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Going to the dogs

Apr 2, 2012
by Tom Iacuzio, '06

Psychology professor’s research studies the connection between dogs and human behavior

While the family dog may not be able to read your mind, research by assistant professor of psychology Monique Udell seems to prove that man’s best friend might just be able to read your behavior.

The idea for the study, which was published in Springer’s journal, “Learning and Behavior” in 2011, was based on the research of Udell and her coauthors with domestic dogs.

The team researched the idea that domestic dogs who live around humans and interact with them on a daily basis were very good at solving social and cognitive problems often thought to be uniquely human.

“While other researchers have proposed that dogs’ success on these kind of tasks may indicate the evolution of a special ‘human-like’ social cognition or mind in dogs, we believe that dogs instead develop their human-like social skills as a result of living in human-based environments,” said Udell.

As a pre-vet student at Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., Udell studied both biology and psychology where she became interested the social behavior of animals. In 2006, she helped develop the Canine Cognition and Behavior Lab at the University of Florida, where this research was based.

“My experience with this study was an interesting one,” said Udell. “In general, the study has been well read and well received and was given the Psychonomic Society award for the best paper published in ‘Learning & Behavior’ for 2011.

The study was also covered by many media sources, such as the New York Times, the Huffington Post and some major international titles.

According to Udell, some media outlets, such as Discovery News, took the study a bit literally and ran with the title “Can your dog read your mind?”

“I had many calls from those wanting to discuss the possibility of psychic dogs as a result,” said Udell. “Interesting in its own right, but for different reasons.”

But despite a few hiccups, Udell thinks the results of her research will help to make the connection between man and pet even deeper.

“All in all I think the research brought greater awareness to a species that we call man’s best friend, but still know relatively little about from a scientific perspective,” said Udell. “Hopefully this understanding, among other things, will lead to improved human-canine interactions by highlighting the important relationship between environment, experience, and behavior.”

To conduct the study, Udell and her team carried out experiments comparing the performance of pet domestic dogs, shelter dogs and wolves who were encouraged to beg for food, from either an attentive person or from a person unable to see the animal. The researchers wanted to know whether the rearing and living environment of the animal, or the species itself, had the greater impact on the animal’s performance.

Udell’s findings indicated that pet dogs were consistently more likely to beg for food from a person looking at them as opposed to someone with their back-turned or reading a book. Human-socialized wolves did not beg from someone with their back turned, but were just as likely to beg from a person reading as someone looking right at them. Dogs living in a shelter performed the worst of all the groups.

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