UNL’s New Canine Cognition and Human Interaction Lab

Dog lovers take note. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln now has a Canine Cognition and Human Interaction Lab.

The lab is part of the Department of Psychology and Center for Brain, Biology and Behavior, and will focus on understanding both dog psychology and how interaction with dogs influences human behavior and psychology. Researchers will study dog psychology by playing games with dogs, and will study dog-human interactions by having human participants take cognitive tests before and after interacting with dogs, and comparing their results to participants who are given a different “intervention” between tests. Studies are expected to start in the fall.

Anyone interested in learning more is encouraged to attend UNL DogFest from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, August 11th on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus. The event is free to attend. Attendees and their well-behaved leashed dogs will be able to tour the new Canine Cognition and Human Interaction Lab, participate in and watch demonstrations of dog activities, and learn about dog-related products and services.

Jeff Stevens is the director of the Canine Cognition and Human Interaction Lab. In this role, Jeff’s duties include designing the research ideas, recruiting students to help conduct the research, writing grant proposals, soliciting private donations to help fund the lab, and reporting the lab’s research to both the scientific community and the general public. I recently talked to Jeff about his dog cognition research.

ALLISON: What interests you about psychology?

JEFF: I’m interested in understanding why humans and other animal behave the way they do. Understanding the psychology of behavior can help us improve the lives of people and animals.

ALLISON: Tell me about your background in psychology.

JEFF: My background is in animal behavior, and I began getting interested in animal cognition (understanding how animals ‘think’). I’ve studied this in birds, primates, fish, humans, and now dogs. I received my PhD at the University of Minnesota, completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard University, and was a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, Germany before joining the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

ALLISON: Why did you start studying decision-making in humans and other animals?

JEFF: I started studying decision-making in other animals by applying what we know about human decision-making to them. There has been a surge recently in testing the ideas about human decision-making in other animals. Surprisingly to some (but not me!), many of the same principles of decision-making apply across humans and other animals. I started studying humans when a student I was working with completed a study on chimpanzee patience. She didn’t think that people would be as patient as the chimpanzees, so we designed a study to test people. She was right!

ALLISON: How did the Canine Cognition and Human Interaction Lab come about?

JEFF: I have a number of colleagues who study cognition in dogs. On my sabbatical this last fall, I visited one of them (Friederike Range) who co-directs the Clever Dog Lab in Vienna, Austria. This convinced me that I wanted to open a dog cognition lab. In developing ideas for this lab, it became clear that I could combine the study of dog psychology with human psychology by studying how interacting with dogs influences human cognition. This lab brings together my interest in both human and animal cognition.

ALLISON: Why study dog psychology?

JEFF: Dogs are fascinating for several reasons. First, they evolved to interact with humans, which makes their cognition super interesting. Second, they live in millions of households, so understanding them can have direct impacts on millions of people. Third, they are used extensively as working animals, so understanding their psychology can help police officers, military personnel, farmers, cancer doctors (they can detect cancer!), and hotels/dorms (they can detect bedbugs!).

ALLISON: Why study dog-human interactions?

JEFF: Dogs can have a calming effect on people, where they decrease our stress levels. Stress is a key part of human life that can influence our emotions, cognition, and decision-making. So if interacting with dogs can reduce stress, that might improve our decision-making. Surprisingly, there is not a lot of strong evidence regarding the positive effect of dogs on human cognition.

ALLISON: How will those studies be conducted?

JEFF: For the dog cognition studies, owners will bring their dogs into the lab for an hour or so. We’ll take them in to the testing room and basically play games with them for treats. We’ll design the games in a way to ask questions about their cognition and decision-making. Owners will be able to watch the testing on a video monitor in an adjacent room.

For the dog-human interaction studies, we will have human participants experience standard cognitive tests, and, for some of the participants, we will bring in a dog for them to pet and interact with. Other participants will receive other ‘interventions’ that don’t involve interacting with a dog. Then everyone will experience the cognitive tests again. We will compare the dog interaction groups to the other groups.

ALLISON: How will results be reported to the public?

JEFF: First of all, I want to make clear that science is a slow process. It often takes 2 or more years from when data are first collected to when the final scientific article is published (I had one project that took almost 10 years!). Also, sometimes the studies just don’t work out and never get published. So don’t expect quick answers!

The primary way scientists make their work ‘public’ is by publishing scientific articles. But I will also report my work to the non-academic world by posting short summaries of the scientific articles on the CCHIL website: dogcog.unl.edu. Also, I will present our results at future DogFests, so the public can see what we’re finding out in the lab.

ALLISON: What are the long-term goals for the Canine Cognition and Human Interaction Lab?

JEFF: The long-term goals of CCHIL are to better understand the psychology of dogs and how dogs influence human psychology to improve their lives and their experience with and usefulness for humans.

ALLISON: What preparations are being/have been made for DogFest?

JEFF: I must say that I was not expecting the preparation for DogFest to take up as much time as it has. I have been in contact with probably 6-8 different groups within the university to get permission and organize this event. But the university has been absolutely fantastic and fully supportive of DogFest! I’ve organized sponsors, demonstrations, dog-related vendors, food vendors, volunteers, and advertising. Arnie’s Pet Food Store is our primary sponsor, and they have been fantastic in funding DogFest and getting the word out. With most of the logistics in place, I can now focus on the fun stuff for the visitors.

ALLISON: What can attendees expect to see and do?

JEFF: I think that we’re going to have a great set of events and activities. When everyone arrives, if they have a dog with them, they’ll need to sign a waiver of liability and they will receive a dog waste bag compliments of Adamz K9 Waste Removal. One of the key aims of DogFest is to recruit dog subjects, so visitors can enroll their dogs in our database, so we can contact them about being in our dog psychology studies.

Also, we’ll have a demonstration area featuring dog/handler pairs from Prairie Skies demonstrating obedience training, the Kansas City DiscDogs showing off frisbee tricks, and the UNL and Nebraska State Patrol canine units demonstrating their police dogs. We’ll have tours of the new lab, the Norland Pure watering station, dog activities (TBA), and a raffle for a gift basket generously donated by Raising Cane’s. We’ll have vendors with different pet-related products, services, and information, along with food vendors. Check out the details at dogfest.unl.edu and hope to see you at Husker DogFest!

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