Britain’s first centre dedicated exclusively to studying dogs’ ability to understand humans and the world around them has opened at a Hampshire university.
Dog owners are being encouraged to bring their pets along to the new centre at the University of Portsmouth The Dog Cognition Centre has opened its doors to family dogs of all breeds, genders, ages and temperaments allowing researchers to study a huge range of dogs and learn more about how clever man’s best friend really is.
Dogs take part in games and are given tasks to solve, including obedience tasks, and researchers watch how they interact with their environment, other dogs or people.
The findings will be useful and of interest to those who work with and rely on dogs, including guide dogs for the blind and people with other disabilities, the police and the military, as well as to those who keep dogs as pets.
Researchers from the Department of Psychology will be studying:
- human-dog communication;
- whether dogs are sensitive to what others can see and do they take advantage of it;
- how dogs learn from other dogs and from humans;
- what dogs know about themselves;
- dogs’ understanding of their physical environment;
- do they co-operate with other dogs and with people to do the things which they can’t do alone.
The centre is headed by dog cognition expert Dr Juliane Kaminski, who has spent more than a decade studying dogs’ understanding of the world they live in.
She said: “Research has shown us that dogs have some understanding of their world and are flexible problem solvers. Some of their abilities equal those of young children.
“We know dogs are sensitive to humans and that they understand our communication cues, such as pointing and looking at something, for example, in way even our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees or dogs’ closest living relative, the wolf, can’t.
“The minds of dogs are complex, but more research is needed to identify what mechanisms are controlling their behaviour and how much they really understand versus how much we think they understand.”
Dogs have been living with humans for 15,000 years but they have only relatively recently come out of the shadow of chimpanzees and other primates in terms of behavioural sciences. In the past 15-20 years scientists have begun to learn more about how and why dogs have successfully become human’s best friend, and about how their human-like qualities evolved.
Dr Kaminski is a member of the University’s Centre for Comparative and Evolutionary Psychology, whose work has received funding from a range of bodies including the Leverhulme Trust, Wellcome Trust, Royal Society and European Commission. Its researchers include world experts in understanding human and animal behaviour and cognition.
Dogs of any gender, age or breed can take part in the studies, in which researchers play with them and set them tasks.