TUCSON, AZ (Tucson News Now) - They are testing each pup’s potential, using a series of decision-making games, to get inside the mind of each canine that walks with its owner into the UA School of Anthropology building.
Inside Dr. Evan MacLean’s office and lab, on the University of Arizona campus, there is a fascination with furry friends.
“The public has been fascinated with dogs, basically, as long as humans have been around. Scientists, on the other hand, for a long time thought that dogs were sort of boring animals. They thought that dogs were this artificial creation and domesticated animal, and that if you were a self-respecting biologist you would go out and find a real animal to study," Dr. MacLean said.
But that changed 20 years ago, by his estimation, with a resurgence of interest in canines.
“People in the world that I come from started studying dogs' minds, because we actually thought that dogs did some things that seemed really impressive. It seemed like they were solving some complicated kinds of problems," MacLean explained.
Those problems are laid out through various tests in the Arizona Canine Cognition Center, directed by Dr. MacLean.
MacLean and his team examine the performance dogs using several game-based tests, like hiding and finding objects and other forms of canine play, to determine the cognitive capability.
They’re tested to see if they would be a good fit for those who need them the most.
“I lucked out with my puppy," said Karen Nygaard, who was paired with her service dog ‘Figuero’ through Handi-Dogs in Tucson. "He helps stabilize me when I walk. He picks things up for me. He can help me if I get in a low chair and I need help getting up or out of bed.”
Nygaard’s needs go hand-in-paw with Figuero’s training, in the same way UA campus police dogs sniff out trouble.
“Just in the same way that with people, what makes somebody a good engineer might be a different skill-set than what makes somebody a good teacher," MacLean said.
His study focuses on two types of working dogs: assistance dogs to be paired with people with disabilities, and explosive detection dogs working for the U.S. Navy. In the case of assistance dogs, social skills – including the ability to pay close attention to and maintain eye contact with humans – appear to be especially important. In detection dogs, good short-term memory and sensitivity to human body language, such as pointing gestures, were the best predictors of success, a UA news release stated.
MacLean authored a new study that looks at whether canines' cognitive abilities can help predict their success as working dogs.
“I think he’s smarter than some of the people I know," Nygaard said, talking about Figuero. “It’s been a lot of work but worth every second."
But is it worth the cost? The wonder of MacLean’s work is that he’s making that distinction early on.
It’s about $50,000, per dog, to train them to be a working canine, and only about 50 percent starting the training process pass the programs, with the rest going on to become very well-trained family pets.
MacLean and his research team tested the assistance dogs at 18 months old, when they first started a full-time, intensive six-month training program. Through testing, they were able to correctly predict the top 25 percent of graduates with 86 percent accuracy.
“So that means you invest all these resources and at the end of the day a lot of these dogs don’t make the cut," MacLean said.
By doing so, they are able to severely shorten the wait time for those in need of a working dog, like Nygaard, when the wait list for a trained assistance dog can be up to two years.
It’s a statistic Nygaard can stand behind, knowing she’s got a good boy.
“I don’t even want to think about being without him. He’s not just my helper, he’s my buddy," she said.
The Arizona Canine Cognition Center relies on local dogs and owners to help develop its research. If you are a local dog owner and would like to participate in their studies you can CLICK HERE to volunteer to participate.