At the Center for Canine Cognition at Yale, we’re interested in how dogs think. Our studies explore what dogs know about the physical and social world. By presenting dogs with simple games, we can learn more about how they solve problems and understand how the world works.
One way we can learn more about how your dog thinks is to watch what she looks at. Scientists have used these “looking measures” to discover what dogs know. In “looking” games, we will ask your dog to sit while we show her a small stage and a series of events. Sometimes one of these events will involve something that’s unexpected — an event that appears to violate physical or social principles. Research has shown that when dogs detect the violation, they will look longer at the display as if they were “surprised” — just like a human watching a magic trick. In this way, we can see what dogs know simply by measuring how long they look at certain events.
We are also interested in whether dogs can understand human social cues. By using simple pointing and looking gestures, we can see if you dog understands our intentions and goals. In a typical game, your dog will see one of our staff cueing the location of hidden food treats. We’ll then give your dog a chance to search for the food and see what types of cues he naturally uses. Using techniques like this, researchers have learned that dogs are sometimes better at understanding human cues than we often expect.
Another way we can learn more about how your dog thinks and makes decisions is to study which option she picks when given a choice of multiple options. Dogs’ decisions reflect how they process the world. In a typical choice game, your dog will get to choose between two different boxes that have different numbers of food, balls, or other toys. From your dog’s choices, we can tell whether she can distinguish between different kinds of objects and learn more about her understanding of number.
One final game we play with our dog scientists involves learning to use a touchscreen computer. In this type of study, we’d teach your dog to make choices using their nose on a touchscreen. Once your dog becomes a touchscreen expert, we can then show her new and interesting events to see how these events affect her decisions.