What's Fido thinking? Canine cognition researchers want to know

Tom Franck, special to
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Dogs — all 300-plus existing breeds — are curious creatures: The domesticated variety is notorious for mindless habits like chewing on socks and chasing down squirrels, even while their more disciplined brethren sniff out illegal drugs, explosives and even cancer.

Those characteristics are all part of canine cognition, a growing field of research conducted by leading dog psychologists (yes, really) who actively examine why our furry friends behave the way they do. Places like Stanford, Yale and the University of Florida are just several of the research institutions pioneering a broad effort to understand what makes dogs tick.

Studying the relationship between humans and canines is nothing new. Mankind and dogs have been collaborating for hundreds of years, living together both as master and pet as well as trainer and assistant in areas of forensic investigation. However, with researchers recently discovering some dogs have the ability to detect certain types of cancer, the science behind how dogs think has taken on new interest.

Brian Hare, a Duke University professor of cognitive neuroscience, is helping pioneer what he calls "dognition" to explore the mutually beneficial relationship between humans and dogs. In a recent interview with CNBC, he said the abilities dogs have developed over time enable them to understand human instruction so closely.

These abilities seem closely tied to human interaction, and corresponding social cues that develop regardless of their environment.

"It wasn't a big surprise to dog lovers that dogs use gestures and they're amazing communicators," Hare said. "They understand us in ways that other animals don't, including great apes. It was our discovery of this that set off a firestorm within science that people got excited about."

Hare explained that in some ways, canines have the ability to process human behavior better than do chimpanzees, the closest living evolutionary relative to humans. Domestic dogs have the ability to understand so-called cooperative-communicative social cues that allow them to quickly and accurately complete social tasks with only simple guidance from an instructor.

A mastiff
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The implications of studying dogs go far beyond the more mundane tasks normally associated with canines, such as serving as guide dogs. Scientists say that dogs' uncanny sense of smell — which makes them excellent in sniffing out bombs and narcotics — can be applied to detecting diseases, like cancer. British researchers say dogs can detect minute odor traces created by diseases that can assist in early detection of the disease.

Are certain breeds better a given task than others? For example, do German shepherds and Labrador retrievers make better forensic investigators than bulldogs?

Duke's Canine Cognition Center states that "dog intelligence does not map onto a linear scale. Each breed, and perhaps individual, has its own strengths and weaknesses when solving problems. Because there is so much variation between different dogs, this means that every dog can contribute to improving our understanding of dog psychology."

Hare said breed differences are far more superficial than substantive.

"For the first time ever, we can look at whether there really are any breed differences in cognition. Now, the surprise is that there likely will not be the massive differences that people might predict," he said. "The answer is that breed definitely communicates what your dog looks like. Beyond that, if you ask me as a scientist, it's unclear it communicates much more than that."

Part of the impetus behind dognition is to gain insight into exactly what makes dogs good at specific tasks. Using a series of scientifically designed cognitive games, Hare is amassing new data on dog behavior.

"We're getting the evidence we need to ask questions like: What are the abilities that a dog needs to be a really good service dog? Or, what does a dog need to help in any other working area that dogs might need to help humans with?"

Such scientific endeavors attract attention, not only from the academicians but also from companies that are invested in dog welfare. Recently, Hare teamed up with Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind—a dog food brand specially designed to promote brain health—to figure out how nutrition affects canine thinking.

The company, which is actively involved in canine cognition movement, has a site where pet owners can try Dognition for free.

"You learn about your dog just like I learned about my dog, and everybody has a great time being surprised," Hare said. "At the same time you're contributing to the largest scientific study ever on dog behavior and cognition."