thumbs, the world would be a very different place.

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