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Welcome to the doghouse

It was surely the canine social event of the season. Eli, the Yale Police Department's bomb-sniffing labrador retriever, was there, as was Remy, a local therapy dog often spotted riding in a motorcycle sidecar with his human companion Danny Klein. And even though he is still on the mend from palate surgery, Sherman—aka Handsome Dan XVII—made it too. (See photo 4.)

The occasion was the grand opening of the Canine Cognition Center at Yale, a laboratory in a converted garage on St. Ronan Street that looks a bit like a veterinarian's office, though maybe a little less foreboding for dogs. There, psychology professor Laurie Santos and her team plan to investigate what dogs know and how they learn from their relationships with people. Santos, who has long worked with primates, recently started studying dogs at local doggie day care centers. With a facility of their own, Santos and her team hope to ramp things up. "To really reach as many dogs as we want to, it's nice to have our own space here." So far, 100 people have registered their pets to participate in the center's studies. (You can sign up here.)

While a half-dozen or so very well-behaved dogs and a couple dozen bipeds milled around the lab this afternoon, postdoc Katie McAuliffe demonstrated some of the studies the center is planning when it begins in earnest in the new year. (See photo 3.) McAuliffe, who did her doctoral work on perceptions of fairness in dingos and domesticated dogs, explained that "dogs pay attention to human cues in ways that even chimpanzees, our closest relatives, don't." Studies will explore when and how dogs respond to those cues. For example, to find out "what it is about the human point that dogs understand," researchers will test to see if a dog will retrieve a toy from the correct box if a person is pointing at it with his or her finger, and then if the pointing is done with a stick instead.

Pat Stewart and Tony Esposito, who were on hand for the grand opening, have already signed up their border collie Annie. "She is the sweetest dog I've ever known," Stewart said. "I want to know what's going on in her head."

Santos says that one question she's interested in is whether Annie knows what's going on in Stewart's head. Some future experiments may explore whether dogs have a "theory of mind"; that is, do they understand that people have thoughts even when those thoughts aren't necessarily being expressed?

What makes all this a project for the psychology department, which is traditionally concerned with the noggins of human animals? Santos explained all that to YaleNews: “Dogs grow up in humanlike environments, and they provide this fantastic window to ask what the role of those environmental experiences might be. Through domestication dogs were built to pay particular attention to human cues. The question is, given that they live in these environments, and were shaped to pay attention to these cues, are they learning in some of the same ways a human child might learn?”

Filed under dogs, Canine Cognition Center, Laurie Santos
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