Man’s Best Friend

I found the December issue of Smithsonian Magazine in my mailbox a few days ago, and I have to admit that I immediately said ‘Aww!’

On the cover is a photo of a very cute dog, which sits over real mouthful of a tagline: “The new science of canine cognition.”

Despite the title, the article, written by Jeff MacGregor, deals with a pretty profound question.  “What is the basis of our bond with dogs?”

The article starts with Winston, a German shepherd, who is visiting a lab at Yale University with his owner (or guardian, as the article named Winston’s human companion).  Winston probably just thought he was going on a car ride, but he was there to take in an experiment that hopes to answer part of that question.

In this experiment, Winston will watch a brief scene – in which one researcher will yield space to another on a tape-marked floor.  Then, Winston will be let off his leash and the researchers will observe which human he prefers – the more or less dominant one?  As sort a control, both researchers carry dog treats to reward Winston for whichever choice he makes, so Winston’s choice will not be motivated solely by food.

In another study described in the article, the researchers evaluate whether dogs prefer people who help others over those who don’t.  In this little skit, one seated actor has already “helped” by handing over a clipboard; and the other has “not helped” by moving the object away.  In this experiment, the dog, Nutmeg chooses the helper.

At its root, each experiment seeks to discover how dogs see and evaluate our behavior, with the goal of perhaps learning exactly what it is to be human.

This concept is explained in the article by Laurie Santos, who is the Director of the Comparative Cognition Laboratory at Yale.

“My entry into the dog work came not from necessarily being interested in dogs per se, but in theoretical questions that came out of the primate work.” Dr. Santos said, recalling her prior work with non-human primates.  “If anybody’s going to share humanlike cognition, it’s going to be them.”

But it turns out, it wasn’t, not really, because the primates studied really hadn’t spent all that much time living and interacting with humans.  Dogs, on the other hand…

As she goes on to explain: “Here’s this species that really is motivated to pay attention to what humans are doing.  They really are clued in, and they really seem to have this communicative bond with us.”

So, basically, one reason she and others study dogs because they and their experience have been shaped by living with people over thousands of years – so maybe watching the dogs react to us can give us a little window into our own behaviors.

The article is a little long, but it’s a quick read, so I invite you to check it out here.

What have dogs taught you, dear reader?

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