Pet cognition news has few surprises for pet parents

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Betsy and Jake

Jake is one smart cookie, especially when it comes to cooking-baking time at Betsy’s.

The last few times I’ve baked cookies, I’ve reached for the stick of butter I set on the counter to soften, only to realize I must have forgotten to get it out. Chalking my experience up to forgetfulness, I got a new stick from the fridge. Later, I discovered a cache of waxy butter wrappers in the backyard. All the time it had been sneaky Jake, counter surfing only when I was distracted. Clever.

Animal research is all a-buzz with new breakthroughs in our understanding of what animals are thinking and how they go about it. For most of us animal lovers, the research “breakthroughs” are straight from the University of Obvious –like the study that showed that dogs behave differently when you are watching them.

Pet lovers like you and me have taken pet cognition, empathy and emotions for granted for years now. When I was a kid, I remember being shocked to hear an elderly neighbor assert that animals don’t think. “They’re just instinct,” he’d say. This might have been the first time I realized an adult could be wrong, but it was par for the course to my five-year-old mind. After all, I’d overheard my mother dismiss him many times over dinner because of his politics.

My mom recalls the first time she heard someone suggest animals don’t think. The man was a doctoral student in experimental psychology at the University of Kansas in 1967. Back then lots of folks justified their behavior with platitudes like “animals don’t feel pain the way we do.” Anthropomorphism (attributing human qualities to animals) was THE big taboo in science. So big that, in my view, we didn’t always leave enough room for the Golden Rule. Now observational studies are justifying more and more ethical treatment and spotlighting just how complex the emotional and cognitive lives of animals are, paving the way for better science AND humanity.

My nearby Duke University now not only presumes animals think but also has created a Center for Dog Cognition. And this is where it gets really interesting to me — because I think we can use this new interest in cognition as a tool to reduce euthanasia. Dognition is all about playing games (tests) with your dog and learning how she thinks. These insights, while fun and interesting to the pet parent, can all be collected to learn more about dogs in general — and even different types of dogs.

That citizen science stuff is cool, but could we use the very act of taking the “test” to increase bonding? Use the results of the test to increase understanding and empathy? And thus reduce the number of dogs being taken back to the shelter? Why not?

My irrepressible Jake and his partner-in-crime, Pinto, are good examples of dogs whose very lives hinge upon a human that is really bonded to them. Jake commits a “return to the shelter”- level crime against the family every few months. Luckily, his naughtiness is balanced by his kissiness and silliness, which are irresistible — and a very understanding (read permissive) family. But also, there is this sense of guilty pleasure I feel when Jake masterminds a particularly creative jailbreak or tricks us into letting him out to chase the squirrel by acting like he has to “go.”

I think all these new cognition studies, and especially Dognition, are powerful tools we can use to create the framework of a bond. It all starts with a sense of communication — of sharing a common language. Communication’s bedfellow is the feeling of being listened to, and that is what most of us really yearn for.

If it helps people appreciate their new pooch on a new level — maybe because of the science, or maybe just because they’ve actually interacted with the dog in a mindful, engaging way — then I bet we can count on a better understanding of they way they think to forge some bonds – forever-home bonds.

We’re currently designing a pilot study in shelter and foster groups to see if we can use the test to either increase adoptions or make them stickier. We’ll keep you posted about what we learn. Meanwhile, if you know anyone having serious misunderstandings or communication issues with his or her dog, get a test for the two of them (I have been assured that tests for cats and husbands are coming soon).

And speaking of cats, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of research going on in the field of cat cognition. Writer David Grimm interviewed a cognitive scientist who incorporated cats in his work with sort of funny results. As it turns out, even tiny fish tested better in a counting study than cats did. But at least the scientists offered words of encouragement to us cat lovers. Throughout the study the cats walked the wrong way, didn’t look at the subject matter and were generally bored, and this probably affected their test results. Cat aficionados will probably take their own guilty pleasure out of that. Tia, my asthmatic office chicken, rushes to the corner of her cage to suck on her oxygen tube whenever she has an asthma attack. It took only three days or so for her to learn that trick. I think Charlie-cat would turn blue and pass out while he waited for me to deliver his oxygen. If chickens are as clever in the lab as crows and jays are proving to be, then Tia could teach us a thing or two. Charlie teaches me stuff, too. Mostly how to serve him. Define intelligence.

Dogs and chickens (and dolphins, etc.) appear to have high emotional intelligence. In 2011, by studying chicken mothers, scientists learned, definitively, that animals can have empathy, according to an article by David Derbyshire, writing in MailOnline. If the chicks were in distress, the mamas actually felt what their chicks felt, with all the expected physiologic responses as if she herself were the one in distress.  An article by Susan Milius in Science News this month, “A Different Kind of Smart, fuels the conversation about animal cognition. These are good times. The idea that our pets (or farm animals) don’t think is preposterous. Teenagers, maybe. But my pets? No way.

Did you ever run into anyone who thought animals don’t think or feel?

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