Dog is man’s best friend, and perhaps even his best research subject.
On Dec. 9, more than 60 people and a handful of dogs attended the opening of the Yale Canine Cognition Center, a new lab run by psychology professor Laurie Santos. Research assistants demonstrated various studies to attendants, all while doling out low-calorie dog treats and cooing over their newfound laboratory subjects. The center, aimed at better understanding the canine mind and, by extension, what makes humans unique, has recruited over 200 dogs from around New Haven.
At the center on opening day, New Haven resident Irving Pinsky held his Jack Russell Terrier, Scout. While the attendees watched a slideshow of pictures of dogs and their owners, Pinsky began to talk to no one in particular.
“I love dogs more than I like people,” he said. “You know, we all need to be loved, and we all need to give love, and dogs are a huge part of that equation.”
In contrast to primates, which are often chosen as lab subjects because of their genetic similarities to humans, dogs grow up in the same environment as humans and are exposed to human culture, making them an especially attractive research model, Santos said.
Since dogs and infants live in such similar environments, canine research can reveal insights about human development, she added.
“Dogs can tell us about what a nonhuman mind can learn from a human-like environment,” Santos said in an email.
For the past 10 years, Santos has conducted research on capuchin monkeys in New Haven, and the opening of the center marks the end of that research. However, Santos said she will continue to research rhesus macaque monkeys in Puerto Rico.
In contrast to the notion that primates are most similar to humans, canines are psychologically more like human infants, said Brian Hare, director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center.
“How could it be that this distantly related species are more similar [to humans] than bonobos and chimpanzees,” he said. “That’s an interesting problem, and if we can solve it, we can make inferences about how we evolve.”
One of the first questions the center is pursuing is whether dogs learn in a generalizable way like human infants. For instance, infants will learn to identify new types of blankets after learning the characteristics of blankets in general. Santos said the center is interested in learning whether this is true for canines as well. In addition, much research at Yale and beyond has been devoted to exploring when infants develop theory of mind: the understanding that others have thoughts and feelings. Santos said the center will explore whether dogs possess the same ability.
To register their dogs for study participation, owners visit the center’s website and answer a few questions about dog food preferences, breed and what kinds of things the dog understands. Once the animal is in the database, owners will be notified of upcoming studies, and if they are interested, they can simply pick a time slot to bring their dog to the center. The center recently began its behavioral assessments, in which dogs receive initial screenings and become acquainted with the laboratory setting.
Dog owners accompany their pets as they undergo study, and Santos said she is excited to engage the public in the scientific process. Hare added that studying dogs helps the research translate to human developmental psychology, since both canines and infants develop outside the research lab.
The Canine Cognition Center is located at 175 St. Ronan Street, about a block beyond Science Hill.