Dr. Sarah-Elizabeth Byosiere is the founding director of Hunter College’s Thinking Dog Center, which explores scientific questions about the psychology of dogs. She holds a PhD in psychology from La Trobe University, where she wrote her thesis, “Visual Perception in Dogs (Canis lupis familiaris): Are Dogs Susceptible to Visual Illusions?” At Hunter College, she advises and teaches students from high school-level to graduate-level, and supports research that helps shelters and dog trainers. Before the pandemic hit, we took a visit to the Center, where Artemis participated in a study (and earned lots of belly rubs). While the Center is currently not open for in-person studies due to COVID-19, interested dog parents can sign up to stay updated on virtual opportunities. Sarah-Elizabeth is currently sheltering in place with her 15-year-old Schnauzer-Poodle mix and teaching assistant, Sam.
How did the Thinking Dog Center come about?
The Animal Behavior and Conservation program at Hunter was extremely interested in creating an animal companion program. They study everything from dolphin behavior to elephant behavior to electric fish behavior. But what they were finding is that a lot of the students who are in New York City can’t always travel to Thailand to study elephants. They hired me to come in, gave us this space, and we officially opened in June 2019. One of our recent studies has been on spatial navigation—how does the dog get around a fence? We had a fence in the room, with food on one side of the fence and the dog on the other side. They just had to walk around the fence to get to the food, but there were dogs who couldn’t figure it out.
This is what we call the Unsolvable Task. We have this container that is locked. But before we lock it, it’s very easy to get food or toys out of it. Once Artemis knows that, we lock the box and we see what she does. Will she beg Mom for help? In this study, we’ve also looked at working dogs. These guys will persist at manipulating the container very rigorously—they will hardly look back and they will even break the container. Pet dogs won’t do that.
The idea is that the dog learns that the task—get the treat or toy—is solvable, and then you make it unsolvable. How will the dog react to the unsolvable?
There are multiple people in the room. So, dogs tend to go to the person who is making eye contact—that can maybe tell us something about how dogs can understand the attentive state of those around them.
You can do variations of the study. Do they look at an unfamiliar person instead of the owner?
We actually have two conditions for this study—food and toys. Working dogs tend to prefer toys because that’s the reward they’re typically given, while our pet dogs prefer the food. The dogs will come in for two visits. Two weeks after their first visit, they get whatever condition they didn’t have the first time.
Why do people—and their dogs—love coming to the Thinking Dog Center?
It’s fun to participate in this kind of activity because it’s enriching for the dog and they get an experience out of it—and so does the owner. It’s something else to do, right? You don’t have to go to the dog park. You don’t have to drop your dog off at doggie day care. This is something that the owner and the dog can do together.
Owners are often a little bit worried. They’re always like, is my dog doing well? Is my dog progressing fast enough? Especially if their dog is participating in our seven-week study. And I have to tell them, “There’s no criteria.”
Sometimes, owners will come in expecting us to tell them how smart their dog is. But we just want to know how their dogs engage with us. Even if the dog doesn’t perform in the way that the owner would like, we still find the study extremely helpful. We’re providing an enriching experience that hopefully improves your relationship with your dog.
That makes sense—this is the most fun Artemis has had in a while! How have things changed since the pandemic began?
We closed just like everything else closed. On March 11 at 5 P.M., we got an email from the university, explaining that we were closing. We actually had a dog coming in for a 5 P.M. appointment, so that was the last dog we saw. Three hours later, we decided to grab all our things and get out—because we knew we weren’t coming back in a while.
We shut down operations and emailed everyone on our list. We decided it was best to postpone and cancel everything we had scheduled. The Center is still here. We’re just not meeting physically. You can follow us on Instagram or Twitter or Facebook to stay in touch with us. We’re still accepting sign-ups for studies, but we won’t be doing any in-person yet. But if we do have a study that can be done virtually, the people on the mailing list would find out.
Now, we’re looking at ways that we can conduct our studies virtually—for example, having pet owners be citizen scientists at home. It’s really enriching for your relationship at home, in fact. It helps take the owner’s mind off everything else, and it gives the dog something new to do during a very confusing time.
This is also an opportunity for us to reach a population of dogs that we don’t normally get to work with. For most of our studies, we’ve required that the dogs are friendly with humans—especially strangers. In the future, we’re hoping to provide alternative opportunities for populations of dogs that haven’t been able to visit us due to these requirements.
For example, we did a webinar in which we talked about things you can do at home. Dogs have this unique ability to follow human-given cues like pointing. If you point to something, your dog is very likely to follow it. That seems like an easy thing to do, right? But dogs are exceptional in that they’re great at doing this. Our closest living relatives—chimpanzees and other great apes—are actually very bad at following our cues.
You can see for yourself at home. Grab two pet-safe containers—not glass. Put them behind your back and drop a treat in one of them. Don’t let your dog see. Now, put both of them out. Point at one of them. Does your dog follow your point?
There’s some evidence that free-ranging dogs or wolves can follow a point, too—which means this is something that is unique to canids, as a whole.
You can make the pointing harder, too. Are you pointing for three-to-four seconds? Or are you just doing it quickly? Your dog will react differently. And if you remove your arm and ask your dog to remember where you were pointing, that requires memory.
Are you doing studies with your dog at home?
I have a 15-year-old Schnauzer-Poodle mix named Sam who I adopted from a shelter, and the funny thing is, Sam has never participated in any of my cognition studies because he’s one of those dogs who loves his family but isn’t great with strangers. I couldn’t bring him to the Center. He’s not bad! He’s pretty deaf, and losing some vision, but he can follow my point. I’m impressed. I’ve been using him to help me demonstrate in videos.
In 2019, the New York Times noted that interest in dog cognition is at an all-time high. Why is that?
On a personal level, you get this really rich experience between an owner and their dog that they won’t get normally in their daily lives. Even if they just come to the Thinking Dog Center once, it’s fun to have been part of the experience.
The other thing is, if we help them improve their dogs’ lives, we’re also indirectly improving the humans’. If we can help them with their separation anxiety or if we can help them learn what training methods are better—if we can become effective communicators, as dogs have evolved to be great communicators with us, then we can hopefully improve our relationships.
Dogs have the ability to understand human social cues—that’s very interesting. They can also get dementia or Alzheimer’s-related disease, just like us. It’s called canine cognitive dysfunction (CCD). So, when we study cognition, we record the ages of the dogs. We could look at older dogs and see whether or not we could figure out what is going on cognitively, and consider how that might apply to humans.
You know how on social media, a lot of dog parents give their dog a very distinct voice? Do dogs have their language?
In a sense, they have a language—well, they’re pretty good at understanding our language! They’re really attuned to what we want and need. You might notice that when you come home and you’ve had a really shitty day, your dog’s cuddled up right next to you and loving you and is so happy to be with you! They know what you need in your life. I would argue that we’re not as good at understanding that language as they are.
Every dog is their own individual, so I like that dog owners pick a voice for their dogs—they’re probably the best ones to decide what that is.
So, do dogs love us?
The way to think about this is that dogs have varying skills, cognitive abilities, and emotions. There is research to suggest that when you pet a dog or stare into its loving eyes, you experience this increase in oxytocin, which is known as the “love hormone” or the “cuddle hormone.” We experience this with babies—but dogs have hijacked it.
Photography by Tayler Smith