Not rocket science, this is dog science

You know your dog is smart, but now he can go to Duke University, and as Dr. Brian Hare, co-director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center says, it’s easy to get into the program and the tuition is free. Yale and other universities are also doing canine research because, let’s face it, we want to know what our best friends are thinking. With good data, we’ll be able to know if what we believe about our pooches is based on fact or fantasy. For this, we live in a good time. Not only are scientists doing observational research, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) has advanced our ability to non-invasively look inside a dog’s brain to see what’s going on.


In Dr. Hare’s lab, observational studies attempt to show what dogs understand. For instance, in one experiment, an experimenter restrained a dog on a leash while a student placed a cup upside down on either side of a chair in which she was sitting. Another student entered the room with the dog’s tennis ball, and hid it under one of the cups. The dog could not tell which cup concealed the ball. The seated student then pointed to one of the cups. The dog ran to that cup reliably in trial after trial. Even when the student simply gazed at the cup, the dog ran to that cup. It was clear that the dog was responding to the seated student’s prompt. He understood her intention, which is a fairly sophisticated response. Chimpanzees fail this test, but dogs don’t. It’s on a par with what one-year-old children might do.


At Yale, the Dog Cognition Center is also doing observational studies. In one scenario, a person is reading a book while his dog is watching. Then the person puts down the book behind him. A second person comes in and takes the book. More often than not the dogs seemed to realize something was not right and even tried to alert their owners.


Anecdotes abound about dogs feeling empathy for their owners when they’re feeling sad or depressed, so I was curious about a study that was reported in Current Biology, March 2014. The dogs in the study were first trained to lie still in an MRI machine while being scanned. (The training procedure for that was an accomplishment by itself.) While in the machine, the dogs listened to various sounds, such as humans laughing and crying, dogs whining and barking, and neutral sounds like a telephone ringing. The scientists analyzed the data reflected in the scans and compared it to similar scans in humans.


Scientists found emotional sounds, both human and dog, lit up more neurons in one particular area of a dog’s brain than did more neutral sounds, and the area corresponded to the same part of the brain where humans neurons respond to emotional stimuli. So dogs seem to be tuned in to our happiness and sadness. Pretty fascinating stuff!


For other thoughts on animal cognition, read what Heal’s co-founder, Betsy Banks Saul, writes.


Photo credit: “Toby.” By Andy Mabbett (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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