Why Study Dog Cognition

Other than humans, dogs are easily the most successful large mammal on the planet. From the Arctic Circle to the deepest jungles of the Amazon, dogs have traveled with humans for thousands of years, and the role of dogs in society has continued to grow.

Seen in the past as an artificial creation with unremarkable cognitive abilities, dogs were excluded from cognition studies in favor of primates. However, they are now a dominant player in studies of animal cognition, and we have learned an incredible amount about their own cognitive skills in the last ten years. Dogs have now caught the attention of linguists, evolutionary biologists, psychologists and anthropologists.

The last decade of research has shown that dogs are more than mere learning machines: they have a rich understanding of their world, which allows them to be flexible problem solvers. Some of their skills even resemble those we see in young children.

Our previous research has taken us from Africa to Siberia, where we have compared dogs to a range of species from domesticated apes and foxes to human-reared wolves. To understand the variation within dogs, we have worked with every different type, from the tiniest shelter puppy to the exotic New Guinea singing dog. This research has revealed not just the psychological abilities that allow dogs to be so successful, but the process by which their human-like abilities evolved.

Even though researchers from the Duke Canine Cognition Center have been studying dog cognition for over fifteen years we are only just beginning to understand the psychology of dogs. We are currently studying how dogs understand communicative intentions, the effect of domestication of their psychology, how they form trusting relationships, navigate, and form memories.

Dog intelligence does not map onto a linear scale. Each breed, and perhaps individual, has its own strengths and weaknesses when solving problems. Because their is so much variation between different dogs this means that every dog can contribute to improving our understanding of dog psychology. Enroll your dog and join us in trying to understand the minds of our best friends!

This is an exciting moment for dog lovers. Dogs have become crucially important to humans, both in how they improve our quality of life and in what they tell us about ourselves. We have begun to unlock the secrets of the dog’s mind and in the future we will be able to apply these secrets in helping dogs and people form an even stronger bond.