What is the context of this research?
The intelligence of dogs has been debated for many years in the popular press and has becoming an increasingly hot topic in comparative psychology. However, the majority of studies have focused on pet animals, with relatively few subjects. Current thinking suggests that dogs are superior to nonhuman primates in some communicative tasks with humans, a finding that needs large-scale replication. The Humane Society of South Mississippi receives over 11,000 animals per year allowing us access to a large pool of potential subjects. The battery of tests that we are planning to run with the animals will allow us to directly compare dogs with multiple species (including nonhuman primates, birds, and marine mammals). These investigations are already underway.
What is the significance of this project?
A currently popular theoretical perspective on the evolution of intelligence is the domestication hypothesis which states that as dogs were domesticated, they gained not only the traits that humans were intending to breed (hunting, herding, etc.), but also the ability to follow human communicative gestures, for example pointing to draw attention to another object. This theory rests on the early findings suggesting that dogs could succeed at point following tasks and apes could not. However, recent publications from our lab suggest that these differences are based more on previous experience than on species differences, a finding that is supported by other research. We hope a larger scale study can clarify these contradictory findings.
What are the goals of the project?
Our goal is to complete our cognitive assessment with 40 dogs. This will allow us to do the first real comparison between the abilities of dogs and other species. Assessments will include classic cognitive tasks such as spatial memory, understanding of numbers, and physical properties, as well as such constructs as attention, communication, and problem solving by the dogs, which will be directly applicable to matching dogs with families. With an enormous number of stray animals coming into the shelter every year, better matching of dog to home could reduce return rates of dogs and reduce the loss of life for pets in Mississippi.