The author and her labradoodle Emerson.

Photo: Lee Pellegrini

Learning from Man’s Best Friend

BC's Canine Cognition Center studies how dogs think—and what that can tell us about humans.

For thirty seconds, I cooed at Emerson, my eighty-pound labradoodle, and scratched behind his ears (his favorite). “Stop,” called Molly Byrne, a Ph.D. student in Boston College’s Canine Cognition Center, who was observing us via Zoom. I placed my hands in my lap and sat silently and stone-faced, staring straight ahead, for the next half minute. Emerson tried to make eye contact with me before flopping on his back and nudging my legs and feet with his snout.

Emerson and I were participating in what’s known as the “still-face” experiment. Previously conducted with young children, it calls for a caretaker to interact with an infant and then suddenly become unresponsive. Anticipating back-and-forth conversation, the baby will babble and attempt to re-engage with the adult. The Canine Cognition Center is looking at whether dogs have similar social expectations of their owners. 

“We’re interested in everything that dogs can tell us about psychology,” said Angie Johnston, the center’s primary investigator and an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at BC. “Sometimes that means we compare dogs to human children so we can figure out what’s similar and what’s different in the way they think and how they learn.” The researchers are curious about which aspects of dog psychology have been shaped by domestication and close contact with humans, and which are inherent. (To help shed light on these questions, Johnston’s lab also works with dingoes at an Australian sanctuary—the animals are related to dogs but aren’t domesticated.) The center’s research into how dogs see the world could inform training for service pups and bolster human-dog bonds. “We don't know as much about dogs as you might think,” Johnston said, “given how involved they are in our lives.”

When I asked Johnston why she studies dogs to learn about humans rather than studying primates—our closest relations among animals—she explained that while humans are sensitive to and learn from other humans, other primates aren’t really interested in learning from each other or from us. Dogs, however, are very tuned in to human social information. “It seems like what's happened over domestication is that dogs have sort of outpaced our closest primate relatives in how well they are attuned to cues that signal I’m trying to get your attention, I’m trying to teach you something, I’m trying to connect with you,” Johnston said. “And they learn from these cues much more quickly than, say, a chimpanzee.”

We’re interested in everything that dogs can tell us about psychology. Sometimes that means we compare dogs to human children so we can figure out what’s similar and what’s different in the way they think and how they learn.

As an undergraduate at the University of Texas at Dallas, Johnston studied how children learn and evaluate information. She shifted her focus to dogs while earning a doctorate in psychology at Yale, where she helped launch the university’s Canine Cognition Center in 2013. After landing at Boston College in July 2019, Johnston designed BC’s Canine Cognition Center, which began enrolling area pooches in experiments last spring. 

The center was open for only about a month, however, before the pandemic closed BC’s campus. But Johnston and her team are keeping busy: They’ve started virtual studies (like the one Emerson and I participated in) and also published a paper in the Proceedings of the Cognitive Science Society showing that dogs and puppies use a “win-stay, lose-shift” strategy to solve problems. Basically, if a dog finds a treat in a location one time, it will keep going back to that location. If the treat is then moved elsewhere, the dog will shift and try a different location. “This is really exciting because this is not something that we see all animals doing,” Johnston said. “With dogs, it always comes back to the social piece, how they cooperate with us and learn from us.” 

The report is illustrative of what sets BC’s Canine Cognition Center apart from other similar initiatives around the country. “Some people are mostly interested in dogs because of what they tell us about humans, and other people are mostly interested in dogs just for the sake of dogs—our lab is really interested in both,” Johnston said. “And so if you think about the Venn diagram of what people are testing with dogs, we really do occupy a unique space.”

It’s too early to draw firm conclusions from the testing that Emerson and I did—the Canine Cognition Center’s still-face experiment is ongoing—but I now know that when he nudges my hand to resume a belly rub, he’s exhibiting a learned behavior and looking for me to fulfill my end of our social contract. And I’m more than happy to oblige.