To better understand the human mind, scientists ar Harvard University are looking to dogs.
Through a newly established Canine Cognition Lab, researchers hope to learn whether domestication has led to dogs that think and act more like their masters, or whether that’s all in our heads.
“Here’s this species we live with. Everyone has their views about how smart they are. No doubt we are overinterpreting – and in some cases underinterpreting,” said Marc Hauser, a Harvard professor who has long studied cognition in cottontop tamarin monkeys and who heads the new lab. “To what extent is an animal that’s really been bred to be with humans capable of some of the same psychological mechanisms?”
Hauser is recruiting both purebreds and mutts and running them through simple tests aimed at determining, for example, whether they understand such abstract concepts as “same,” according to a recent Boston Globe article.
The new Harvard lab represents a turnaround in the scientific community, which has long looked primarily toward chimps for clues to human behavior.
“Psychologists have been ignoring animals that were sleeping quietly at their feet while they were doing work on rats and pigeons,” said Clive Wynne, a psychology professor at the University of Florida who also studies pets. “Darwin wrote about his dog … We couldn’t bring ourselves to take them seriously.”
In one of the tests at Harvard, researchers tried to determine whether dogs can use pictures as signs to figure out which bucket contains food. They presented Celia, a German shepherd, with a choice between a bucket marked with a picture of steak and one marked with a pair of pliers. Celia picked the steak.
Katie Levesque, Celia’s owner, said she tries to give her dog challenging tasks at home but was surprised that her dog picked pictures of food three times, also choosing a hot dog over a hammer, and three biscuits over one.
“I was kind of laughing,” said Levesque, who sat in a corner of the room with Celia at her feet during the experiment. Owners can also watch their dogs from behind a one-way mirror. Only about 20 dogs have been tested, so it’s too early to draw conclusions about dogs’ comprehension of pictures.
The Canine Cognition Lab is recruiting dogs. Check its website for more information.
Posted by John Woestendiek April 30th, 2009 under Muttsblog, videos.
Tags: abstract, animals, canine, cognition, concepts, dog, dogs, domestication, fairness, guilt, harvard, humans, lab, marc hauser, pets, psychology, research, science, shame, sharing, study, university, what dogs think