Barking Up the Right Tree, with Laurie Santos

What are YOU thinking about?
What are YOU thinking about? // Annelisa Leinbach

The dynamic Director of Undergraduate Studies of the Yale Psychology Department, Dr. Laurie Santos, started the Canine Cognition Center on campus this past December. The Center’s studies attempt to find out how the dog’s mind works. Interested in comparative psychology research, Dr. Santos believes a lot can be learned about human psychology by studying non-human primates. In the interview that follows, this “leading campus celebrity,” as christened by the Time magazine, helps us explore her puppy love.

 

Q. What inspired you to start the Canine Cognition Center?

A. I’ve always been interested in the question of what makes humans special — why do we create universities, and talk, and do scientific research, and cooperate to build impressive institutions when no other species does that? For most of my time at Yale, I’ve addressed these questions by studying non-human primates — by studying our closest living relatives we can get a great glimpse into how human thinking evolved. But primates can’t tell us everything about why humans are special — another thing that makes us different from most species is that we grow up in really enriched environments, ones filled with artifacts and helpful teachers who try to help us learn about the world. My students and I realized that studying primates alone would cause us to miss the role that this human environment played in shaping cognition. And that’s why we turned to dogs. Domesticated dogs grow up in environments just like humans do. They’re good at picking up on human cues and teaching, yet we know little about how this shapes their mind and how they think about the world.

Q. What are some of the important research studies being conducted at the Center?

A. We’re studying a bunch of questions. First, we’re interested in how dogs respond to human cues and whether they learn in the same ways as human children. My grad student Angie Johnston GRD ’18 is studying this directly, exploring whether dogs share the same skill in picking up on human teaching cues as human children. We also have projects exploring dog moral cognition, the question of whether dogs have intuitions about what it means to be fair and cooperative. My postdoc Katie McAuliffe is studying these questions, exploring the conditions under which dogs will be motivated to help a person achieve her goals and whether dogs evaluate other agents on the basis of whether they help or hinder others. Finally, I’m very interested in the question of whether dogs can think about what’s going on inside someone’s head — do dogs recognize that others have things like beliefs and intentions and desires? So in collaboration with my student Lindsey Drayton GRD ’17 and my lab manager Linda Chang ’12, we’re all studying whether dogs can think about others’ beliefs in the same way as young human children can.

Q. How do you hope the average person will benefit from the center’s research on dog thinking and cognition?

A. Pretty much everyone who has had a dog in their lives have wondered what that dog was thinking and feeling. Our studies will be able to give an empirical answer to this question. We’ll learn more about how dogs really think about the world, which is a topic that I think most people find inherently interesting.

Q. What are the future directions for research at the Center?

A. Down the line, we do plan to do more studies on how dogs think about emotion and whether we can see dogs cooperating with other dogs in a rich way. We also joke about the possibility of extending our study to “catnition,” the study of how cats think about the world. But I think the catnition work is probably a long while off.

Q. What do you most enjoy about working with canines?

A. Honestly, it’s just fun. All the dogs we bring in are fun to work with, and they each teach us something new about the questions we’re studying. It’s also really fun to talk to the human companions of the dogs we bring in. Working with folks who love dogs is great because it provides a real “citizen science” angle to the work we do. We get to teach people about dog cognition but also about the scientific method.

Q. Is there anything else about the Center that you would like to tell us about?

A. We’re still looking for dogs interested in signing up for the studies! And we’re also looking for undergraduate students interested in getting more involved with comparative cognition studies. There’s lots more info on how to do that on our website, http://doglab.yale.edu/.

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