Editor’s Note: In honor of National Dog Day, we are featuring an article by Julie Hecht, the Dog Spies blogger for Scientific American.
A few years back, John Homans, former executive editor of New York magazine, published What’s a Dog For? — an intimate reflection on his beloved family dog, Stella, as well as a snapshot into the flourishing field of canine science. Looking down at the wagging tail by your side, you could easily answer the above question. What’s a dog for? Simple. Dogs are our family members and friends, our assistants and fellow-workers, and in some cases, our unexpected mentors. But would you also add ‘enthusiastic science partner’ to the list?
Since the late 1990s, companion dogs and their owners have played a crucial role in the growing field of canine science — a field investigating a wide range of questions about who dogs are and how they came to live their lives so intertwined with ours. To borrow from Dr. Alexandra Horowitz’s New York Times bestseller Inside of a Dog, researchers are tackling the nuances of “what dogs see, smell, and know,” and all those burning questions you have about dogs. In recent years, we’ve learned why dogs so easily move in sync with us (they readily attend to not only our gestures, but also our gaze and even our facial expressions), why dogs eat food off the table when you are out of, but not in, the room (they learn to note your attentional states), and how our assessments of dogs are not always spot-on (studies to date suggest the beloved “guilty look” in dogs is not what we think it means).
What’s probably most interesting about canine science is that it can’t be done without you. The field does not rely on laboratory or purpose-bred dogs. Instead, companion dogs and their owners are often study participants and subjects. No matter where you live on planet Earth, there’s probably a canine behavior and cognition lab on your continent (and it likely wants your help!).
Traditionally, dogs and their owners participate in short studies held at academic institutions, although research at owner homes, the park, dog daycares or even animal shelters is becoming more common. Through this research, we’re developing a more detailed picture of what it’s like to be a dog, and even how dogs view us. In an early study from the Family Dog Project, a leading canine research group in Budapest, researchers wondered what dogs would do when faced with an unsolvable task — say attempting to access a treat that’s in a box that can’t be opened. Dogs tend to look back toward a person, having learned that you, Mr. Opposable Thumbs, are a great tool to open the box, get the ball from under the couch, open the “cookie” jar, and the list goes on. I’m surprised Gary Larson, cartoonist extraordinaire, didn’t do a comic of a dog’s ode to human thumbs.
Recently, canine science projects are catching up to the 21st Century, incorporating new technologies and increasing the scale and scope of participation. For example, in a recent study at the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, we asked owners to upload short videos depicting how they play with their dog. Project: Play With Your Dog (which has since ended) received hundreds of submissions from 19 different countries. This approach gave us a direct link to unique and unscripted play-styles from around the world — something that would have been challenging with more traditional approaches.
Because canine science projects do not follow a singular, standardized form, there are many different ways you can get involved! To name a few, some researchers want your dog’s saliva (there’s lots of quality information in spit)! Others would like video or audio recordings of your dog, or perhaps even your help analyzing recordings of other dogs’ vocalizations. If you’d like, you can fill out questionnaires about your experiences with or perceptions of dogs. And as we’ve seen, you and your dog can participate in short studies.
Canine researchers can’t study dogs alone. We need your help (well, often you and your dog’s help). If I could guess how dogs rate participating in canine science studies, they’d probably give it two dog ‘thumbs’ up (which, as research finds, might equate to a right-sided tail wag). After all, it feels good to be understood.
Check out these dog citizen science projects: Don’t Let These Dog Projects Pass You By, Scientific American
More on the growing field of canine science:
Julie Hecht. 2012. Dog Smart: Exploring the Canine Mind. The Bark. Issue 69: Mar/Apr/May 2012
Julie Hecht. 2013. Drop Outs and Bloopers: Behind the Scenes of Canine Science. Dog Spies. Scientific American.
Virginia Morell. 2009. Going to the Dogs. Science. 325: 5944, 1062-1065.
Bensky, M.K., Gosling, S.D., Sinn, D.L., 2013. The world from a dog’s point of view: a review and synthesis of dog cognition research. Advances in the study of behavior. 45, 209–406.
Julie Hecht is a canine researcher, science writer and public speaker. She has investigated dogs’ understanding of “fairness,” olfactory preferences, dog-human play behavior, and common anthropomorphisms along with Alexandra Horowitz at the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College in NYC. She frequently holds lectures for the general public and student groups on all things dog.
Julie is a regular contributor to Bark magazine, and you can find her blog, Dog Spies, on Scientific American. She and fellow canine researcher Mia Cobb also maintain Do You Believe in Dog?. Julie’s popular writing covers everything from dog humping and crotch-sniffing to canine cognition and the infamous “guilty look.” You know, the important things.
Julie received a Masters with distinction in Applied Animal Behaviour and Animal Welfare from the University of Edinburgh, and she is a PhD student in the Animal Behavior and Comparative Psychology training area at The City University of New York. Julie conducted her Masters research with the Family Dog Project in Budapest, pioneers in the field of canine ethology. She would really like to meet your dog.