Eckley Scholar Explores the Logical Reasoning of Canines
August 2, 2018
BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — Music and psychology double major Kate McHugh ’21 (Palatine, Illinois) is exploring the question of whether
or not dogs have the capacity to use inductive reasoning through a series of experimental
scenarios this summer.
“I feel very fortunate to be an Eckley scholar, especially as a first-year student,”
said McHugh. “I never expected it would happen, and I am tremendously excited to see
what this project has to offer.”
Previous research projects have established that dogs possess more advanced socio-cognitive
skills than other reasoning animals, such as apes, which enables them to understand
the meaning behind a human pointing at a bowl of kibble. However, canines have displayed
more of a struggle to make sense of casual cues, such as understanding that the sound
of a human shaking a container of food signifies that there is food in the container.
McHugh’s study involves further testing the inductive reasoning of canines by first
showing the dog one box containing a treat and an uninteresting block, and an identical
box containing two more uninteresting objects. After hiding the boxes – and the researcher
– with a screen, the researcher will show the dog the same sequence of items except
for the treat, now replaced by a pen. After hiding the boxes one more time, the researcher
will only reveal the location of the pen. If the dog can reason inductively, according
to McHugh’s methodology, then the dog should associate the pen with the treat and
select the box shown to have the pen inside.
McHugh began the process by running preliminary studies to refine her experiment,
by testing different stimuli to use in the boxes.
“She has the challenge of finding things that the dogs will find interesting enough
to look at, but not so interesting that they want to run over and steal them from
her,” explained Furlong. “It’s harder than it sounds. I’m excited to see how it progresses.”
McHugh anticipates running tests using locally recruited dogs through the end of summer,
at which point she will analyze the data and develop an article for submission to
a series of scientific journals and conferences relating to animal behavior and cognition.
McHugh’s project also has the potential to develop into her senior thesis.
McHugh said she is excited to take advantage of this unique undergraduate research
opportunity at Illinois Wesleyan.
“The experience of being a primary investigator on a funded research study in the
field of comparative cognition will provide me with invaluable knowledge, a strongly
developed understanding of the research process, and an amazing opportunity that most
students at other undergraduate institutions will not have had,” she said.