Canine cognition and human-animal interaction

Mindy Burnett College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Arizona, Oro Valley, AZ

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The University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine is home to an interdisciplinary group of research faculty devoted to studying human-animal interaction. Our collaborative research addresses how interspecies interactions influence the well-being of animals, humans, and our communities. A key strength of our program is the integration of faculty with expertise in human and animal research, enabling us to comprehensively address issues at the intersection of humans and the animals with whom we share our lives. Our current research on dog cognitive and behavioral health, a field of study gaining increasing attention, is spearheaded by 2 faculty labs: the Arizona Canine Cognition Center and the Behavioral Research Across Years (BRAY) Lab.

At the Arizona Canine Cognition Center, founder and director Dr. Evan MacLean is developing tests to monitor cognitive health in aging dogs. MacLean’s innovative work holds the promise of identifying dogs at risk of developing canine cognitive dysfunction, a progressive neurodegenerative condition with similarities to Alzheimer disease. Early detection and intervention, which MacLean’s tests aim to facilitate, could significantly improve the quality of life for dogs suffering from this condition. Researchers at the Arizona Canine Cognition Center recently led the development of cognitive assays being used in the Dog Aging Project, a nationwide study of the genetic and environmental determinants of healthy aging companion dogs. MacLean’s ongoing studies of dog cognitive aging use portable touchscreen interfaces with automated reward delivery to pose learning and memory challenges to dogs, who engage with the tasks by touching images with their noses. An essential need for tests in studies evaluating treatments and interventions for canine cognitive dysfunction is evident within the field, and it emphasizes the importance of looking out for the mental and physical health of our pets as they age.

Dr. Emily Bray and her team at the BRAY Lab have recently focused on the opposite end of the life span, exploring how early life experiences influence cognitive and emotional development in working dogs. Dr. Bray’s studies characterize variation in maternal behavior and have identified links between the “maternal style” dogs experience and their subsequent likelihood of completing training programs to become service or guide dogs. Dr. Bray’s studies have also employed longitudinal testing with puppies between 8 weeks and 2 years of age to understand the extent to which early behavioral profiles predict adult outcomes. These studies play a critical role in improving the practices through which working dogs are bred, reared, and evaluated. In many current working dog programs, only half of the dogs who begin training meet the stringent criteria for success, placing a premium on tools that can identify the puppies who are most likely to succeed. More generally though, Bray’s studies provide novel insights into factors influencing healthy psychological development in dogs, which will have significant impacts for both working and companion animals.

Our dog behavior and cognition research, led by the Arizona Canine Cognition Center and the BRAY Lab, is advancing our understanding of dog psychological health across the life span. In addition to providing a glimpse into the minds of our canine companions, these studies will improve our ability to provide care for the dogs in our lives, promoting healthy and long-lived human-animal bonds.

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