Some schools recognize the importance of the human-animal bond by allowing pets in selected on-campus housing units — about a dozen colleges nationwide have at least one pet-friendly dorm. Other schools conduct research studies that aim to improve understanding of dogs’ abilities and view of the world. Indeed, new evidence of dogs’ intelligence, creativity and ability to understand and communicate their concerns is uncovered daily at cognition labs, where dogs take center stage.
New York City dogs can join cognition studies in Horowitz’s lab at Barnard where anthropomorphic beliefs about dogs are tested with an emphasis on “getting the dog’s perspective,” rather than a more traditional behavior-focused approach, said researcher and Bark contributing editor Julie Hecht. Current studies examine dogs’ understanding of the concept of “fairness” and the way they use their noses in daily life. “We’re trying to better understand the dog’s perspective, but we are, of course, limited by our human perspective,” and sometimes the hardest part is separating the two, she said.
Southern dogs have a choice of schools: Duke University (Durham, N.C.), the University of Florida (Gainesville), the University of Kentucky and Eckerd College all recruit local canine “students” for their research. Current studies examine whether dogs can count, how dogs form trusting relationships with humans, dogs’ interpretation of human social gestures, and canine imitation and social learning.
The studies might sound esoteric, but they can lead to real changes in the way people regard and teach dogs: Watching four-week-old puppies learn to sit, lie down and solve problems banishes forever any idea that training must involve force. Discovering that dogs can use pictures to indicate their preferences compels scientists to reexamine human-centered ideas that tie thinking to spoken language. And seeing how dogs’ behavior changes when they know that human “observers” are distracted hints at their ability to strategize.
The more we learn about dogs’ abilities, the greater the potential for true partnerships based on mutual respect rather than compulsion, says Bergin. “This is crucial in transitioning the dog from a backyard animal we see as disposable to recognizing the key role dogs play in the evolution and continued development of humans.”