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Dog Smart: Exploring the Canine Mind

This research sparked a shift in perspective and demonstrated that there’s a lot we don’t know about dogs and their relationships with humans. For example, it was commonly assumed that in order for a dog to develop an attachment bond with an owner, the dog needed to be acquired as a puppy, and within a narrow age window at that. But when the Strange Situation Test was applied to adult shelter dogs who had low or restricted human contact, these dogs also displayed attachment behavior toward designated “owners.” An additional study confirmed this; guide dogs bond with their blind owners even though their relationship forms later in the dog’s life. The takeaway message was twofold: older dogs can bond with new owners, and our assumptions about dogs are not always spot on.

Since then, scientific inquiry into dogs and the dog-human relationship has exploded. “It’s almost like dogs have been rediscovered by scientists, and there are so many different aspects they can study,” notes Mychelle Blake, APDT executive director.

Dogs have now attracted the attention of a range of disciplines, from animal behavior and psychology to evolution, genetics and veterinary behavior.

Nowadays, companion dogs, working dogs, village dogs and even shelter dogs have become study subjects.

While some are interested in contributing to a growing portfolio of insights into “the dog,” others have something else in mind. “Some of the present research does not directly pertain to dogs and the humans they live with,” notes Márta Gácsi, researcher with the Family Dog Project. “Comparative studies may be examining the roots of different human social behaviors, and not necessarily concerned with the dogs themselves.”

The Duke Canine Cognit ion Center, which is part of the university’s Evolutionary Anthropology Department, takes this multifaceted approach. Their website explains, “Our goal is to understand the flexibility and limitations of dog cognition. In doing so, we gain a window into the mind of animals as well as the evolution of our own species.”

“Research also has direct application for dogs and owners,” reminds Gácsi. Jennifer Bentlage, who’s working toward a master’s degree in the cognitive biology program at the University of Vienna’s Clever Dog Lab, agrees. “If I can explain the purpose of my research to my parents, then it’s worthwhile.” Bentlage, who is currently exploring social learning, has recruited her own dogs, Monty and Michel — shelter dogs from Spain and Greece, respectively —as test subjects for her project.

“I am very interested in the dog’s cognitive abilities because this relates very strongly to the pet owner,” explains Ian Dunbar, founder of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT), veterinarian, animal behaviorist and director of the Center for Applied Animal Behavior in Berkeley, Calif. “The importance of cognition is so that people realize who dogs are and what they can and cannot easily grasp.”

Dog cognition, a seemingly technical phrase, is simply a catch-all-term that describes dogs’ attention, memory, perception, problem-solving and mental imagery skills. As you might imagine, the questions are endless.

Crystal Thompson, a self-proclaimed dog-seminar junkie from St. Paul, Minn., thinks dog cognition research is paramount. “We have learned so much in the last few years that it behooves anyone interacting with dogs — owners, trainers, shelter workers, vet staff — to do a self-audit, to check their assumptions about dogs against what research is finding.”

We expect dogs to act a certain way, and they do.
Pet owners do not expect rabbits or cats to act as social partners, but we do expect that of dogs — and rightfully so. “Through selective pressures, we pushed dogs very quickly to be highly social, and they tend to live up to our social demands,” explains Pattison.

Dogs have the potential to move in tandem with humans, stopping when we stop and starting again at our first subtle sign of forward motion, but magic is not the mechanism (although the resulting experience can certainly feel magical!). Instead, research finds that dogs are astute surveyors of human behavior, and everything from our gaze to our larger body movements provides meaningful information.

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Submitted by Anonymous | July 20 2012 |

I got my dog when she was two weeks old. She is now 19 months. I've nearly spent every hour with her since first I held her. She was very sick when first I held her tiny body. She now weighs 78 pounds and is a beautiful and loving animal like I am. The only difference is that she's a German short-haired pointer and she thinks I am her mother.:)

The article states: "Thompson looks at the breadth of cognition research from a different angle; she wonders whether owners are providing for their dogs’ mental needs. “It’s important for owners to realize that dogs have real mental abilities and needs. Putting food in a dog’s bowl is just wasting his brain. It’s the little things — Kongs, Tug-a-Jugs, hiding kibble around the house — it’s not hard, and it’s a simple way to engage their natural abilities.”"

My comment to the above mentioned quote is rather simple. My little girl likes to play with the laundry that I take down from the clothes line then proudly runs around in circles while I chase after her. It's a game she has made-up. She surely keeps me fit! When she finds her favorite small ball I do think she purposely rolls it under the bed then runs to me and whimpers while running back to the bedroom. I follow her and she knows I'll get a broom and get the ball rolling again with it. She is a very smart and lovable dog. I love her and she loves me. We have lots of fun together because she thinks I am her mommy.:) I think she is my sweet and precious adorable little girl and she knows that to be the truth. She loves to snuggle up with me all the time more than likely because I first held her in the palm of my hand when first I got her. She was very sick when I first held her in the palm of my hand. Tiny little thing she was. I do think we animals cling to love and attention.

Submitted by Anonymous | June 5 2013 |

Dear Julie,
I'm going to update you on my little girl that now weights 84 lbs. She is a little over 2 1/2 years old since last I wrote the above.:) She was socialized immediately after having her first rabies vaccine by taking her to dog parks, walks along the beach and neighborhoods, camping, and just introducing her to the world we live in. She travels well in the car and enjoys the company of friendly creatures.:)I'm constantly told that she is beautiful and sweet. I nod my head in agreement.

This past Christmas I received by mail a magazine "Southern Living" that had an article with a picture which looks very much like her(1)only that her shinny coat is white with a tan diamond on her forehead, tan ears, tan swirls on her behind, and a few tan spots on one side of her. She has black spots under her white coat and on her belly. She is a fox hound, which is rare to find in my neck of the woods! I'm still trying to figure out how she turned out to be the breed she is since back when I first told you about her I was told by the vet she was a German short-haired pointer though when she was first given to me I was told she was a spaniel. It doesn't really matter what breed she is since I love her no matter what. She is extremely intelligent and will forever remain my baby girl though I must tell you that she is my protector. She guards me. An example is when I went camping. A wolf came into the campground and her growl was darn frightening. I feel safe with her when she is with me. I love her and she loves me.:) Life is filled with surprises and blessings. Bye the way, humans and dogs are placental mammals.(2)

Thank you for allowing me to share a small piece of our life with you and others.

1. http://thedailysouth.southernliving.com/2012/12/01/virginias-holiday-fin... (Scroll down the page to the town of Middleburg.)

2. http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/mammal/eutheria/placental.html

Submitted by Anonymous | June 5 2013 |

Dear Julie,
I'm going to update you on my little girl that now weights 84 lbs. She is a little over 2 1/2 years old since last I wrote the above.:) She was socialized immediately after having her first rabies vaccine by taking her to dog parks, walks along the beach and neighborhoods, camping, and just introducing her to the world we live in. She travels well in the car and enjoys the company of friendly creatures.:)I'm constantly told that she is beautiful and sweet. I nod my head in agreement.

This past Christmas I received by mail a magazine "Southern Living" that had an article with a picture which looks very much like her(1)only that her shinny coat is white with a tan diamond on her forehead, tan ears, tan swirls on her behind, and a few tan spots on one side of her. She has black spots under her white coat and on her belly. She is a fox hound, which is rare to find in my neck of the woods! I'm still trying to figure out how she turned out to be the breed she is since back when I first told you about her I was told by the vet she was a German short-haired pointer though when she was first given to me I was told she was a spaniel. It doesn't really matter what breed she is since I love her no matter what. She is extremely intelligent and will forever remain my baby girl though I must tell you that she is my protector. She guards me. An example is when I went camping. A wolf came into the campground and her growl was darn frightening. I feel safe with her when she is with me. I love her and she loves me.:) Life is filled with surprises and blessings. Bye the way, humans and dogs are placental mammals.(2)

Thank you for allowing me to share a small piece of our life with you and others.

1. http://thedailysouth.southernliving.com/2012/12/01/virginias-holiday-fin... (Scroll down the page to the town of Middleburg.)

2. http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/mammal/eutheria/placental.html

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