Doggie U: Yale’s Canine Cognition Center does doggone good research

by valerie A. Russo  /  photography by TODD FAIRCHILD
 
For decades, researchers have studied monkeys and other non-human primates to better understand human cognition and behavior. But in recent years, man’s best friend has enthusiastically taken on that role at research centers around the world.
The Canine Cognition Center at Yale – the only university-affiliated canine cognition center in New England – is one of about 11 such centers in the United States and only one of about 20 around the world. Since it opened as part of Yale’s psychology department in December 2013, more than 400 dogs from New Haven and beyond have participated in games designed for research at the center. Another 1,000 dogs accepted into the program are on the wait list to participate.
Canine volunteers not only receive friendly pats and tasty treats, but also earn an Ivy League degree. In fact, pooches with dogged determination can earn multiple Yale degrees, awards and honors – from Freshman Year Certificate to Canine of Science Summa Cum Laude. And it’s all tuition free; no fees are charged to the owners of matriculating dogs.
The degrees and honors are bestowed by Dr. Laurie Santos, founder and director of center. “We study dogs because dogs are good models for human cognition,” she says. “We also study canine cognition because dog owners want to know what their dog is thinking. But we are not studying dogs to improve specific types of training, such as dogs trained for police work or to assist handicapped people.”
Santos, who had dogs for pets throughout her childhood in New Bedford, Massachusetts, does not have a dog right now because her field research on primates requires frequent travel. But she has many friends and colleagues with dogs who have participated in studies – including Benjamin Westerbrook (pictured, opposite page) a Cavalier King Charles/Beagle/Aussie Shepherd-mix owned by April Ruiz, dean of Yale’s Grace Hopper College. (The former Calhoun College, it was recently renamed to honor Yale alumna Grace Murray Hopper, a trailblazing computer scientist and rear admiral in the U.S. Navy.)
Benjamin has participated in nine studies and serves as the center’s official “spokesdog,” appearing in television interviews, publicity photos and on social media.
“Benjamin is a celebrity on the Yale campus,” Santos says. “He even has his own Instagram account and Facebook page.”
For more information about Benjamin Westerbrook, see below.
To participate in studies at the Canine Cognition Center at Yale, dogs must be vaccinated and in good health – free from any contagious illness or internal parasites. Dogs must have proof of current vaccination, including rabies, distemper/parvo and Bordetella, and have a negative stool sample tested for giardia within the past six months. Puppies must be over 16 weeks of age, must have already received their third set of vaccinations and must have a clean stool sample. After these requirements are met, the dog owner must sign up for an account on the center’s website and schedule an interview at the facility.
During the interview, the dog and dog owner meet the center’s manager, Michael Bogese, who observes the dog’s behavior and asks about the dog’s interests, preferences and special skills. After the interview, the dog and dog owner go home and wait to be called back for a study.
“We’re an equal opportunity canine cognition center,” Santos says. “We study all kinds of dogs – different breeds, male and female, young and old. But no aggressive dogs and no dogs that show anxiety. Nearly all the dogs interviewed get in.”
Santos, who’s a professor of psychology and cognitive science at Yale University, collaborates with her undergraduate and graduate students to come up with ideas for the studies. The center, which is open year-round, typically employs three doctoral candidates in Psychology and 15 undergraduate students who are earning course credit in Psychology, Cognitive Science or Evolutionary Biology for their work at the center. Funding comes from Yale University and the National Institutes of Health; there are no corporate sponsors.
The studies involve simple problem-solving games – no drugs, no collars that buzz, no restraints or anything that might be harmful or unpleasant. The dog owner remains with the dog during the study. Each session involves only one dog (or multiple dogs from the same household) and takes no more than one hour.
Up to 10 studies are in progress at any one time. Some studies include a series of events to find out whether a dog looks for a longer period of time when the event is unexpected (does the dog show surprise?); whether a dog goes to a hidden treat when a human points to it (does the dog respond to non-verbal cues?); and whether a dog goes to a box filled with a larger quantity of treats or a box containing a smaller quantity of treats (does the dog understand number?).
Each session is recorded with video so staff members can code the dog’s responses at a later time. There’s no viewing window for the public, but there is a lounge where friends and family members can watch the dog’s session on closed-circuit television.
Twenty to 30 dogs – called canine scholars – participate in each study. And each canine scholar goes home with a diploma, certificate or ribbon and a belly full of treats.
“The dogs find it fun,” Santos says. “We give them treats on their first visit, so they are excited to come back and do the studies. They remember that they get treats and lots of attention at the center.”
Many dogs return to participate in additional studies.
“We have to invent new degrees because some of the dogs have come 10 times. We’ve added Scruff & Bones and Paw Beta Kappa, the canine version of Yale’s Skull and Bones Society and Phi Beta Kappa,” she says.
While Santos can’t share findings on research in progress, she’s eager to talk about the center’s first study, published in September 2016. For the study, each dog observed a staff member pressing a lever on the side of a container and lifting the lid to remove a treat. (Pressing the lever did not open the lid; it’s an unnecessary step.) When the dogs were given a chance to perform the same exercise, they copied the actions of the staff member. But on subsequent tries, most of the dogs opened the lid without pressing the lever. In contrast, young children in a similar exercise continued to perform the unnecessary step.
“Dogs are good at taking cues from humans. A surprise is that dogs are even more efficient social learners than humans because they will skip unnecessary steps in performing a task,” Santos explains.
Another surprise for Santos and her staff was how little effect the breed of the dog has on study results.
“Breed doesn’t matter as much as we might have thought,” she says. “It’s more variable within breed than across breeds.”
Your lovable mutt may be just as smart as a border collie, so come to Yale and find out. But leave your cats at home because there are no plans to add a Feline Cognition Center at Yale.
“Most cats would not like riding in a car and coming to the center for studies,” Santos says.
The Canine Cognition Center at Yale is located at 175 St. Ronan Street in New Haven. For more information, see doglab.yale.edu.
For more information about the center’s “spokesdog,” visit instagram.com/benjamin.westerbrook/and facebook.com/people/Benjamin-Westerbrook/100009520267284

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