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Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Canine Cognition Lab at Harvard

I was really excited to take Shale to Harvard University’s Canine Cognition Lab,  last week where we volunteered for a study on Canine-Human Empathy and ran through short Canine IQ Battery.

Harvard’s Canine Cognition Lab in Cambridge, MA runs non-invasive engaging and fun behavioral experiments to better understand how dogs handle problem solving, recognize patterns of sound, reflect on what is known and unknown, and work out what we, their humans believe, desire, and intend.  I especially liked that Shale and I would be working together in a fun environment that felt like a ‘game’ for her.  The particular tasks vary by study but typically involve problems where your dog will have the opportunity to make a choice among a set of options, and will receive a food treat for making a particular choice.

The first study we participated in was a section of the Canine IQ Battery tests that members of the lab ran for a previous study and needed a few more additional tasks to be quantified.  Shale loved playing “find the hidden treat game.” The debriefing material I received explained that the Canine IQ Battery examines the cognitive capacities that underlie canine intelligence.  The full study consisted of a series of tasks that tapped into different domains of canine cognitive skills, including inhibition, number discrimination, memory, and problem solving.  The purpose of the study was to determine whether success on certain tasks reliably predicts success on other (i.e. dogs with strong memories might also excel at problem solving).   The Battery also included contrasted tests that required the capacity to understand and use physical versus social cues to find hidden food, which will be of particular interest when comparing domestic dogs to other Canids such as wolves and dingoes. 

The second study was on Canine-Human Empathy.  In this study the Lab is investigating dogs’ understanding of human emotions.  As those with dogs know there is much anecdotal evidence that dogs are able to “tune in” to how people are feeling and respond to their emotional states.  This phenomenon and the mechanisms that make it possible are yet to be scientifically demonstrated.  In this study, I and a member of the lab alternated showing Shale visualization and vocalizations of human emotions to test and gauge her preference of emotions.  When there was no emotional variance Shale came to me 100% of the time but when given a choice to “go to” a person displaying the emotion of sadness for example three-quarters of the time Shale went to ‘comfort’ that individual.  Some dogs I was told as an example, 100% time would seek out person displaying happiness.  It was very interesting to see Shale’s reactions to the range of human emotions.   I understand the findings of this research may have implications for the use of dogs as therapy animals as well as improving medical diagnostic techniques. 

A past study of theirs on dog-human communicative actions was published in the journal, Behavioural Processes recently (Behavioural Processes 86(2011)7-20). 

We had a fun visit and Shale received a Canine Cognition Lab at Harvard leash and a certificate showing she had completed her Freshman Year at Harvard.  We can’t wait to participate again and eventually “graduate” and go on to Shale’s Masters of Dogology! 

If you would like more information or to register your dog to participate visit the Canine Cognition Lab at Harvard's website.


  1. That is very cool, I wish it was closer, I wonder how Cricket would react. WOW, what an amazing girl Shale is to have completed her Freshman year at such a prestigious school at such a young age, LOL, you gotta frame that certificate for her office!

  2. Glad Shale had a good experience at the Canine Cognition Lab. Daisy earned her senior year diploma earlier this year. Our girls are wicked smaht!

  3. Thanks @Kathy and Daisykeeper! @Daisykeeper I'm really glad you told me about the Canine Cognitition Lab! I hope Shale will follow in Daisy's paw steps and go through her senior year too!

  4. Sioux has been participating in some of the experiments at Harvard. Always an interesting and fun time for her. I can't wait for more results, and I'm really glad that one of my dogs helped in the research!
    You can see Sioux here. She's the one high-fiving me: