Photo by Lee Pellegrini
If you think there’s more to dogs than waggy tails, wet noses, and games of fetch, you’re not alone—there are several Boston College researchers who feel the same way, and now they have a place to study our four-legged friends and what we might learn from them.
BC’s Canine Cognition Center and Social Learning Laboratory, led by Assistant Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience Angie Johnston, was launched in McGuinn Hall last July and recently underwent renovations.
Johnston and her team investigate the origins of human teaching and learning by comparing human learning to that of domesticated canines. To address these questions, she works with children and pet dogs from the local community to pinpoint which aspects of human learning are unique and which are shared. She also works with Australian dingoes, a non-domesticated canid, to explore how domestication has shaped these traits.
“Our center is devoted to learning more about canine psychology—how dogs perceive their environment, solve problems, and make decisions,” said Johnston, who earned a doctorate in psychology at Yale’s Canine Cognition Center. “By observing dogs participating in fun, problem-solving games, we can learn how the dog mind works, which not only helps us develop programs that improve canine training techniques—especially for service dogs—but also provides surprising insights into human psychology.”
“Humans have amazing abilities to interact with one another,” said Molly Byrne, CCC lab coordinator, who previously held the same position at the University of Arizona’s Canine Cognition Center. “Complex aspects of human psychology like language and empathy must have evolved from other, simpler traits. Studying comparison species like dogs helps us look at what might have lead these abilities to evolve.”
“By observing dogs participating in fun, problem-solving games, we can learn how the dog mind works, which not only helps us develop programs that improve canine training techniques—especially for service dogs—but also provides surprising insights into human psychology.”
Even though dogs are different from humans, they have a lot to tell us, says Johnston. Her 2016 study, published in the journal Developmental Science, examined how dogs imitate people. She discovered that while dogs are able to learn from humans, they are more likely to ignore human teaching if there is a more efficient solution, unlike children who commonly “over-imitate” even silly and unrelated actions demonstrated by a teacher or parent.
“Although, at first, it may seem that dogs are ‘smarter’ than children—since dogs don’t copy unnecessary actions—it’s not so simple,” said Johnston. “When you think about human society on a larger scale, there are so many things we teach children that are seemingly irrelevant, such as washing their hands and brushing their teeth, which are actually extremely important. Dogs provide an excellent opportunity for exploring potentially unique aspects of human psychology while living with us side by side! The CCC is looking forward to uncovering even more mysteries about dogs and humans.”
Boston-area dog owners are invited to bring their pets to the center to serve as canine volunteers; all studies involve just simple problem-solving games. The CCC welcomes dogs of all breeds, ages, and sizes; however, they must be healthy, vaccinated (rabies, DHPP and proof of a stool sample negative for giardia from the last 12 months), and have no history of aggression.
To register your dog, or to learn more, visit the CCC website, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 617-552-3068. Dog lovers and interested others also can follow the center on Instagram and Twitter.
Phil Gloudemans | University Communications | February 2020