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.