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Studying the Dog

Budapest’s Eötvös University has a world-renowned program in which dog behavior is researched using methodology that is more anthropological than zoological in its approach. In this discipline, which has been dubbed ethology—the study of animal behavior—researchers treat their dogs as thinking individuals, and visit them on the dogs’ preferred turf—either at home with their human companions or out in nature. At the Eötvös campus lab, as Colin Woodard reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Research and Books (April 2005), “Canines have the run of the place, greeting visitors in the hall, checking up on faculty members in their offices, or cavorting with one another in classrooms overlooking the Danube River, six floors below.” Researchers led by Dr. Vilmos Csányi and Dr. Adam Miklosi have made significant breakthroughs in how dogs are perceived and in the subtleties of communication between dogs and their owners. Some of the Eötvös research focuses on the nonverbal ways we communicate right and wrong, and gesture approval and disapproval—how a slight movement of our eye or hand may give a dog clues in problem-solving.

The ways in which dogs have been “domesticated” have been also been rethought and reexamined at Eötvös through experiments raising dogs and wolves in equal controlled environments. Similar research is also being done at Harvard by Dr. Brian Hare, whose work with the “singing” dogs of New Guinea provides “direct evidence that that dogs’ lengthy contact with humans has served as a selection factor, leading to distinct evolutionary changes.” (Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, News and Notices)

Dr. Friederike Range and Dr. Ludwig Huber of the University of Vienna and Dr. Zsófia Viranyi of Eötvös University are focusing on the similarities between humans and dogs in the ways they copy one another’s actions, particularly when their respective physiques are so patently different. “Selective imitation” is a phrase that may seem foreign to us now, but then, so did “natural selection” a century and a half ago. As reported in Current Biology (May 15, 2007), these scientists have found that dogs not only imitate actions they see, but also, like human babies, “adjust the extent to which they imitate to the circumstances of the action.” They employ a basic reasoning in choosing which of our actions to mimic (not “ape”), with reference to the separate and somewhat abstract goal of the action.

Game Theory
Dogs’ capacity to do a variety of tasks requiring surprising levels of cognitive ability and associative reasoning has also attracted the notice those working in related fields. For example, Bruce Blumberg, an adjunct professor at Harvard, recently offered a psychology course called “The Cognitive Dog: Savant or Slacker?” and 87 students signed up. Blumberg’s research began in an unusual way. As senior scientist at Blue Fang Games (his “day job”), he was interested in building a cyber creature that would have the common sense and learning ability of dogs; to do this, he decided to study dogs’ learning style. Blumberg, whose PhD is in media arts and sciences, has also offered the course at the MIT Media Lab, with similar enthusiastic enrollment and response.

D. L. Pughe divides her time between IowaCity, Iowa, and Berkeley, Calif., in the company of her husband, Jon Winet, and Mr. E. Dog. Her essays have appeared in books by MIT Press, University of Minnesota Press and Thames and Hudson, as well as in Nest and Five Fingers Review. She is also the author of "Being in Dog Time," which appeared in Bark Fall 2005.

Illustration by Jen Renninger

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