Do dogs know what we mean when we point to an object? Can they be patient or feel guilty? Does the concept of “same” fly right over their fuzzy heads? Harvard scientists want to know. Hence the introduction of the university’s new Canine Cognition Lab designed to uncover the psychological mysteries of man’s (and woman’s) best friend.

But why? Even though dog people give any noble pup pursuit the thumbs up, one does wonder why some of the world’s top scientists chose to zero in on the pup psyche. Harvard’s research group saw this coming. “We are interested in learning more about your dog’s feelings and thoughts, both because dogs are inherently interesting and because dogs can be studied to better understand the human mind.” This makes sense, especially considering humans evolved alongside dogs, and the intimate relationships millions of people have with their dogs.

The striking contrast in dog abilities compared to chimpanzees, a closer genetic relative to humans, also contributes to the push to learn more about pups. For example, Clive Wynne, a psychology professor and director of the University of Florida’s Canine Cognition and Behavior Labs claims the majority of dogs responded to pointing when rewarded in a particular study. The results for the same experiment conducted with chimpanzees were not so promising. They “just don’t get it,” says Wynne.

The question of how dogs comprehend and respond to humans is at the core of the new Harvard Canine Cognition Lab. And to get the answers they need, Marc Hauser, the Harvard professor who heads the lab, is recruiting pet pooches to see how they solve problems, interpret patterns and determine what their people are thinking. To date, over 700 dogs have been signed up for the studies in the Boston and Cambridge areas. These “non-invasive behavioral experiments” get researchers closer to understanding “To what extent is an animal that’s really been bred to be with humans capable of some of the same psychological mechanisms?” In other words, does your dog really feel guilty for eating your breakfast while you stepped into the bathroom, or do you just think he does?

On second thought, it’s a wonder why major academic institutions didn’t get around to studying canine cognition sooner. Clive Wynne speculates, “Psychologists have been ignoring animals that were sleeping quietly at their feet while they were doing work on rats and pigeons. Darwin wrote about his dog. . . We couldn’t bring ourselves to take them seriously.” That is, until now.


The Scoop:

Read more from The Boston Globe’s recent article about the Canine Cognition Lab at Harvard University.


Visit Harvard University’s Canine Cognition Lab site to learn more, sign up, see what questions the lab is exploring, and get links to other international groups researching dogs.


Thank you to our Woof Report Friend Sweet Jackie for the photo.