The Duke Canine Cognition Center: Connecting Puppies and Cognitive Science

January 3, 2022
Research Archives

By James Feng, published in our 2017-18 issue

Have you ever wondered how smart your dog is? Have you ever thought about what your dog is thinking? Researchers in the Evolutionary Anthropology department at Duke University may just have those answers.

The Duke Canine Cognition Center is one of the country’s most prominent dog cognition research laboratories, but you probably would have never guessed that from its appearance. Located at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, the entire laboratory consists of three small rooms and a couple of offices in the subbasement of the school’s Biological Sciences building, an old, nondescript red-brick building that pales in comparison to some of the other extravagant architectures on Duke’s west campus. But unlike its appearance, the center’s founder and co-director is certainly not inconspicuous. The Duke Canine Cognition Center was founded in 2009 by Dr. Brian Hare, an associate professor in the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University.  An investigator of animal cognition, Dr. Hare is one of the leading figures in the field to understand canine social behavior and intelligence. Since coming to Duke in 2008, he has compiled an impressive list of academic accolades. His research on animal cognition has consistently captured the coverage of national media and his book “The Genius of Dogs” is a New York Times Best-Seller. In addition to dogs, Dr. Hare’s research has also notably included lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center, chimpanzees on an island in Uganda, and bonobos in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The study of canine behavior has long been ingrained in the study of psychology. Remember Ivan Pavlov’s salivating dogs from Psych 101? In recent years, the interest in canine cognition has grown increasingly popular with new canine cognition centers like the one at Duke popping up at schools like Yale University in New Haven, Barnard College in New York City, and the University of Arizona in Tucson. The research conducted at the Duke Canine Cognition Center is dedicated to the study of dog psychology, or simply, how dogs perceive their environment, solve problems, and make decisions.  This translates into understanding the flexibility and limitations of dog cognition and behavior, which allows us to gain a window into the mind of animals as well as the evolution of our own species. The relationship between humans and canines is nothing new. Mankind and dogs have been collaborating for thousands of years from the hunter-gatherers who domesticized wolves to the pet-owner dynamic that exists today. Given how closely bonded dogs and humans have become in modern history, an understanding of the cognitive abilities of dogs and how they acquired them can be deeply revealing of our own nature. The knowledge of dog cognition can also be applicable in improving programs in which dogs are trained to help humans such as training service dogs for the disabled and this is exactly what the Duke Canine Cognition Center does.

The research at the Duke Canine Cognition Center has been extensive and instrumental in deepening our understanding of animal behavior and cognitive evolution. Among the lab’s recent developments, notable research includes findings that dogs can process human behaviors better than the closest living evolutionary relative to humans – the chimpanzee. Studies suggest that dogs can understand cooperative-communicative social cues that allow them to accurately complete challenging cognitive tasks with limited human interaction. Another project the center has focused on in recent years is identifying the cognitive traits that make a successful service dog. They hope to use this information to predict which puppies will thrive as service dogs and improve training modules. Research on identifying cognitive strategies that enable and restrict navigation, memory, and cooperation in dogs have also found its place at the center.

At the heart of the Duke Canine Cognition Center’s work is a network of dedicated faculty, lab managers, graduate students, and undergraduates, but perhaps the most important member of the lab is, well, dogs. How does the center get ahold of the enormous number of dog participants it needs for its cognitive studies? The center invites dog owners who live in the vicinity of the Research Triangle Area (Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill) to volunteer their pet dogs to participate in fun problem-solving games ranging from using social cues such as gesturing to find treats under stacked cups, to evaluating responses to positive and negative vocal cues. The community has responded with enthusiasm. Since its inception, over 1,000 dog volunteers and their owners have participated in scientific studies at the center and the list of new sign ups is growing every year.  The Duke Canine Cognition Center has been groundbreaking in so many ways and it will be interesting to see what they accomplish in the future.

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