Yale dog psychology research offers glimpse into what our dogs might be thinking

Leila Martinez, 8, of New Haven, right, gets a kiss from certified therapy dog Sophia, a rescued mixed-breed, on Saturday with her handler Roben River, of Woodbridge, representing dog training facility Paw’s N’ Effect of Hamden .

Leila Martinez, 8, of New Haven, right, gets a kiss from certified therapy dog Sophia, a rescued mixed-breed, on Saturday with her handler Roben River, of Woodbridge, representing dog training facility Paw’s N’ Effect of Hamden .

NEW HAVEN — Leila Martinez, 8, knows her dog Barry loves her. She knows what his favorites toys are and when he wants to play because he can talk to her, she said.

Leila said Barry understands her words and she knows what he likes because he always gets excited whenever he has his favorite toys. He also knows when Leila needs a friend.

“He comforts me when I’m sad because my mom comforts me when I’m sad and I think maybe he doesn’t want me to be sad and he wants me to be fine and he loves me so he wants me to be comforted,” Leila said.

“He has his own moods. Different dogs have their own moods,” she said.

Their last dog, Brittany, was shy and “I don’t really know if she loved me or not because she didn’t really come near me and Barry always comes near me and is always playful with me,” she said.

Her sister, Nadia, 10, said Barry sits on their laps to tell them he loves them and he talks in other ways.

“He talks with his movement and I can know what he wants and what he’s saying,” Nadia said. “I just point to what I want him to do.”

According to Kathy Shea, owner of Paws ‘N Effect Canine Training Center, dogs like Barry really are communicating with their owners and people can understand if they only observe.

“Dogs communicate in a variety of ways, but mostly through body language, and by their body language I mean everything,” Shea said.

“Starting from their ears going right down to the tip of their tail, their general body stature, how they wag their tail, all of that communicates and they’re communicating with us all the time,” Shea said. “We as humans just don’t know because we are a verbal species. We need to stop and listen to our dogs by observing them.”

Angie Johnston, a Ph.D. candidate at Yale working at the university’s Canine Cognition Center, provided a glimpse into the canine mind Saturday with a special presentation in honor of Lunarfest and the Chinese Year of the Dog. In her talk, which Shea, Nadia and Leila attended, Johnston shed light on what dogs are thinking and how they are able to communicate with people.

“People love their dogs and want to know what they’re thinking, but we can’t ask them,” Johnston said. “The only way we can find out what they’re thinking is by getting these different studies to try to get inside their head.”

By presenting dogs with simple games, researchers at the center learn more about how dogs solve problems and perceive the world, she said. All their studies involve simple problem-solving games that they play with the dogs, and the canine volunteers receive a diploma for participating.

The dog’s relationship with humans began long ago. They are descendents of a species similar to wolves, and about 14,000 years ago, they began going into human camps for food, where they gradually became more and more comfortable around humans, which Johnston said is called

self-domestication. The second part of the dog’s evolution happened around 2,000 years ago when humans saw how useful dogs could be and started breeding them, she said.

Researchers have found dogs are sometimes better problem solvers than small children, and that they really do love people, Johnston said. Researchers have looked at hormones released in humans called oxytocin, which they know facilitates bonding and love in a

human and infant when it’s released, she said. Recent work suggests that the same thing happens between families and their dogs.

“When you see the same hormone released in dogs and families that are released in humans and infants, it suggests that some really similar things are going on,” she said. “So, I think dogs do love us.”

This discovery is something special about dogs that isn’t seen in wolves even if they’ve lived with people. “It’s something dogs have developed and as they have lived with us, it has grown into true love,” she said.

Shea said dogs don’t just have love for the people in their lives, but empathy, which is seen in therapy dogs such as Boone, a half Labrador, half great Dane mix. He’s a certified

therapy dog and service dog in training who works with people in hospice and an Alzheimer’s care facility.

“Dogs let people express themselves in ways that no other beings do,” Boone’s owner, Kay Codish, said. “They let people open up. He allows people to connect with him.”

“It’s intuitive for them, it’s nonverbal and it’s empathetic in its purest sense,” Shea said. “Historically humans and dogs have been partnered for tens of thousands of years, and of the 20,000-plus species on the Earth, dogs and humans have had a unique relationship,” Shae said. “There’s some connection there that’s incredibly, incredibly deep. I think we’ve lost empathy and they’ve gained empathy in an evolutionary sense, and that’s why we’re partnered.”

Studies at the Canine Cognition Center explore what dogs know about the physical and social world. Johnston’s work at Yale is aimed at exploring the potential evolutionary origins of teaching and social learning by investigating whether or not canine populations learn from others in the same way humans do.