Issue 98

Can Your Dog Solve These Puzzles?

As a dog owner, I often sit and look at my three dogs and thinking about their different personalities and quirks, wonder what job they would have if they were human.

Christopher is a helper. He's a real people person and loves meeting new people. He does have a really odd habit though when it comes to food. There are two areas in our kitchen now dubbed 'Chris's testing labs' and he uses them anytime you give him something to eat which he hasn't had before. He takes the food and will run to the first and if he's still unsure he'll take it for further testing to the second.

Essentially what he will do is roll anything new around in his mouth, plop it out and think about things before deciding whether to try again or leave it, or experiment further in his second lab, so I think he'd have to be some sort of food tester or restaurant critic.

Danny is quite routine orientated, we put this down to his background and his home with us quite probably being the only stability he has had. He hates being parted with Christopher as well, so I think whatever they did, they'd have to do it together.

Mia is spurred on by being in charge of the boys, quite honestly and can normally be found at the front of any photograph. If they were her staff, she'd be their boss sitting in the office working on their work schedules to keep them in line.

This is all, of course, a little bit of fun, but in all seriousness thousands of dogs go to work every day – from providing comfort in care homes, to companionship to owners with disabilities, to security on the front line - harnessing a dog's skills is something many have done. But where does it end? What could the dog do that we don't yet know?

Recently dogs hit the headlines when research findings were revealed to show that the bond dogs have with their owners could be genetic. Scientists around the world are learning more about our canine companion every day and it's through understanding more about the dog, how their mind works and what makes them tick, that we can learn more about this marvellous animal we call man's best friend.

This intrigued us at K9 Magazine and to find out more about how studies into a dog's ability to understand are developed, we spoke with Dr Juliane Kaminski, a Senior Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth where she founded the Dog Cognition Centre three years ago to study an animal's understanding of the environment they live in, and the question to what extent that understanding is flexible or not.

Juliane is also interested in the uniqueness of human cognition and to what extent animals cognitive skills are comparable to humans.

Before founding the centre in Portsmouth, she worked with chimpanzees and dogs in parallel. This piqued her interest in the obvious differences between them.

She says, "I got more and more interested in the obvious differences between the species. We saw dogs solving problems in a way that not even chimpanzees, humans closest living relative, can. That got me really interested."

But it's the unique evolutionary history of the dog that Juliane is fascinated by.

"Dogs and humans share the same habitat and the same environment and they have been doing so for around 30,000 years. One hypothesis is that because the dog has adapted to this unique habitat, the human environment, it's possible that dogs have evolved cognitive skills which are similar to humans’ and cannot be found in other animals."

Using puzzles to understand how dogs think

She describes the dog cognition centre she founded as a nursery or kindergarten for dogs where owners bring their dogs to play games which are designed to learn more about how a dog thinks and acts.

Juliane says, "These games are about solving certain situations which most of the time are about receiving some kind of reward and whatever decision the dogs make in these situations then tell us something about their thought process.

"There is no “right” or “wrong”. We are simply interested in whatever decision the dogs will make and the dogs usually really enjoy these little games and exercises."

But it's not just the dogs who enjoy taking part. Juliane says, "I know that the owners really enjoy taking part because they get to learn a lot about their dogs. At the end of the study, the owners always get the full information on how their dog behaved and also get an idea of why we are doing the research and what we are interested in."

Juliane says it's important for dogs to be relaxed and enjoy what they're doing because this is how they are able to see them at their best.

"We are interested in dogs understanding of their environment and whether or not they can solve problems flexibly. This means we are not so much interested in what they can be trained to do, we are rather interested in the kind of problem-solving abilities which they bring with them. This means that we need to ensure that they feel comfortable at all times."

One area of research focuses on dog to human communication, with particular attention paid towards a dog's understanding of human forms of communication. Another area of research focuses on the collaboration of dogs and to what extent that's based on the motivation to be helpful and promote social acceptance and friendship with other dogs. The centre is currently looking for dogs to take part in the games developed for this study.

Juliane says, "One of the questions we're looking to find the answers to through this, is when it comes to solving a problem that they can't solve on their own how do dogs react. We are particularly interested in a dog's motivation when they're doing these things so we want to know when they solve a problem do they take other individual's needs into account."

Juliane gives an example.

"Let's say I have a problem and I can solve it in a way that I am looking out for you too or I'm just solving it in a way that there's only something in it for me, we want to know what kind of decisions dogs make in these sort of conditions."

Juliane is keen to hear from dog owners who might like to participate in the games for this study, particularly if you own more than one dog. It is open to all dogs, and ideal for dogs who would be comfortable around strangers and would enjoy taking part in the study's puzzles and games.

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She tell us there is no breed or age that wouldn't be considered, but adult dogs aged 1 year old and upwards would be ideal because she explains that by this time a dog is fully developed, cognitively speaking, although she says that there is no real research out there which goes into great detail about the impact of age on a dog's cognition.

Understanding a dog's facial expressions

The centre has also recently developed a ground-breaking Dog Facial Action Coding System (DogFACS) to analyse dog facial expressions in certain situations and through this, as Juliane explained, they can help to control observer bias when monitoring a dog's facial expression.

Modelled on the human facial action coding system (FACS) created by Ekman and Friesen in 1978 (which has been successfully adapted for several other species, including chimpanzees) DogFACS is based on an understanding of the facial anatomy of dogs and the manual details how to use the system and code the facial movements of dogs.

How DogFACS could change the lives of rescue dogs across the country

Juliane explained that they took inspiration from research published and did a study around two years ago in which they filmed dogs in a shelter environment across the country.

Alongside her team, she explains they were interested in whether facial movements or any other behaviours had an effect on how quickly they would be adopted.

This, to me, with an interest in all things dog adoption via dogsblog.com could be life changing for many rescues and dogs across the UK currently sitting in a foster home or rescue centre waiting for a new home.

What they found was that there was only one common denominator which had an effect on their success at finding a new home - it came down to one facial expression that some dogs produced more often it was this one movement that helped dogs who produced it more often to find a home quicker than others.

That facial expression is known as AU101 and is effectively all about a dog's inner eyebrow movement. Juliane says this movement makes the dog's eyes so big and describes it as "a typical dog face that we all find so cute."

Juliane explained more about the findings, "The other behaviours, such as tail wagging and approaching people, even colour of coat, didn't have an effect. It was just this facial movement and so we are now looking at whether dogs have any voluntary control over this movement and whether, for example, the dog has learned to use this movement to manipulate us.

"So far what we can see is that dogs produce more facial movements when we are looking at them compared to when we are not but it doesn't look like they are using specific movements to manipulate us in any way."

Can dogs read our facial expressions and react to what they see?

Juliane thinks so. She says, "We do know that dogs respond to facial expressions in humans and can differentiate."

Do dogs understand something still exist if it's out of sight?

One of the other studies currently underway at the University of Portsmouth's Dog Cognition Centre focuses on a dog's understanding of a psychological phenomenon called 'object permanence', something that is used to understand child development and at what age do children understand objects still exist when moved.

Juliane explains, "Just because you don't see the object anymore doesn't mean it doesn't exist, so say you have an object and you put a cup over it and move that cup around, object permanence is about learning at what age will you understand that even though you can't see it anymore that it has been moved somewhere and still exists.

"In relation to our research into this, we have studied whether dogs do understand object permanence and to what level they understand it. What we found is that dogs do understand some levels of object permanence, probably not surprising to dog owners, but if you put a cup over a piece of food the dog will still remember that there is a piece of food.

"However, if you then move the cup it gets a little bit more difficult for the dog and there is one condition that dog owners can set up and try at home very easily. It is one that dogs find very difficult."

Test your dog at home

You can see how the centre sets this up looking at the photo on their website here

    1. Take two identical cups
    2. Put food in one cup and put some food in one cup, making sure your dog sees where the food goes so he/she knows where the food ended up, and place them on the floor
    3. Then, with your dog watching, rotate the cups so that they both replace each other in the end - this is known as transposition - the first cup ends up where the empty cup was first and the empty cup ends up where food filled cup was first
    4. Ask your dog to make a choice between the cups

Based on their research Juliane says this is a test dogs struggle with.

She says, "Dogs make the mistake of walking to the location where they last saw the food. They don't recognise that the food moved to the other side, switching places with the empty cup. This is something that primates  - humans and apes - find it very easy to work out, but dogs seem to struggle with it. We don't yet know why this is, but they don't seem to understand that the object moved to the other location."

And the studies don't end just with dogs and their humans, Juliane explains that they also have projects looking at dog and wolf vocal communication.

She concludes that the future is bright for dogs and how we as humans understand and learn more about them. "I think future research will still discover a lot about dogs that we currently don’t know. The development of more sophisticated technologies will help us tremendously."

Take part in dog cognition studies in the UK

If you are interested in taking part in the games and puzzles within the Dog Cognition Centre, you can sign up to the studies here: http://www.port.ac.uk/dogcognition

The centre would especially like to hear from dog owners in the Hampshire/ Portsmouth area. Owners will then be contacted once there is a new study running and your dog will be invited to participate.

 

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