Zach Silver - Our dogs, Our selves

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:12 pm on 30 November 2020

Man’s best friend could hold the key to understanding the way humans behave in social environments.

A dog undergoing a cognitive test at the Canine Cognitive Lab at Yale.

Photo: Canine Cognitive Lab

It’s well documented that dogs have been great human companions for thousands of years and it’s theorised that they may know our behaviour just as well as we do.

That’s the thinking behind the Canine Cognition Lab at Yale University.

The lab has been studying what goes on inside the mind of dogs and what those thoughts say about us.

PhD student Zach Silver explained to Jesse Mulligan what Canine Cognition is.

“In our lab we test dogs’ social cognition which is how they understand behaviour from humans, how they learn from us in social context, how they also learn about us, we also ask questions about their temperament and their self-control abilities.

“So really, it’s the psychology of a dog’s mind, specifically trying to understand how a dog navigates their environment and how they do so depending on the humans in certain contexts.”

Historically tests on cognitive comparisons between animals and humans has been done on chimpanzees – our closest genetic relative.

However, Silver says dogs open up new ways of understanding us as they’ve been studying human behaviour for millennia.

One concept his group has studied in dogs is the theory of mind – if/how they are able to think about the way someone else is thinking.

“We see this as thought to be maybe one of these key hallmarks of cognition, when I’m talking to someone, even that I just met, I’m able to infer all kinds of things about their mental states… so one of the things we tried to do to compare cognition (with dogs) was to understand which features of theory of mind are shared across species that have this close social relationship with us like domestic dogs.

Yale PhD student Zach Silver. Researcher at the Yale Canine Cognitive Lab.

Photo: Canine Cognitive Lab

“So we can test whether dogs are able to represent situations in which a human might be knowledgeable about information of some critical component or maybe they are ignorant to that information, and we can do that through a paradigm called ‘the guess or know task’ where dogs will watch a scenario in which one human is looking at the location where food is hidden and another human is looking away from that location.

“If we then have these people give a set of instructions to the dog, they point to one location in the room and say ‘the food’s over here’ we can understand if dogs can make this connection between the person who saw where the food is hidden is a better person to trust than the person who is just guessing.”

The research involves several variables and controlled environments to draw its conclusions.

Silver says it’s also been difficult, but important, to remove the idea that dogs comprehend scenarios the same way as humans.

“In any sort of psychology approach that is involving non-human species it’s very tempting to think of everything in terms of how we do as humans, but what we know from years of research on dogs and other animals is that all species have a unique lens through which they view the social world.

“One benefit we do have with dogs is that we are part of their social environment, naturally because they have spent so much time around us we don’t have to actually make all that many concessions the way we would test any given topic in humans to do so effectively with dogs.

“Obviously, we can’t simply ask dogs questions, administer surveys or get these qualitative responses from them, so we are dependent on drawing interpretations from their behaviour, but because humans play such a central role in dogs' social environment it is commonly thought that dogs view a lot of cognitive constructs in similar ways to the way that we do.”


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