Dalhousie University researchers sent out a notice on university message board Tuesday looking for dogs and their owners for a research study.
By noon on Wednesday they had 200 — more than enough for the study at Dal, and a start on the 20,000 or so needed for a separate online study.
“I’ve been inundated with emails today,” said Sophie Jacques, a developmental psychologist at the university. “It’s way more than I expected.”
She and her students want to find out whether a dog’s abilities to find a hidden object are predicted by its understanding of spoken words, as is the case with infants and young children.
The study needs dogs of any age, breed, and ability.
“We want to see if we can explain how human infants gain these cognitive abilities that are not present in any other species,” Jacques said.
For most of her career, she has been studying executive function development in children. Executive functions are the cognitive skills that allow humans to control their behaviour, plan for the future, resist temptation, and so on.
Jacques said humans develop executive function skills slowly, which allows them to get better as they age at controlling their behaviour and emotions, organizing their thoughts and behaviours, resisting immediate temptations and impulses, and imagine the future and plan for it.
She said humans are the only known species that develop advanced executive functions, although other species like primates and dogs have been shown to have rudimentary executive functions similar to human infants.
The ability of humans to develop executive functions has been linked to language development.
Research has found that language development is related to the development of these executive functions starting in infancy. But what isn’t clear, Jacques said, is whether language causes the emergence of executive function, or if children with good executive function skills might be better at developing language.
Enter the dogs. Jacques said they are the ideal species to use to try to address the question, partly because they are exposed regularly to human language.
While the study could help understand human development, it can also provide important information about canine language and cognition, Jacques said. There are no reliable measures of language understanding in dogs, so her team has been working on developing its own measure of language for dog owners.
“We’re using what researchers have used with babies to see whether or not we can measure the number of words dogs understand ... the number of words they’ll respond to consistently in different ways.”
That might provide information about dogs’ language abilities and about whether language differs across breed, age, or sex of dog, which is why the online study needs so many volunteers.
Jacques said that if early language predicts cognitive abilities in dogs, the measure may eventually be used by trainers and researchers to predict the potential of working and service dogs.
People wanting to take part in the online study can email Jacques at firstname.lastname@example.org