Ben Allen: Researching Dogs to Learn About Humans

An evolutionary anthropology student is discovering that playing games with service dogs may shed light on how humans evolved.

Junior Ben Allen's research this summer at Canine Center for Independence (CCI) in California is sponsored by the Duke Canine Cognition Center and Associate Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology Brian Hare’s lab.

As a pre-veterinary student from Devon, Pa., Allen said he enjoys his research because it allows him to interact directly with the dogs and study their behavior. Eventually Allen, who is also minoring in cultural anthropology, hopes to use his research to write a senior distinction thesis.

“These service dogs at CCI are being trained to help people with disabilities,” he said. “These dogs are so intelligent, and seeing their potential put into action is just fascinating.”

The lab is comparing experimental results from three dog populations—pet, service and military—to understand how the evolutionary histories of humans and dogs are intertwined.

“This research is about seeing how dogs connect with humans in a unique way,” he said. “No other animal is known to understand communicative gestures in the same way as dogs.”

Allen is working specifically with the service dogs. Although many dogs train to become service or military dogs, only a few pass through the rigorous training. Allen’s research may be turned into a diagnostic test that the centers can use to screen for which dogs are most likely to complete the training successfully.

An example of an experiment is setting up two cups on either side of the testing room. Using a barrier to prevent the dog from seeing, Allen hides a treat or toy under one of the cups. After hiding the treat, he points at the cup and records whether the dog follows the gesture or chooses randomly.

Allen’s research relates closely with his coursework. In the spring, he took a class on human cognitive evolution with Hare. There, he worked on answering one central question:  What makes us human?

“After taking this class, I've learned that the ways we communicate are so unique, but dogs have the same understanding as some of our social and speaking cues,” he said.

Aside from his research, Allen is a member of the Pitchforks, an a capella group on campus. He also participates in Greek life as a member of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity.