Psychology goes to the dogs

what is that cute dog thinking?
CC BY 2.0 localpups

Just what is man's (or woman's) best friend thinking?

Inquiring minds want to know...and when those inquiring study psychology for a living, you can bet they will get to the bottom of the matter. Pavlov made dogs famous subjects for psychological experiments, but dogs have fallen out of vogue in psych labs in recent years -- partly due to humane handling issues, but also because scientists suspected that the wide variety of dog breeds would make repeatable results more difficult to achieve.

In most labs, the animals used are specially bred for consistency, unlike the variety of sizes, shapes, and shagginess or skin-sagginess on parade at the average dog show. But that may be changing. Current Directions in Psychological Science has dedicated the entire October issue to dogs.

From studying "object permanence" in dogs -- whether they can remember that something was in your hand when you hide it behind your back for instance -- to what dogs can teach us about self-control, the articles examine the state of the art on studies of psychology in dogs.

We can learn more about why dogs remain near a fallen owner but really don't go for help in an emergency, in spite of what we learned on the old episodes of Lassie. We know dogs understand a lot of our cues, but what are dogs trying to tell us?

New techniques such as non-invasive neuro-imaging in combination with the fact that dogs' desire to please makes them highly trainable suggest that we could learn even more about dogs, and learn more about ourselves by understanding how our dogs' brains work.

Maybe this will encourage more young people into science as well - it sounds like a lot of fun. Next step: trying to get a cat to cooperate in the studies!

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