Puppy Power! Using social cognition research tasks to improve socialization practices for domestic dogs (Canis familiaris)

Cognition research and the socialization of puppies

Source: Howell, T., and Bennett, P
Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 6 (3): May 2011 p195-204

Recent research with dogs has shown that they are extremely effective at communicating with humans. They can follow human pointing gestures to find treats or toys; they can look at their owner as if requesting assistance to solve a problem that they cannot solve on their own; and, they even use eye contact to ‘show’ their owner the location of a treat or toy that they want to access. Dogs also learn to perform certain actions by watching other dogs or humans performing them. All of these skills are of real interest to animal behavior and cognition researchers, but few dog owners are surprised by any of these revelations.

Our paper reviews five experimental setups used in dog cognition research to test for the skills mentioned above. We suggest how they could be modified for use in homes, as tasks for puppies to practice both in the litter and in their new home. Three of the tasks are designed to encourage eye contact with the owner, and the other two are observational learning tasks, or learning by watching others. Dogs tend to develop these skills over the course of their lifetime anyway, as shown by their success in these kinds of tests as adults. We propose that training puppies in these skills could provide a sort of ‘fast-track’ to the knowledge they possess as adult dogs. This could help improve the dog-owner relationship because, a. the owners and breeders are given specific, but simple, tasks that will encourage fun interactions with the dog on a regular basis, and b. these tasks are all designed to teach the dog to watch and make eye contact with their owner. Eye contact between owner and dog has been shown to activate neurochemicals that are related to bonding, so these tasks might provide the opportunity to strengthen the bond between dog and owner early and often. It is our hope that this strong, early bond would reduce the number of dogs surrendered to shelters and euthanized.

We wrote this article partly because of a criticism that some members of the community have toward dog cognition research: it doesn’t tell them anything new. The field of dog cognition research is less than 15 years old. There were researchers studying dog behavior earlier in the 20th century, but after Scott and Fuller’s landmark puppy research in the 1960s, there has been very little follow up until the late 1990s. Because the field is so young, and science is necessarily slow, in some ways the field is ‘catching up’ to the knowledge that lay people have about dog behavior. There are a few studies that are particularly inspired and really tell people something new and interesting, but it will probably be a few more years before the scientific community can regularly contribute surprising or unexpected information to the lay community about dogs. This review article synthesizes existing knowledge in a way that might be beneficial to members of the dog-loving community. A portion of the article also stresses the need for more puppy research within the dog cognition field.
If you would like more information about the article or the tasks set out within it, please email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.