Alumni CLASnotes Spring 2009
In This Issue:

Rover's No Rocket Scientist
(he's just very well adapted)

Peter Posada
We've all seen the bumper stickers proclaiming, "My dog is smarter than your honors student." We've seen bomb-sniffing dogs in action. We've heard stories about dogs alerting their owners to a seizure or heart attack before it happens. But, what sort of intelligence do dogs actually possess?

"I love those bumper stickers because I think everyone instantly recognizes that there must be something wrong here: the intelligence of a dog cannot be compared to the intelligence of a child," said Clive Wynne, UF associate professor of psychology. Wynne has been conducting research in canine cognition and has authored a book in the field titled Do Animals Think? "And, that's a theme that is close to my heart: intelligence isn't a quantity, like temperature, that different species have more or less of, it's something that differs qualitatively between species."

Canine cognition has appeared in the news recently, featured in articles in the New York Times, the St. Petersburg Times and the New York Post, to name a few. And small wonder -- with 75 million dogs in the United States, the equivalent of 40 percent of American households own a dog, many more than have children.

"My impression is that we know far less about dogs than about children," Wynne said. "So it doesn't surprise me that whenever we or another research group have a result, the public wants to know about it."

Wynne and his research team are currently conducting several different experiments to study cognition and the sociability of dogs and whether or not their sociability changes over time. These tests involve looking both at domesticated canines and wolves to note differences between the groups; Wynne visits with wolves several times a year for his research.

"Wolves have intensity and focus that I find lacking in dogs," Wynne said. "My ideal would be to live someplace where I could visit with wolves on a daily basis."

One experiment involves testing the use of clickers, a popular form of dog training, and whether or not it has an impact on accelerating learned responses. Another experiment investigates how easily a dog can learn to go to the opposite location to where a human points.

"We have found that dogs are very resistant to the idea of going where the human is not pointing," Wynne said. "Wolves are more willing to do this."

Wynne's team is also studying the ability of dogs and wolves to look at people's eyes, a concept called "eye gaze," to track whether dogs can understand when a person can or cannot see them. In the experiment, a dog receives a treat if the person can see them. The research has shown that a dog's response is based on how the person's vision is obscured. If the person's back is turned or they have a book in front of their face, the dog will not ask for a treat. However, if the person's face is covered in a bucket, the dog fails to understand that this means they cannot see them and asks for a treat.

"The argument has been made that dogs are more willing to look at people's eyes than wolves are," Wynne said. "We haven't tested wolves for this yet, but we doubt the claimed difference between wolves and dogs will stand up to systematic test."

"Aside from the intrinsic interest in the research itself -- which is always new, because you never really know what is going to happen -- I like seeing how owners respond to their dog's performance," Wynne said.

Owners sometime bring two dogs to the studies, convinced that one is smarter than the other. However, Wynne and his team often find that the results of their tests are the opposite of what the owner expects.

Wynne and his graduate student Monique Udell first delved into canine cognition after reading about the minds of apes, chimps, orangutans, and gorillas, our closest animal relatives. A research project started by European scientists 10 years ago applied cognition tests that have been used to measure cognition of apes to dogs, and found that the dogs responded better to many of those tests.

"Actually their thinking is not all that similar to ours -- and the human relationship with apes is slight," he said.

Wynne was born on the Isle of Wight, a small island off the south coast of England. He did his undergraduate studies in Human Sciences at University College London. He then received his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Edinburgh.

"I learned a lot in Edinburgh," Wynne said, "but I rate my experiences as a post-doc as even more important to my development as a scientist."

As a post-doctoral student, he worked under Juan Delius in Germany and John Staddon at Duke. Delius had studied under Niko Tinbergen, the most important European figure in the study of animals in their natural environment; Staddon had studied at behaviorist B. F. Skinner's lab at Harvard. "I had the good fortune to have mentors in both the North American and European traditions of studying animal behavior and I consider that plurality to be one of my strengths," Wynne said.

Since moving to the United States, Wynne has not owned any dogs. However, he enjoys the day-to-day benefits of seeing his subjects' interactions.

"Dogs bring a lot of pleasure to a lot of people, and probably provide some health benefits," Wynne said. "I would like to contribute to maximizing the upside and minimizing the downside of dog keeping."

Wynne hopes his research will help people learn more about how dogs react to humans. This may lead to the prevention of dog attacks, especially on children.

"I have contemplated working directly on what factors precipitate dog attacks, but this would be rather dangerous research," Wynne said, "so, I'm sticking to basic factors about dogs' reactions to people."

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