Stauch '15 Studies Dogs’ Reactions to Human Motives
July 29, 2014
BLOOMINGTON, Ill.— Illinois Wesleyan University student Kiri Stauch ’15 (Elgin, Ill.)
offers a treat to Wendell, a 10-year-old basset hound. But before Wendell can bite
into his snack, Stauch “accidentally” drops the treat. Wendell barks his encouragement
while Stauch appears to search the floor for the kibble.
The drop is no accident, however, and Stauch knows exactly where the treat is. She’s
investigating what domestic dogs understand about human intentions as an Eckley Summer Scholar and Artist. Established by President Emeritus Robert S. Eckley, his wife Nell and the Eckley
Family Foundation shortly before he passed away in 2012, the Eckley program is in
its third year.
Guided by Assistant Professor of Psychology Ellen Furlong, Stauch is conducting six test trials in which she is either unable
or unwilling to give a dog a treat. During the trials, Stauch sits inside a dog playpen.
In several scenarios in which the researcher is either “unwilling” or “unable” to
provide the treat, Stauch records the dog’s reaction — whether the dog stays near
the researcher, wanders off, barks or exhibits some other response. Stauch’s project
replicates a project with chimpanzees that provided evidence that sensitivity to human
intentions may be a phenomenon across species.
“We predict that dogs will spend significantly more time near the researcher when
she is unable to give the treat compared to when she is unwilling to give the dog
a treat,” said Stauch, an anthropology and psychology double major. If these predictions hold true, it suggests dogs have
an understanding of human intentions. One explanation for dogs’ social savvy, the
domestication hypothesis, holds that domestic dogs are able to read human communicative
clues as a result of domestication rather than resulting from exposure to humans or
from an inheritance from wolves.
While dog owners may claim to know exactly what their beloved canine companions understand,
Furlong said researchers still have much to discover through scientific inquiry about
dogs’ understanding of human social cues.
The Eckley Summer Scholars and Artists Endowment program allows students to engage
in original research on campus over the summer under the direction of faculty mentors.
Stauch said the Eckley program allows her the opportunity to engage in the depth of
research she would not have time for during the academic year. She plans to apply
to graduate school in preparation for a career as an academic.