Why Is Your Dog Behaving Like That?

If you want to know, Alexandra Horowitz, who runs Barnard’s Dog Cognition Lab, may be able to tell you.

Eve Glasberg
February 14, 2023

If you are either a longtime dog owner, or one of the many people who acquired their first dog during the pandemic, you’ll want to know about Alexandra Horowitz. She has been teaching at Barnard since 2004, and she observes dogs for a living. Her research specialty is dog cognition, which she pursues at Barnard’s Dog Cognition Lab, where she and her team are currently testing the olfactory experience of the domestic dog through experiments in natural settings. 

The lab’s primary interest is understanding, scientifically, the dog's experience: What is it like to be a dog? The lab’s studies aim to get a handle on what dogs perceive and know by presenting them with puzzles, novel objects, and short games with their owners.

Horowitz, whose most recent book is The Year of the Puppy: How Dogs Become Themselves, recently discussed her work and the lab with Columbia News, as well as what makes dogs such ideal companions for humans.

How long has the lab been in operation at Barnard, and how did it start?

We're in our 15th year! I began the lab in 2008. In graduate school, I had looked at dog behavior with an eye toward extrapolating from behavior to meta-cognitive processes. But after that research, I realized there was an opportunity to study dogs qua dogs—this ubiquitous species had not been widely studied at all.

I began doing dog research on my own, while teaching Animal Behavior and a class in Theory of Mind (with a focus on nonhuman animals) at Barnard. Soon enough, some of my students expressed an interest in doing research with me (read: with dogs), so I founded the lab to enable a more collaborative group research effort.  

What are some of the most interesting things you're currently studying about dogs in the lab?

Our lab's research projects are diverse, as each year's cohort of students contributes to what they think might be a compelling project. But there are some themes across years, especially the study of play behavior and that of olfaction. Right now, we're coding a study of dog-cat play, looking at the different strategies of each species; and we've just finished a study investigating odor conditioning in dogs, to see if they can be trained to associate a neutral odor with a positive experience. Finally, we're doing foundational ethological research in which we look at the context of shaking off behavior in dogs. 

Daisy, a beagle from Barnard's Dog Cognition Lab.

Have you ever been surprised by any lab results, or learned something new about dog behavior that you didn't know before?

One hopes that every result is surprising! Frankly, they have been for me: While each hypothesis is based on observation, or an expected result, subject behavior always shows me something I could not have imagined ahead of time. Most of what I thought I "knew" about dog behavior has been changed, minorly or substantially, by research—that's the fascinating thing about studying dogs. Because these animals feel so familiar, we make a lot of assumptions about dog behavior and minds. Often, though, we haven't really looked closely or tried to see what they're actually doing.  

How many dogs have been studied at the lab over the years?

Several hundred. All of our subjects are owned dogs, mostly from the greater New York City area, who come to the lab with their people. We've had people travel hundreds of miles to participate in studies: Happily, people are excited about the work. In addition, during the pandemic—and even before COVID paused our ability to run in-person studies—we had done several citizen science projects in which people sent in videos of specified dog behavior, which we then analyzed. That has broadened our subject pool to include dozens of non-U.S. dogs, too.

How did your interest in studying dogs develop, and what was your path to this career?

In graduate school, I was interested in how we could learn about nonhuman minds. At the time, I was frustrated by the limitations of experimental approaches to studying the mind, which were all extensions from paradigms used in human-cognition research. I wound up studying ethology—looking at animal behavior in natural contexts, especially when one can then try to make inferences about the mind behind that behavior.

My thesis was on social play behavior. Most animals play, but when I was looking for study subjects among the typical candidates (primates, mostly), it was difficult to find repeated, reliable instances of play—until I looked at the dog on the end of my leash, and realized that I was already watching play three times daily when I took her for walks. I turned my gaze toward dogs—and haven't turned it away.

Does the lab employ only Barnard and Columbia students?

Our researchers are primarily Barnard and Columbia students, although over the years we've occasionally had non-CU affiliates. 

Can anyone bring their dog to the lab for study? How does the process work?

Yes! When we're running a study, we put out a call for participants on social media, and to our database of folks who have expressed interest in hearing about our studies. There are usually some requirements for participation—having lived with the dog for six months, making sure the dogs are fully vaccinated, etc.

This spring we'll be running a study that requires dogs who have had a class in nose work (a dog sport in which they find hidden canisters by using their noses), especially dogs from multi-dog households. For more information about our studies, sign up to be notified here: https://dogcognition.weebly.com/participate.html 

What is it in a nutshell about dogs that makes them such wonderful companions for humans?

Their exquisite sensitivity to us: They mind our attention, notice our habits—and our divergences from our habits—and seem to know our minds. Dogs are reliably cheery, and pleased to see us. And they will suffer our petting, nose-booping, and even raincoat-donning of them. 

Are dogs really all that different from us when it comes to emotions?

Frans de Waal, a professor of primate behavior at Emory University, likes to say that nonhuman emotions are similar to ours, for sure, but what animals’ feelings are is harder to know. I tend to agree with that: Most mammals, at least, have similar neural architecture for emotional responses, and most emotions are somewhat adaptive. But what it feels like to the animal is a separate question.