How smart is your dog? Yale aims to find out

Didn’t get into Yale? Maybe your dog can.

A new academic research unit called the Canine Cognition Center at Yale opens Dec. 9, and psychologists there are recruiting dogs of all breeds to participate in games designed to reveal what and how they think.

“Our goal is to understand how dogs makes sense of the world, and to compare the dog mind to that of humans,” said Laurie Santos, the Yale psychology professor who is the center’s founding director. “The more kinds of dogs we can learn about, the better.”

With the center’s opening, nearly any domesticated dog can become a contributor to Yale’s centuries-old scholarly enterprise: Border collies, bloodhounds, and (of course) bulldogs, Dobermans and Dalmatians, Great Danes and greyhounds, German shepherds and Irish setters, poodles, Pomeranians and pugs — dogs of every stripe, size, age, type, and hue.

Dog owners are welcome to attend the ribbon-cutting ceremony at 1 p.m. and later tour the facility at 175 St. Ronan St., near the Yale Farm and Yale Divinity School’s dog park.  People can also volunteer their dogs by registering them online and submitting a short survey about vaccination history, personality, and favorite treats. Center personnel will be on hand at the open house until 3 p.m.to answer questions.

“One of the things we’re interested in looking at is whether you see cognitive differences across breeds,” said Santos, who studies the evolution of human cognition by observing and measuring the mental lives of other animals. “The more dogs we can test, the more we can learn about subtle breed differences.”

Santos has a long history of working with animals, particularly monkeys who she studies at a field site in Puerto Rico. But ever more psychologists are turning their attention to domesticated canines because of dogs’ ability to read and respond to gestural cues, such as glancing and pointing, she said, noting this makes them ideal subjects for studying how social contact influences learning.

“Dogs grow up in humanlike environments, and they provide this fantastic window to ask what the role of those environmental experiences might be,” said Santos, who teaches one of Yale’s most popular undergraduate courses “Sex, Evolution and Human Nature.” “Through domestication dogs were built to pay particular attention to human cues. The question is, given that they live in these environments, and were shaped to pay attention to these cues, are they learning in some of the same ways a human child might learn?”

Santos and her students have already begun canine studies in cooperation with two New Haven-area doggie daycare centers. At Poochie Play in North Branford and The Barking Lot in Hamden, Santos and her students have been trying to discern the extent to which dogs can categorize objects (tell different kinds of objects apart), understand numbers (counting small numbers of objects), and perceive human mental states.

Researchers will continue these studies at the Yale center and undertake new ones, including some designed to reveal the extent of cooperation among dogs and how dogs learn from humans.

The studies typically take the form of games, such as puppet shows and hiding games. Researchers measure how long dogs stare at expected and unexpected events as a way of evaluating their thought processes, a method often used to discern the cognitive processes of other primates, including human infants.

“Monkeys can’t talk to us. Babies can’t talk to us. Dogs can’t talk to us,” said Angie Johnston, a graduate student in Santos’ lab involved in the canine research. “But we can still do studies to know what they’re thinking.”

The Canine Cognition Center at Yale offers a lounge where dog owners can sip coffee and watch their pets participate in Yale research via closed-circuit television.

Sessions will typically last 30 minutes to an hour. Dogs will not spend the night. A single visit can be helpful to the scientists, but repeat visits are ideal, Santos said. Dogs with good attendance records will earn certificates of accomplishment. Dogs with exemplary attendance can earn a spot on the “honor roll” — along with a bumper sticker attesting to their prowess.

“It’s meant to be fun for the dogs and for their owners,” says center manager Linda Chang.