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 in March.
“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 the concept.”
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 pretty well.”
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.”