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Teacher’s Pet: Boning up at Ivy League
Harvard puts canine cognition to the test
Ivy League Dog

My dog was a little late for her test at Harvard University. Penny Jane was clearly nervous. Then she saw the testing room’s slick linoleum floors and the glare of the fluorescent lights, which screamed veterinarian’s office to her. She trembled and panted lightly as she scanned the shadowless room, probably for a syringe. When she turned her black nose up at a salmon-flavored treat, I worried that my Border Collie mix was going to flub her Ivy League school exam.

Both of our anxieties were misplaced. No one was going to get an F or a vaccination. Penny Jane’s “test” was part of an ongoing study at Harvard University’s Canine Cognition Lab. The lab was started in early 2009 by Marc Hauser, a Harvard professor who has long studied cognition, to research how domestic dogs think. To do so, Hauser has enlisted the help of Boston-area dog owners such as me to provide the tailwagging subjects for his research. A couple of thousand pooches have been tested so far. Penny Jane was somewhere around number 350.

Many a dog owner through the centuries has wondered what goes on in his pooch’s mind. But the question has held little interest for scientists, who have devoted endless hours to studying how other species think— especially rodents, pigeons and primates. Meanwhile, the animal brain right at our feet or in our laps went unexamined.

That is changing. There are currently canine cognition labs at the University of Florida, Duke University and Barnard College, as well as several in Europe. In July, some 500 scientists from around the globe gathered at the second Canine Science Forum in Vienna, Austria, to deliver papers on dogs’ understanding of human communication and how domestication has shaped their social skills.

“The field is a little crowded just now,” says Hauser.

The scientist, who has worked with cotton-topped tamarins since 1992, is a relative latecomer to the trend. This is his first cognition study with dogs. Why Hauser switched from diminutive monkeys to the family dog speaks to the practical reasons behind the growing interest in canine cognition. For starters, funding for primate research has become scarcer and scarcer, according to Hauser. Working with pet dogs means a lab does not have to bear the expense of keeping animals. Pet dogs also provide Hauser with volume. Rather than study 20 tamarins, Hauser will have results from several thousand dogs by the end of his current study. If one dog’s trial, say Penny Jane’s, goes awry, it won’t statistically throw off the whole study as it would with only 20 animals.

Moreover, scientists can explore issues with pet dogs that they can’t with other species, such as how domestication has affected a species’ thinking, or if there are ways Canis lupus familiaris has become more like Homo sapiens. “Unlike all the other animals, there is some possibility that they have acquired some of our moral behavior,” Hauser says.

And as always, by studying another species we can learn about our own, and chip away at the age-old question of how we became unique. In my specific case, I feared the study would demonstrate, despite all my efforts to the contrary, what an anthropomorphizing egomaniac I was. Though I prided myself on what a cool head I had about animals, I’d gotten off to a bad start before the two of us even arrived at the lab by bragging to all my friends that Penny Jane was going to Harvard. Did I, like so many dog lovers, ultimately see my pup as a reflection of myself?

That question was not on Hauser’s list. Rather, he’s investigating how dogs respond to physical as well as emotional cues, how much patience they have, and whether they understand the concept of sameness, as in two identical objects. To answer these and other questions, dogs are ushered into a large, mostly bare room with a broad window facing south on one side and a mirrored wall on the other. Here, pups are repeatedly asked to choose between two identical buckets, but in varying circumstances.

As scientific experiments go, there’s a lot out of Hauser’s control. For one, the dogs hail from a wide range of backgrounds. Some are trained, as Penny Jane, whom I taught to open cereal boxes (this has come back to haunt me). Others are hardly trained at all. The pups range widely in breeds, sizes and ages. The owners are also a big variable. Some might overly prompt their dog or grow frustrated. “Some think they should be more involved and won’t listen to us,” Hauser said. “One owner felt compelled to say we are doing it all wrong.” I didn’t do that, but I did repeatedly drop Penny Jane’s leash at the wrong time.

In the early months of the study, Hauser and his lab assistants worked out the trial’s kinks. They found that some dogs were distracted by the window, others liked to stare at themselves in the mirror and some wanted to play with the experimenter. They tweaked the trials to keep the dogs’ attention as best they could, though some would still lie down and fall asleep, as Hauser’s own Newfie did.

There was no way Penny Jane was going to nap. She stepped gingerly into the experiment room with her whitetipped, curled-in-a-letter-C tail tucked between her legs even though the research assistant proffered treat after treat. To find out what Penny Jane was thinking, the long-limbed, lean young woman directed us to a far corner of the room, where there was a chair and a square outlined in black tape on the floor. I took a seat, as did Penny Jane, but not in the marked box, so I had to push her like a lump of clay into the square, then scoot her around again to face the assistant. She looked at me over her shoulder with wide brown eyes that begged, “What are you thinking?”

The assistant tried to warm up Penny Jane by dropping treats in a bucket with a flap and setting it on the floor for her to investigate. But once seated in the square, Penny Jane was glued to it. The dog who once excavated an entire beach to unearth a single Cheeto now remained frozen, no matter how we egged her on in our chirpy voices. I didn’t need a scientific study to tell me what she was thinking, which was, “You two humans are freaking me out.” I was thinking, “What will I tell my friends if Penny Jane gets kicked out of Harvard?”

Finally, I gave her a familiar cue. “Find it,” I said, and my girl ever so carefully approached the bucket. Then she caught the whiff of a treat, curled a paw around the flap to lift it, and dug her nose deep into the bucket and grunted happily. She trotted back to the black square chewing, her tail at full curlicue.

With Penny Jane now a willing subject, the official trial began. Over the next 20 minutes, she sat in the black square and repeatedly pondered which bucket to approach. A few times the lab assistant pointed to the bucket with the treat, and Penny Jane gave her the equivalent of a canine “duh” and followed her index finger to the correct one. When the lab assistant pointed to one bucket with her foot, Penny Jane paused and then walked to the other one, the empty one. But when the lab assistant hoisted a small television in both arms and then pointed to a bucket with her foot, Penny Jane readily went to the correct one. The lab assistant explained that this showed that Penny Jane understood contextual signals, meaning she saw the lab assistant’s hands were occupied so that she had to use a foot.

I began to swell with pride, though I fought it by repeating “bad girl, bad girl” in my head. My Penny Jane, the unsocialized pup who was described to me as the “scaredest” dog in the shelter, was turning in a solid B performance, and at Harvard University, no less. Then, in a section designed to test dogs’ sensitivity to human emotions, the lab assistant picked up a bucket in her hands and scolded it: “No, no, no.” As I feared, Penny Jane essentially put her pencil down. She stood up, walked to my side, lay down and looked out the window. The dog who’d never been corrected, never been spoken to sternly, wasn’t going anywhere near the now scary lab assistant or buckets, not even if filet mignon were stashed inside. We were going to be one of those test results.

After a break, Penny pulled herself together and finished the entire trial, including a last section that tested how she used her sense of smell to differentiate between the identical buckets. In the end, her results were pretty typical, except that she chose the correct bucket each time in the very section that gave her trouble.

As we left, the lab assistant handed me a Harvard diploma of a sort with Penny Jane’s name inked on it in big letters. I laughed it off to the lab assistant, but called my husband on the drive home to crow that our pound pup had a Harvard degree. The results of Hauser’s study and what they say about how dogs think are still in the offing, but as for what it said about me, the results were already painfully clear.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 61: Sept/Oct 2010
Amy Sutherland is a journalist and author whose books include What Shamu Taught Me About Life, Love and Marriage (Random House), and Kicked, Bitten and Scratched. Her work has appeared numerous times in The Bark. amysutherland.com

Illustration by Greg Clarke

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