The Thinking Dog

Alexandria Laflair, Staff Writer |

September 27 marked the first “Anthropology Talk” series of the Fall 2017 semester. The lecture was held in the Craven Lounge at Morris Hall at 7 p.m., hosted by the Psychology Department and Anthropology Club.

Dr. Evan MacLean of the University of Arizona presented the talk, focusing on different types of cognition in dogs compared to humans, chimps, and other primates. MacLean is also the Director of the Arizona Canine Cognition Center, which is where they run non-harmful tests on pets and working dogs from around the state.

MacLean started the talk off with the two main questions that motivate his research: (1) what can dog psychology tell us about the human mind, and (2) what can studying dogs tell us about cognition in general?

He further shared two specific goals he has while conducting cognitive experiments with dogs: articulating (1) what makes humans unique from other living creatures, and (2) how all of our cognitions evolve over time. Videos were shown on multiple games and training exercises that were given to dogs. For example, one test was used to see how much self-control the dogs had with certain commands. Another showed researchers hiding objects, and by following the instructor’s pointing motions, the dogs had to find said object.

Surprisingly, the researchers discovered that dogs learn words and the names of objects in a similar method as a 2-year-old human. They can also imitate human behavior very well, and similarly rely on glances and other physical gestures to complete tasks. From these observations, Dr. MacLean concluded that social cognition of dogs very closely resembles that of humans, some even more than what relates humans and other primates.

“Dogs aren’t smarter than apes. They’re designed for different purposes,” MacLean stated towards the close of his talk.

He elaborated on this by saying people work on a “multiple intelligences” basis rather than a general one-through-ten scale of intelligence. So it is not a simple task to determine which of two animals is “smarter” or “better” given they may be intelligent in different ways.

To sum up his talk, Dr. MacLean stressed the importance of his research and explained that he is enthralled with studying dogs.

“We would be foolish not to [study dogs],” he said, as humans have lived with dogs for thousands of years.

Check out Campus Connection for the future installments of the “Anthropology Talk” series.

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