Continuing a dogged pursuit of the canine mind

You’ve heard the stories. The owner is in trouble, maybe drowning in a lake, so his trusted canine companion rushes to town, gets help and saves his owner’s life.

The idea of ‘the canine hero’ was, in some sense, the impetus for Western’s Dog Cognition Lab, supervised by Psychology professor emeritus William Roberts, and run by doctoral candidate Krista Macpherson.

It started in 2004, when Macpherson was an honors thesis student in Psychology.

“She had a long interest in dogs and I had this idea for a study in the back of my mind, that I didn’t have the facilities to do myself,” Roberts said. “I always thought it would be interesting to test the idea that dogs would go to the aid of their owner if their owner was in trouble.”

They proceeded with experiments to test this hypothesis, with owners feigning heart attacks, dogs seeing owners pinned under bookcases, all with the opportunity of running to a bystander for help.

“Well, no dog ever went for help,” Roberts laughed. “It was counter to the folklore about dogs, not much to our surprise. I doubted dogs really understood the nature of the situation and would go for help. We published an article and it got quite a bit of attention.”

Together with Macpherson, Roberts, whose research focuses on animal cognition, started a lab on campus. Over the years, its studies have focused on canine spatial memory, metacognition, anthropomorphism and deception. Macpherson is currently looking at numerical discrimination in dogs – seeing if and how dogs keep an account of numbers, as well as testing dogs to see if they can discern the length of elapsed time.

“With the exception of maybe birds, you don’t see the kind of variability in animals like you see in dogs – and all are sub-species of the great wolf. That’s pretty fascinating to me,” Macpherson said, noting the various breeds, their temperament and purposes in herding, protecting and working with humans.

“Dogs have been typically ignored in psychology up until about 10 years ago. The idea was you wouldn’t want to study a dog because it’s a domesticated animal and it’s artificial. We’ve bred dogs to do different things and to be our companions and it’s possible we’ve changed some of these abilities. But that’s precisely why they’re so fascinating. Cats are domestic, but haven’t been bred to work with us. Dogs have a very unique relationship with us. You could argue the same about horses, but horses don’t sleep in your bed, hopefully,” she laughed.

“That’s why it’s important to see what’s going on with them cognitively. We tend to think dogs as geniuses – that they understand everything we do. But in terms of actual data, we understand very little of what’s going on in their world.”

So, can dogs count? Can they tell the difference between you leaving them alone for an hour versus two or three?

The lab’s experiments so far seem to indicate that while dogs don’t assign a specific numerical measure to items, they have a sense of numerosity, or an approximate number system. So, while they might not be able to count the two treats in your right hand, they can tell that you are holding more (say, five) in your left.

To test this, researchers used two magnetized boards, placing a different number of geometric patterns on each one. The boards were each mounted to a box; under the box with the greater number of patterns on it were tasty hot dogs. The dog then had to make a choice between the two boards.

“What we found is the dog learned to go to the one that had the greater number. You see that virtually in all animals, and kids, too, that haven’t learned to use a number system. So, we did find some evidence that dogs can count in some sense,” he continued, noting the task seems to be easier for the dog if the ratio between the two boards is low.

Other studies in the lab have shown dogs can, to some extent, discern differences in the amount of elapsed time, that they seek out information from humans when a task is at hand and, while they show signs of spatial memory, they don’t stack up to other animals in maze-centric spatial tasks.

The test subjects in the lab are people’s pets, with Macpherson’s rough collies, Cash and Sedona, being the primary participants. Though the question of breed hasn’t been studied yet, Macpherson and Roberts are interested in looking at cognitive differences between different dog breeds.

The lab has a number of undergraduate volunteers and attracts a lot of attention. This summer, it was featured in a Maclean’s magazine article.

“There’s a lot of research on social cognition – very cool – but the bulk of what we study is fundamental cognitive processes,” Macpherson said. “There is a gap in literature; we don’t really understand basic cognitive processes in dogs.”

ON THE AIR: Western’s Dog Cognition Lab, supervised by Psychology professor emeritus William Roberts and run by doctoral candidate Krista Macpherson, will be featured on CBC’s The Nature of Things at 8 p.m. Nov. 21.