Sisu is a black Labrador. She wears a red collar and has sweet eyes and spends her days on the third floor of the University of Arizona anthropology building, assisting in research at the AZ Canine Cognition Center.
Sisu mills around the lab, getting pats from lab coordinators and interns, and when it’s time to conduct experiments, she plays with children — all in the name of research. These interactions are observed, recorded, and analyzed for changes of mood and behavior, whether canine or human.
With the help of local dogs and their owners, the AZ Canine Cognition Center hopes to better understand the way dogs process and interact with humans and their surroundings.
The lab was created in 2016 by Evan MacLean, Ph.D., Sisu’s owner, after he received a grant from the National Institutes of Health. Since then, the lab has contributed to many research papers on animal cognition. In January, Gianna Ossello and Paige Smith were hired as lab coordinators to help conduct two main experiments: The Dog Decathlon and the Human Animal Interaction project.
Ossello explains that the Dog Decathlon experiment “looks at things such as inhibitory control, social communication, and then other general temperament tests with dogs. Our idea is to get as many dogs as we can so that we can start seeing these patterns underlying whether dogs are exceptionally good at understanding human communication.”
The dogs are volunteered by their owners and commit to three lab days, spaced out over three weeks. Testing usually takes place between 9 a.m. and noon. The first day is introductory, then there are two days of testing, each about 90 minutes long.
The lab uses treats as positive reinforcement to help reveal the way dogs process through different situations (like remembering which cup hides the treat, or their level of interest in unfamiliar people, called xenophilia). Both the researcher and the owner can learn more about how the inner mechanisms of a dog’s mind operates.
“All dogs are smart in their own ways, and it is interesting to see how each dog goes about solving a task,” says Kacie Bauer, who interned at the AZ Canine Cognition Center over the summer. “They can use diverse methods that lead to the same results but that showcase their unique thought processes, like if a dog just jumps in with brute force, or if they are more delicate in their actions.”
“You can never have too much evidence for how dogs communicate,” says Ossello. “There’s a lot of individual variation between dogs in terms of social communication and cooperation.”
For the HAI experiment, “we’re looking at the psychological, behavioral, and physiological effects on both dogs and children when they interact with each other,” says Smith, who is Jewish, as is Bauer.
Sisu assists with the HAI experiment, which has three different conditions: the lab observes children interacting with their own pet dog, with Sisu, and as a control, with toys.
“We’re basically seeing if their stress levels change over that time and same with the dog,” says Smith. “We test for three different hormones to see how those change within 25 minutes before, during, and after that play time. We’re looking to get hard evidence that dogs do have the ability to help children that might have developmental disorders like autism, or even depression or anxiety.”
Parents and guardians will assist in collecting urine and saliva samples from children and dogs. The experiment will go on for a year. Once the data has been collected, it will undergo a year of analysis before the findings are written and published.
“We test any and all dogs within the Tucson area, and whoever wants to come travel down to our lab,” says Ossello. “The idea is to get as many different breeds as we can so maybe, hopefully, we can start answering these breed difference questions.”