I love watching documentaries about dogs. More specifically, I like the kind that tell you all about how smart they are, how they think, and what they know. So when a friend of mine who works at Yale University told me about the Canine Cognition Lab — just a short drive from my house — I jumped at the chance to sign Maybelle up for the Ivy League.
I headed over to the Canine Cognition Lab’s website and signed up, but nothing happened for a while. I had resigned myself to thinking no one in my family would ever contribute to science when I received an email telling me I could sign up for an initial visit. A week or so later, Maybelle and I were in the car headed to school!
The first visit to the lab is mostly about helping the dog acclimate to her surroundings, making sure she’s friendly and not too stressed out by the environment. They also run the dog through a simple warm-up exercise or two, which I assume is to make sure she is compliant. After all, if your dog just lies down and goes to sleep instead of paying attention to the experimenters, I imagine she isn’t a great candidate for the study.
Maybelle passed her initial visit with flying colors. She is really into science — or at least the treats the experimenters dole out.
A few weeks passed before we headed in for our first actual experiments. I received an email telling me there were new experiments I could sign up for, and I headed into the lab’s scheduling system to pick a day and time that worked for me. I was pleasantly surprised to see brief descriptions of the experiments we would be participating in if we chose a certain slot. So I knew a little bit about what I was getting us both into before we arrived.
Maybelle, always happy to have a job to do — even if that job is “guinea pig” — makes for a pretty great study participant, if I do say so myself. We ran through a handful of experiments that day — and I do mean “we,” because I was present for all of them — and several of them were similar to studies I had read about before and that you may also be familiar with.
For instance, did you read about the study that says your dog can help identify jerks? Well, Maybelle took part in a similar study. I sat in a chair in the corner with my head down and held on to her harness. Meanwhile, an experimenter put treats in a couple of large, clear containers with lids. Eventually he “accidentally” closed the lids. There were two other experimenters in the room, and they either helped or hindered him in opening the containers back up. (We talked about this on WNPR, along with Dr. Laurie Santos from the lab.) Eventually they gave me the signal to let Maybelle go, and she was able to approach them. Like most of the dogs in the study, she went to the person who had hindered the experimenter (aka the mean person).
After each experiment, they would give me a quick debriefing. The experimenters at Yale theorized that dogs went to the mean person as a way of recognizing dominance. In the case I linked to above, instead of an experimenter, it was the owner of the dog who was either helped or hindered, and dogs were more likely to avoid the “mean” person. Apparently, dogs don’t care if you’re mean … as long as it isn’t to their owners.
There was also an object-permanence test similar to this one that scientists have run on babies, as well as one that tested dogs’ reliance on human cues. For this experiment, I sat with my head down and held onto Maybelle’s harness once again. The experimenter had two buckets. She hid a treat under one, but made a fuss over the other — pointing to it and generally drawing Maybelle’s attention to it. When I was finally instructed to let her go, Maybelle went straight to the bucket the experimenter had made a fuss over. This surprised me as she’s a food hound with an excellent nose, but apparently dogs are so in tune with humans that they prioritize the information we give them over what their nose is telling them (unless, of course, you’re in the woods and they are hot on the trail of something interesting). This video explains a similar experiment:
Part of what the scientists in the video found out was that dogs seem to understand when your eyes are closed and when you can see something. Maybelle also took place in a experiment that aims to find out what dogs understand about what we see or know, and whether or not they attempt to inform us about things they think we need to know.
In this experiment, I sat next to an experimenter and another person sat across from us. Two of us sat with our heads down while the other person read a book. Eventually the reader got up, left the room, and came back. In another version of this experiment, the reader would put the book on the floor behind our chairs, then sit down while another person entered the room and took the book. In another, the dog’s owner might have been the one reading the book — and then subsequently had their book “stolen.” In the one with Maybelle, nothing at all happened to the book.
The idea is to see whether dogs will try to tell the reader that the book has been taken. And from what the folks at Yale tell me, dogs will, in fact, tell you that someone stole your book — but they go above and beyond for their owners.
Those of us who watch our local news are probably thinking, DUH! Hardly a month goes by without a story of a family dog waking everyone up when a fire breaks out or a burglar breaks in.
Maybelle and I will head back for another round of experiments when the new semester begins. It’s fun to see science from the inside, and it gives Maybelle something to do — even if it’s just for an hour or so. But something tells me many Dogster readers already know what science is just now getting around to confirming about the incredibly smart and intuitive creatures who live in our homes.
Read more by Theresa Cramer:
About the author: Theresa Cramer is a journalist and editor by trade, an NPR addict, and an avid gardener. She blogs at Writer on the Prowl, where you will find pictures of her garden, her pets, and musings about whatever is on her mind. She is working on a book about content marketing and how to make the transition from journalist to brand journalist.