Dog Days at Barnard
One lab asks: What is it like to be a dog?
By Molly Leahy
Clear bins, one on top of another, sit on a corner shelf, crowded with toys. Treat bags dwell in an opposite corner, either still sealed or already half empty. A large bulletin board overflows with photos of the room’s participants: There’s Walter, whose big smile takes up most of the photo; Donald, whose look of seriousness surely compensates for his small frame; and Sprout, a tiny fella with a wrinkly face, robust social media following, and talent for twerking on the wall.
Though it may seem like fun and games, this space serves a scientific purpose. Tucked away in Barnard Hall, this cognition lab has published research on topics from inequity aversion to rough-and-tumble play. Walter, Donald, and Sprout are but a few of its subjects.
No, it’s not Barnard’s Toddler Center. Possibly more adorable, this space is the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab. Established in 2008 by Dr. Alexandra Horowitz, one of the country’s premier experts on dog cognition, the lab endeavors to answer the question: What is it like to be a dog?
The Dog Lab’s mailing list is filled with dog-owners who are so thrilled at the prospect of seeing the world through their companions’ eyes that they come from all over the city (and beyond) to participate in research. Specializing in behavioral studies, the lab has taken on a variety of questions related to how dogs play, negotiate size and space, and distinguish between odors, among others. The researchers have even studied the notorious “guilty look.”
Under the direction of Horowitz, student researchers study how dogs perceive the world independently of human projection. “A lot of times we really give or attribute human emotions and thought processes to dogs, but in this lab we really try to go back to the basics,” Carol Arellano, BC ’23, explained.
This approach to psychology—of centering animals’ experiences—marks a recent shift in the humanities and social sciences away from the study of animals as contributors to the human experience, and toward the study of animals as subjects in their own right. The “animal turn” and the resulting growth of the field of animal studies in recent decades have sought to challenge the anthropocentrism long inherent in academic knowledge and research.
Much of Western thought has been founded on the effort to distinguish humans from other species: to honor the inherent non-animality of humanity. As Darwin’s theory of evolution gained wide acceptance, researchers began using animals as models for human behavior. Horowitz believes that the contemporary focus of behavioral science “on the animal qua animal” represents a kind of secondary animal turn, the first being the general increase of scientific interest.
The work of the Dog Lab, as a small part of a larger trend, allows us to get out of ourselves and into the experience of another being. “Just learning from animals can teach us about something that’s not blatantly human,” lab manager Kelly Chan explained to me. “It’s more like learning through the eyes of dogs how our world is not just how we see it.” Rather, the surrounding world exists in multitudes, not infrequently outside the capacities of human cognition.
In the 14 years since the Horowitz Dog Cognition Lab began demonstrating this point, dog labs have materialized across the country. There’s the Thinking Dog Center at Hunter College, the Canine Cognition Center at Yale, and the Duke Canine Cognition Center, among others. Barnard’s Dog Lab is situated at the beginning of what seems to be a much larger academic movement: Canine research is a niche but growing field.
When a study at the Dog Cognition Lab is complete, the happy pups receive graduation certificates. Once the graduates hold still, a photo shoot commences. Portraits are pinned to the bulletin board and dogs return home with their humans. The title “man’s best friend” is a lot to live up to, but dog cognition research gives us the chance to develop a relationship that serves both dog and human. “Given how cooperative this species has been with our own species,” Horowitz wrote to me, “we owe them that much.”