BLOOMINGTON, Ill.— It’s a scenario most dog owners know all too well: owner goes to
work all day, dog gets bored, dog eats sofa, owner comes home to find house in shambles,
dog is in trouble.
But what if owners had ways to mentally challenge their dogs? Illinois Wesleyan University
Assistant Professor of Psychology Ellen Furlong and her students in the University’s Comparative Cognition Lab are developing computer games they hope will help alleviate that boredom. The ultimate
goal is to turn the games into apps for mobile devices like iPads.
Furlong and two of her students recently presented their research at a conference
on animal cognition and enrichment techniques. The students, junior biology major
Jeff Toraason ’15 and junior psychology major Brenden Wall ’15, were the only undergraduates
presenting at the conference.
The impact of the cognitive research with dogs goes far beyond just keeping American
sofas intact. Furlong said more than six million dogs are surrendered to shelters
each year, with approximately 60 percent of those ultimately euthanized. Behavioral
problems lead some owners to surrender their dogs, yet Furlong said many behavioral
problems can be alleviated with sufficient exercise or stimulation.
“Some dogs just can’t get physical exercise, whether because of their own limitations
like age or health, or because the owners just aren’t willing to provide it,” said
Furlong. “So, our possible solution is to provide dogs with mental exercise instead.”
This semester Furlong and her students have focused on teaching dogs in local day
cares to use computers. The process, Furlong said, uses the same techniques as teaching
a dog to sit or stay.
“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 two sessions to understand the concept.”
So far researchers have determined dogs can differentiate between amounts of food
on a plate (four pieces of kibble vs. eight pieces, for example), but Furlong and
her students want to further explore distinctions between breeds. If so, Furlong and
her students hope such findings would enable a dog owner to customize the app’s setting
for his or her dog.
This insight into animal behavior has created new understanding for Toraason, who
plans to attend veterinary school after graduating from Illinois Wesleyan. “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,” said Toraason, a native of
Glenview, Ill. “It’s been really helpful for me to have another point of view from
a psychological aspect.”
Wall said participants at the conference made good suggestions for next steps in their
research. “It was pretty incredible to speak with people with doctorates during the
conference breaks,” said Wall. “I’ve learned so much from working in the lab that
animal cognition work is something I am considering after graduation.”