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Doggone it! Humans don’t yet know how Fido thinks, but UNL prof will study it in new canine lab

August 12, 2018

LINCOLN — Dogs barked, growled, grinned, raced, rolled and lolled their tongues Saturday at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and psychology professor Jeff Stevens wondered what they were thinking.

Stevens will begin studying dog psychology and behavior, and how dogs relate to people, in his new UNL laboratory, called the Canine Cognition and Human Interaction Lab.

He celebrated the opening of that lab Saturday with Husker DogFest, a public event on UNL’s City Campus in which about 200 dogs and 400 people showed up. The dogs strolled, played with balls, ate treats and visited booths for biscuits. Some hot dogs from Kansas City, Missouri, demonstrated how to catch discs.

Stevens also opened his lab for brief tours.

Among other things, he hopes to test dog stress, levels of cooperation among dogs, the degree to which dogs differ in self-control and impulsivity, and whether a dog’s level of self-control can be changed.

“We don’t have a clue how animals think,” he said through an email. “It is very difficult to study. It is likely not in the same conscious way that we think. But they can accomplish some pretty amazing mental feats.”

Stevens also would like to determine the impact dogs have on humans by measuring people’s heart rates and skin “conductance,” or variations in how skin conducts electricity. He said the notion that dogs can calm people and improve their mood is often stated but hasn’t been clearly documented by good studies.

Stevens, an associate professor of psychology, has spent much of his career studying and writing about how animals think and behave. Stevens, 44, has studied pinyon jays, blue jays, squirrel monkeys, chimpanzees, lemurs, guppies and other living things.

He and his family brought their own dog, Koda the Catahoula Leopard Dog, to DogFest. “He’s a great dog,” he said. “He probably will be the first subject in everything I do.”

As a little boy in Texas, Stevens loved animals so much that the librarian advised him to try reading a book that wasn’t about animals.

Dogs will not be injected, operated on or punished in the lab. Treats will be their incentive. The testing room will have one video camera on each wall so observers can get a complete view during testing. Dog owners will be able to watch a monitor to see how their dog is doing. Data will be meticulously kept.

The lab, which is still being set up, is small and fairly plain. Doctoral student Elise Thayer, of Torrance, California, led a tour Saturday of about 12 people and 10 dogs. The room where dogs will go through various exercises has “pee-proof flooring,” Thayer said.

Among other things, Thayer said, they will strive to glean information that might improve dogs’ behavior.

“We’re not looking to see if your dog’s smart or your dog’s dumb,” Thayer told the group. “We’re not here to judge the dog.”

Cathy Siegrist of Lincoln said her boxer, named Stella, has some odd reactions to the world. “She likes motorcycles but not bicycles,” Siegrist said.

Stevens’ new lab is in UNL’s 501 Building, a red-brick structure south of Memorial Stadium and west of Richards Hall.

He encouraged people to learn about his lab and sign up for potential testing by going to dogcog.unl.edu.

Out in the heat, a group called the Kansas City DiscDogs demonstrated dogs’ ability to snag discs out of the air. The dogs raced and leaped to snare the discs.

People cheered. The other dogs hardly watched. They were too busy sniffing, playing, resting and probably thinking.

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