For many dog owners, it’s a familiar problem. You come home from a hard day at the
office only to find your pooch has made your slippers into chew toys and liberated
the stuffing from your sofa cushion.
Students in Ellen Furlong’s Dog Cognition Lab may have found a way to help, by creating
computer games to alleviate boredom, anxiety or lack of exercise that can lead dogs
to act out in destructive ways.
Anthony Bohner, Jeffrey Toraason and Brendan Wall, who all graduated in May, explained
the lab’s work this past spring at the annual John Wesley Powell Student Research
Conference. The three also shared their research as the only undergraduate presenters
at the international Living with Animals Conference at Eastern Kentucky University
“It was pretty incredible to speak with people with doctorates during the conference
breaks,” said Wall, adding that he learned so much from his lab research that animal-cognition
work is something he’s considering pursuing as a career. Wall is now applying for
graduate schools in neuroscience, as is Bohner.
In the same way that dogs are taught to sit and stay, Furlong and her student researchers
instructed their canine subjects to use a computer.
“If the dog touches the touch-screen computer with his nose, he gets a treat,” Furlong
explained. “Then we begin shrinking a colored box on the screen, and if he touches
the colored part, he gets a treat. It took my dog Cleo two sessions to understand
Furlong and her students are building on this experiment, with the goal of creating
stimulating games that can be turned into apps for mobile devices like iPads. Those
apps could improve canines’ quality of life and stop behavioral problems that can
lead to pets being surrendered to crowded shelters, where some 2.4 million dogs are
euthanized every year.
“Some dogs just can’t get physical exercise,” said Furlong, “whether it’s because
owners aren’t willing to provide it or because of their own limitations due to age
or health issues. Our possible solution is to provide dogs with mental exercise instead.”
For example, Furlong’s dog “loves to run with me when I jog, but in the wintertime
or when I’m injured, I can run her through the computer game and it tires her out
As research continues, students in Furlong’s lab are also measuring differences between
breeds and other data that could enable owners to customize game apps for their dogs.
At the same time, the experiments provide valuable information about canine cognition
and its relationship to behavior.
Such insights led to a new kind of understanding for Toraason, who is interning at
Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium before attending veterinary school. “In biology we are looking
at the mechanisms and physical aspects, and we’re not really looking at the animal’s
thinking in relation to its behavior,” Toraason explained. “It’s been really helpful
for me to have another point of view from a psychological aspect.”