To Understand Autism, Researchers Turn To Dogs
HARTFORD, Conn. — When Porter the dog tries to figure out why his owner has placed a toy bone under a bucket, his response might provide some insight about human development, autism and other learning disabilities.
That’s the hope of Laurie Santos, who runs the Canine Cognition Center at Yale, which opened in December. She pointed to the 4-year-old chocolate Lab mix, brought in by psychology grad student Kristi Leimgruber. Porter is growing up in the same kind of environment as human children, Santos said, so comparing how he learns with the way people learn can tell us a lot about human development.
“So much more than primates, dogs are more cued into what we care about and what we know,” Santos said. “And they might have been shaped in a way that’s very different from any other animal species in part because, in a sense, they (behave) more like a human child who’s cued in (to humans) than, say, a chimpanzee.”
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For all that we ask of dogs — loyalty, companionship, slipper-fetching — rarely have we asked what drives dogs. That’s starting to change in the world of academia, where the dog’s status as a research subject has increased in recent years.
The Canine Cognition Center — where Santos and her researchers study dogs’ decision-making processes and how they pick up on social cues — is the latest example of a growing interest in how dogs can offer insights into behavioral and cognitive science. Santos is a professor of psychology, internationally known for her research of monkey behaviors.
Although she still studies monkeys, Santos said dogs may offer something to her research that monkeys can’t.
“More and more, we’re learning that, although monkeys are really good evolutionary models because they’re closely related to us, the environment they’re in and the way they’re raised is completely different,” she said. “So it would be great to get a new model that experiences some of same environments and might even experience some of the same selection pressures in evolution.”
That, said Santos, is where dogs come in.
“They don’t have language and, obviously, they’re not human, yet they grow up in exactly the same environments as children and rely on some of the same kinds of cues,” she said. “So the question is, given that they have similar environments, what does that tell us about their cognition?”
Another benefit to studying dogs is practicality. Monkeys and other animal subjects have to be housed somewhere. But with the Canine Cognition Center, people bring in their dogs for tests and bring them home.
After a dog is enrolled with the center, the researchers contact the owners about coming studies they might be suited for. Studies typically last 30 to 45 minutes, and none is more than an hour. Owners can watch their dogs take part in the studies, which generally involve simple problem-solving games.
Santos said they have about 300 dogs signed up, and 40 dogs enrolled in the studies.
Dogs are required to be spayed or neutered, vaccinated and in good health and have no history of aggression.
Those that are accepted receive a letter of admission with the same wording in letters sent to Yale undergrad applicants.
In 2011, the journal Comparative Cognition and Behavior published a history of dog cognition studies, beginning with Ivan Pavlov’s work with salivating dogs near the turn of the 20th century. According to the paper, the first wave of dog behavior studies peaked in the 1960s “but declined over the rest of the 20th century before starting to increase in the first decade of the 21st century.”
One of the paper’s authors, Erica Feuerbacher, a doctoral candidate at the Canine Cognition and Behavior Lab at the University of Florida, said the difference between recent studies of dogs and earlier ones is the motivation behind the studies. Earlier research tended to use dogs as a convenient model that could tell us things about ourselves. Only recently have researchers taken up dog behavior studies simply because we’re curious about how dogs’ minds work.
“I think recently, that animals — dogs and cats — are seen more as persons in our home, and I think we’re realizing how incredibly adaptive they are,” Feuerbacher said.
That’s not by accident, said Brian Hare, who teaches evolutionary anthropology at Duke University.
“In a word it’s because of domestication,” he said. “Dogs have been selected not to be smarter in the way we normally think about it; they’ve been selected to be emotionally smarter. They like humans and they want to be with humans more than they want to be with other dogs. They really see us emotionally as partners.”
But studying dogs because we really like them doesn’t pay the bills. Hare said the National Institutes of Health and other agencies that fund these studies want to know that there’s a specific benefit to studying dogs. To that end, he said, there’s no shortage.
“We share a long history with dogs, and dogs are not just complex psychologically and interesting; they have all sorts of jobs in the real world,” Hare said. Their many duties, he said, include serving as guide dogs, detecting bombs and drugs and finding cancers in people.
“They’re busy people,” Hare said of dogs. “Everything we learn about them helps us identify the best dogs for those jobs.”
One of Santos’ questions about the canine mind is whether dogs have what’s known in psychology as theory of mind — the ability to recognize that what other people are thinking is different from what you’re thinking. Children generally begin developing theory of mind by age 3, and it’s considered a milestone in cognitive development.
Some studies have shown that children with autism score much lower on theory of mind tests. Santos said exploring how dogs pick up on what others are thinking could shed some light on specifically what goes awry in the development of humans diagnosed with autism.
In general, she said, dogs have a lot to tell us. For centuries, she said, dogs have had to get along with humans to get their food and other resources, so it would make sense that they’re more in tune with us emotionally.