A Man’s Psychological Best Friend

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olden retrievers, beagles, pugs—dogs come in all shapes and sizes, each with their own bright personality. Though humans’ love of dogs is often attributed to their cute looks, endless affection, and loyal companionship, they are far more than just man’s best friend. According to research conducted right here at Boston College, dogs can actually help reveal how humans learn as they grow.

Psychology professor Angie Johnston heads BC’s Canine Cognition Center (CCC), where she and her team conduct research on dogs in order to find connections between the ways in which dogs learn and the way humans learn.

“We’re interested in seeing what dogs can tell us about humans by comparing dogs and humans and seeing what’s unique to humans,” Johnston said.

Growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, Johnston’s passion for these four-legged friends started at a young age. Ever since she was a child, she was always interested in dogs, and she devoted a lot of her free time to learning everything about them. 

“I had a literal dog Bible that told [me] about every single dog breed and what their different traits were, and I memorized many different parts of it,” she said.

Johnston hasn’t only been captivated by dogs—throughout her life, she’s been interested in psychology. She subscribed to Scientific American Mind, a psychology magazine, at a young age, which helped maintain her knowledge and interest in psychology in her early years. It wasn’t until her AP Psychology class in high school that she began to realize psychology was definitely the field she wanted to pursue.

After graduating high school, Johnston attended the University of Texas at Dallas as an undergraduate. While there, she spent most of her free time as a research assistant, she said. Her research mostly focused on child development—specifically, how children learn from others and how they decide who they learn actions from. In 2012, she graduated from UT Dallas with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and child development.

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For her doctoral degree, Johnston attended Yale University and received her doctorate in psychology in 2018. At Yale, Johnston’s concentration on dogs began to take root. Though she anticipated she would continue studying children and developmental psychology, she began to focus on canine cognition as well.

“I did one little side project with dogs at a dog daycare,” Johnston said. “And then I ended up realizing that we could really learn a lot from dogs because not a lot of people have explored dogs yet.”

When Johnston was looking for universities to teach for, BC was always on her radar. Throughout her studies, Johnston focused on developmental psychology, the study of how psychology changes over a lifespan—and she said she was more than impressed with BC’s developmental psychology programs.

“Boston College, because it’s a research university and a liberal arts college all wrapped into one, it was the perfect fit because I always loved teaching and loved having those one-on-one conversations with students,” Johnston said. “But [I] also really like the intensive research output.”

When Johnston began the process of implementing the CCC, she was initially tasked with designing the lab space. Johnston and her team finished the design around October 2019, she said, and planned to open it sometime in 2020.

The CCC facility was finished and ready to open for research around March 2020. Located in McGuinn Hall, the finished product was the perfect space for Johnston to conduct her studies on dogs, Johnston said.

Johnston and her team had to stop their research just one week after the CCC’s grand opening, though, due to the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. Approximately 50 dogs were signed up to participate in the research, Johnston said, but she and her team were only able to get through five of them.

Despite the difficulties that were thrown her way, Johnston took on the challenge of deciding how to continue research remotely—she would have to be innovative, she said. She and her research assistants now meet on Zoom and tell dogs’ owners what to do in order to simulate an in-person lab experience.

“We kind of do a ‘Simon Says’ set-up where we have the experimenter telling the owner what to do on Zoom,” she said.

In normal times, the CCC would have dog owners around the Boston area sign their pets up for the research Johnston conducts. They are open to studying any dog, as long as the dog has its basic vaccinations and the dog is not aggressive toward people. This broad sample of dogs is beneficial in ensuring the validity of their research, Johnston said.

“We try to get larger samples to see generalities, rather than looking at a bunch of trials for one particular dog,” she said.

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The experiments Johnston conducts are mainly focused on the concept of overimitation. According to Johnston, children imitate everything a teacher shows or tells them. A large portion of her research analyzes whether or not dogs have a similar sense of overimitation. By analyzing what aspects of learning are shared by dogs and humans, scientists can understand more about human and canine psychology, she explained.

“My main goal is to start to carve out which parts of human teaching and learning are unique to humans and which parts are shared with dogs,” she said. “So we can understand more about how that evolved.”

Johnston publishes her research in multiple research journals, including Developmental Science, Animal Cognition, Animal Behavior, and the Journal of Comparative Psychology.

One member of Johnston’s team is her lab coordinator, BC graduate student Molly Byrne. Byrne said that the CCC’s comparison between dogs and humans allows them to see which learning qualities are advantageous for humans and if these qualities can be advantageous for other species.

“Humans are so successful in their environment partially because they have these unprecedented social learning abilities,” Byrne said. “You can tell a kid a thing one time, and they can remember it, which is something we really don’t see in other animals.”

Aside from the research-heavy side of the center, one of the most rewarding parts of Johnston’s job is interacting with the volunteer families that participate in the research, she said. She loves to talk to the families about their dogs and why their dogs do certain things.

“People come in, and it’s kind of like a mini science fair project for them where they get to see their dogs doing a project,” she said. “And we can talk to them about control conditions and other aspects of the study.”

She especially loves when children are brought in along with dogs, she said, because she sees these instances as scientific teaching opportunities for kids.

Johnston said she also wishes to begin studying children and toddlers once COVID-19 restrictions are lifted. By doing this, she hopes to find more psychological connections between dogs and children.

Johnston’s potential for research is almost limitless, she explained. Canine cognition is fairly new to the world of psychology, so there is still so much research to be done in this field.

“Canine cognition is such a young field,” she said. “It’s only about 20 years old, but we’ve got more questions than answers at this point.”

Stephen Bradley

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