Who’s Doing Research on Canine Cognition?

Julie Hecht, who holds a Masters in Applied Animal Behavior and Animal Welfare from the University of Edinburgh, gave a great talk at IFAAB this year that included a summary of the labs around the world that are studying canine cognition. Since I so often get inquiries about graduate level education in all things dogs, I thought some of you would be interested. Right now Julie is managing the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College in NYC, teaches Applied Animal Behavior to Anthrozoology graduate students at Canisius College and writes for The Bark about canine science. And I love her blog, DOG SPIES, which is dedicated to getting solid, scientific information about dogs into the hands of dog lovers everywhere. I say yeah for her!

Here is her list of Canine Cognition Research Groups around the world, including links to their sites.

Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary. Known as the “Family Dog Project,” founded by Vilmos Csanyi, currently led by Adam Miklosi, especially interested in evolutionary and ethological foundations of the dog-human relationship.

University of Vienna, Austria. “The Clever Dog Lab,” with Zsofia Viranyi and Friederike Range. They did the work on human and canine responses to growls and “inequity aversion” in dogs.

Max Planck Institute, Germany. Michael Tomasello, Josep Call & Juliane Kaminski (and previously B. Hare). They did much of the work suggesting that dogs innately understand human pointing gestures because of their long association with humans (but see M. Udell’s study on a previous blog!)

Animal Behavior and Cognition, Italy. I don’t know much about this group and don’t read Italian (although I wish I did… I think it’s got to be the world’s most beautiful language!). Any Italian readers out there willing to translate for us?

University of Lincoln, UK (England). Especially interested in behavior as it applies to animal welfare.

University of Bristol, UK. Here’s from their website: The Animal Welfare and Behaviour research theme encompasses fundamental studies of animal behaviour, cognition and emotion, strategic and applied studies of animal welfare issues, and the implementation of research findings and solutions, involving farm, companion, laboratory, zoo and working animals.

Anthrozoology Research Group, Australia. From their website: Anthrozoology is the study of human (anthro) and animal (zoo) relationships. In our work, we focus particularly on companion animals. When interspecies relationships work well, they provide terrific health and well-being benefits for both humans and animals. When they fail, however, animals can suffer terribly and so can humans. What we do is use a multidisciplinary approach to try to understand what makes our relationships with companion animals succeed or fail. We then use our knowledge to try to make life better for everyone, whether they have two legs or four.

Dalhousie University, Nova Scotia. Simon Gadbois, especially interested in olfactory processes and learning, social behavior, stress and reproductive hormones.

University of Western Ontario, Canada. The link is to their FB page; lots of interesting information and studies discussed here.

Barnard, New York City. This is where Dr. Alexandra Horowitz studied what is often called the “guilty” look in dogs (showing that it is appeasement, not “guilt”). Ms. Hecht also did studies on this topic for her Masters, and now runs the lab at Barnard. Michele. Wan, whose work on people’s ability to ‘read’ dog’s emotional states I’ve discussed here, did her work at Columbia University, which Barnard College is associated with.

Duke, North Carolina. Now the home of Brian Hare. Here’s from their website: The Duke Canine Cognition Center (DCCC) is dedicated to the study of dog psychology.  Our goal is to understand the flexibility and limitations of dog cognition.  In doing so, we gain a window into the mind of animals as well as the evolution of our own species.  We can also apply our knowledge of dog cognition to improving programs in which dogs are bred and trained to help humans (i.e. service dogs for the disabled, etc.).

Eckerd College, Florida. Lauren Highfill. From their website: Are you interested in learning more about your dog’s behavior, personality, and thought processes? We are! The Dog Behavior Project conducts non-invasive behavioral experiments to try to answer these questions. We are always searching for new dogs to join our research team.

University of Florida. Home of Dr. Clive Wynne and Nicole Dorey, and where Monique Udell did her work testing Hare and Tomasello’s contention that dogs could innately understand pointing gestures. (Her works suggested that environment is more important than genetics.) Wynne and others have collaborated with Wolf Park in Indiana to compare wolf and dog behavior.

University of Kentucky, Comparative Cognition Laboratory. From their site: We are exploring the cognitive abilities of our canine friends. The goal is to define, measure, and distinguish dog behaviors. In the past it has been believed that the associations dogs make are based on either a positive or negative outcome. We are attempting to document the occurrence of more complex cognitive abilities through a variety of situations.

Here’s what I’d love from readers: Any of you who have worked for, at or volunteered for any of those labs, please let us know more! We’d all love to hear more about what’s going on around the world about what’s going on inside our dog’s heads….. And thank you, Julie again, for compiling the list.

MEANWHILE, back on the farm: I’m actually back on the farm, that’s the biggest news for me. Tomorrow will be my first day off in three weeks, and  my first weekend home since Feb 25th. Ahhhhhhh! My travels have been well worth it, but still, Dorothy (the girl in The Wizard of Oz, not the ewe!) was right. There really is no place like home.

This weekend will be especially fun; students from the University of Wisconsin Vet School will be out to learn from Dr. Harry Momont how to do ultra sound pregnancy tests on sheep. It’s a bit moot, since the flock is due starting March 28th or 29th, and every ewe is obviously pregnant (yeah to the new ram, King Charles), but still it’s a great exercise for the vet students.

Here are some photos from the last few days: First, here’s a wild javelina that one of my favorite authors, Sy Montgomery, and I got to see at the Tucson Wildlife Center. The center does fantastic work rehabilitating injured abandoned animals in southern Arizona. They rehab individuals of many species, including lots of raptors with broken wings, a now grown Bobcat who needs seizure medicine due to he and his litter being run over by a tractor and a tame Coati Mundi who has no idea how to make it on her own in the desert. The staff is almost all volunteer, and does amazing work. I loved how they pair adult animals unable to live on their own as foster parents of injured or abandoned young. That allows them to keep human-animal interactions to a minimum, so that as many animals as possible can be returned to the wild, having been raised by members of their own species. The wild javelina in the photo was attracted by the javelina’s in rehab. Apparently the wild ones stop by to chat on a daily basis. Sy is the one who arranged the visit, a huge THANKS! to her for doing so. It was a wonderful break from what was also a wonderful book festival. 80,000 people on Saturday alone? Amazing!

And back in Wisconsin, here’s Rosebud being shorn the day before yesterday by Jerry Rice, to whom I pay multiple times the going price because he is so very, very good with my sheep. He’s fast yet gentle, and left not a nick on any of my girls. I’m so lucky that he is willing to come out to shear my tiny little flock. Rosebud’s two ewe lambs are in the background, Oreo and Butterfinger. They are due beginning in a week and a half. Oh my, where did the time go?


  1. Houndhill says

    One of my Irish Wolfhounds, Tulip, was a subject a couple of weeks ago at Duke, Brian Hare’s Canine Cognition Lab. She was a little too inhibited to be a good subject though. She would take treats, but in one experiment, the experimenter fed her treats from a Tupperware container that she held. Tulip took them politely, but then when the experimenter told her “No!” and closed the lid, Tulip went into a corner, turned her back, laid down, and declined further participation. They all laughed at her, including me, watching on a TV screen in an adjoining room, because she so clearly said $&@!?$ you! (I think she was supposed to recruit the experimenter’s help in some way that evidently wolves do not….

    I don’t know what I was thinking, volunteering Tulip. Although she is “scary smart”, she is also my most suspicious wolfhound, I have others who are much less inhibited. Her granddaughter, Solo is going Tuesday. She is very food motivated and much less inhibiting, so it will be interested to see how she does.

    Several friends have had dogs who have been subjects in the Duke Canine Cognition Lab studies. Many people have found it interesting, but some have found the experimental protocol a bit mystifying. I am sympathetic to anyone searching for subjects, as I have Been There Done That and know how difficult it can be.

    I think they do a good job, but think they could perhaps benefit from enlisting the consultation of those who do actually work with dogs on other than an acedemic setting.

  2. SJ42 (@showjumper42) says

    Nice post! Great overview and examples. Hopefully more students will choose this field of study.

  3. says

    I enlisted my dogs in my pre-PhD paper… about Theory of Mind. So much fun!
    Now we are designing my thesis, about dog social behavior. It’s in diapers, so I can’t tell you more.

  4. Holly Miller says

    Last year I defended my dissertation on self-control by dogs at the University of Kentucky. Some of the results reported in my thesis will be published soon. Keep an eye out for the press release!


  5. Min says

    What do you do with that fleece? As a handspinner, I hope you’re saving it! What breed of sheep are your girls? They’re so lovely!

  6. Beth says

    I do love reading cognition studies, and of course like dog lovers everywhere, I love trying to figure out just what mine are thinking. How come when Jack alert-barks at odd noises or sights outside, for instance, he settles down instantly if I say “It’s okay, I see it.” Yet if he sees a strange animal in the yard (wild critter, stray cat) he settles down only if I also grumble and say “How DARE he? HOW dare he?” in a low growly voice? Is he looking for commiseration in his anger in the latter, and assurance it’s safe in the former? I’d love to know.

    When my submissive female pretends she wants to play in order to lure Jack off a lap or away from a desired toy, then goes ahead and claims the prize when he moves (he no longer falls for the ploy) is she actually thinking “I will trick him into moving.” That seems VERY complex for a dog. Or are play-invites more correctly labeled as requests for non-aggressive attention?

    When a dominant dog acts submissive to reassure a fearful dog, what is the thought process there?

    Why can a dog remember the spot where he found a big hunk of food next to a tree three years ago, but forget that he left a tennis ball lying behind him 10 seconds ago? How does that canine memory work?

    So many questions! So many possible directions for research…

  7. says


    I am a PhD student in the Anthrozoology Research Group at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. I am studying dog cognition. Specifically, we explored dogs’ reactions to mirrors, and whether they could use them as a problem-solving tool. We also developed a minimally-invasive method for measuring cognitive processing in dogs using EEG. Finally, we designed a questionnaire about specific cognitive abilities to find out what people think their dogs are capable of. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me.

  8. em says


    I don’t mean to derail the thread, but Otis and Sandy used to “trick” one another into getting off (Otis’s) jumbo dog bed. One dog runs to the window and barks (at nothing). When the other dog gets up to come see, the trickster abandons all pretense at interest in the window, dashes over to the prime spot and plops down right in the middle. Sandy taught Otis the trick and they spent a few mornings playing Chinese fire drill with the dog bed until they both gave up going to investigate. I’d give my eyeteeth to know the mental process behind that one- one dog apparently used a trick to get what she wanted, the other learned it and used it against her, she fell for it, then turned around and used it again, whereupon HE fell for it AGAIN, despite having just learned and used it FROM HER, and so on. The first time I observed this behavior, they exchanged places at least six times. They did it on at least two other occasions before both dogs stopped falling for the ruse.

    To what extent are they truly conscious of their actions? Do they know themselves to be perpetrating a deception? (If not, that might explain why it took so long to suspect deception in their counterpart. Of course, it could also be that the possibility of Something to Bark At is too good a prospect to risk missing out on, even if the chances are slim that the alarm is genuine). But if not, what in the world do they think that they are doing?

  9. Beth with the Corgis says


    I’m the Beth who wrote about dogs tricking each other. I am hard-pressed to find an explanation other than that they know what they are doing. Jack does not deceive because he has enough rank on Maddie that if he wants something, he goes and takes it (he’s been known to lie down on her head if she doesn’t oblige and move). But I’m darned if I can think of another explanation for Maddie’s behavior other than lying to gain advantage.

    She tried the trick a few days ago when Jack was on my husband’s lap. She rolled on the floor, belly-up (her wrestling invite, not the submissive posturing we see in appeasement) and made soft little play-yaps. When that did not work (Jack has long-since learned to ignore it) she started frustration-barking, and then she tried barging in (which also didn’t work).

    Funny thing is Maddie’s not a big one on wrestling. It’s Jack who adores it. So it almost seems that not only does she know that she’s deceiving to gain advantage, but she ALSO seems to understand that what he prioritizes is not the same as what she does (recognizing that he’ll give up a comfy lap for the chance at a game).

    But as apparent as it seems, that seems awfully complex thinking even for an ape. I’d bet a dolphin would do it. But a dog? Seems so unlikely, doesn’t it?

  10. Beth with the Corgis says

    And em, you gave me a great laugh on a Monday as I pictured your dogs playing fire drill with the bed! Yours is the second set of dogs I’ve heard of using fake alarm-barking to get a desired reward.

  11. Barbara Bacci says

    I am Italian and follow your blog – and find it most interesting. The Animal Behavior and Cognition site you mention offers the possibility of choosing between English and Italian. I did not know of it, thank you for sharing all these links!

  12. Kat says

    Beth & em, Ranger has exhibited deception but also fairness/sharing. His best buddy found the most desirable stick in the world (at least to see how the dogs were acting it must have been). Ranger, being the higher status dog could have simply taken it away but instead found a little twig and made a huge fuss over it, resource guarding it and generally presenting it as an incredible stick. His friend faked one way and darted in the other to grab the twig while Ranger calmly got up and took the original stick. What really fascinated me though is that while his buddy was looking with disgust at the little twig (Ranger is 90lbs and his buddy was at that time about 120lbs so a *little* twig was particularly unappealing) Ranger chewed the other stick in half and shared it with his friend. Each dog now had one half of the original highly desirable stick and they settled down side by side to gnaw their sticks.

    Our other dog, Finna, came to us with very limited manners and an adolescent’s need to test the boundaries (plus a host of other issues but those aren’t relevant here). She used to try to take Ranger’s chews and toys away from him sometimes rather aggressively. The first time she lay down a ways away from him watching him chew and prepared to scoop it up when he was done he broke the chew in half and moved away from one piece so she could have it. It really looked to me like he was rewarding her for being polite rather than her previously rude self.

    Sadly, there aren’t any canine cognition studies nearby. I’d be delighted to have Ranger participate.

  13. trisha says

    D. Sakurai, thanks so much for the link to the Penn study, fantastic! And thanks to all of you who mention other sites and especially, their yet to be published research. I can’t wait! Let me know asap as soon as it is “out of diapers!”

    And Houndhill, I laughed out loud at the description of your dog in the research project, Your point is also well taken about the need to involve people with canine experience in studies AND the difficulty in designing a good study. I once heard someone say (in a medical field) that “studies on behavior were so easy and simple,” when alas, the truth is actually the opposite.

    And em, Kat and Beth w/ C, these stories about deception are excellent. If you are so inclined, I’d love to have a write up on each of them (if you have more to add). Anecdotes aren’t research, but they are still valuable. And FYI, there are credible reports of other canids doing the same, including the famous observation of the fox who was so harassed by her pups for food that she alarm barked when she brought food, sent the pups scurrying into the den and then, finally, settled down to eat for herself for the first time in days.

  14. Beth with the Corgis says

    Love the story of the fox. Too clever! I’ll bet every human parent has felt that way at some point.

    I’d be thrilled to do a quick write-up of what I observed with Maddie apparently lying to Jack to get him to give up something she wanted. How would you like me to get it to you? Do you have a contact e-mail on the site? Or just post it here?

  15. Chris from Boise says

    One more deception story: Our dear departed blue heeler developed a “Flicker Alarm” bark after watching my husband run out and throw rocks to dissuade the flickers who used to pound on the house. She only used that bark for flickers, and soon trained my husband to respond and run outside even before the flickers had started hammering. One day she gave a flicker bark, Mike ran out, and she zipped past him into the house – and not a flicker was in sight. Now, this was a dog who chose to be an outdoor dog, on a wonderful ranch way out in western Idaho. However, she didn’t like thunder, and a storm was approaching, so she apparently took matters into her own hands (so to speak).

    I see a theme of deceptive alarm barks developing in this thread. We do have clever companions, don’t we!

  16. says

    Thank you so very much for listing these resources. It is amazing that in the past five or ten years the science of dog behavior has become “legitimate.”

  17. says

    It’ really too bad that despite all the science there are still so many people that find it easier to believe well crafted TV myths. Some blame lays on us, we don’t communicate that well with the public.


    But I think that it’s a bit like the creationist movement. No matter how much evidence there is, some people just prefer to believe the easy stories.

  18. Steven Klein says

    I am doing research of a canines ability to learn to read and write. I find all of your listings interesting and most of them useful in one way or another.

    I suffered a stroke 5 years ago that destroyed my ability to walk, talk, and see. My labradore retriever adapoted me as a “big puppy”, and worked six months, teaching me to walk, talk, see, and be a productive human again. I taught the canine to read a symbol language that I developed.

  19. says

    The Canisius Canine Research Team just formed last year and is in progress with their first research study! Our Animal Behavior, Ecology and Conservation undergraduate program has an emphasis on research on many species. Even one of our new professors is working on feline social structures in sheltering environments. Lots happening at Canisius College (Buffalo, NY)!

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