UW-Eau Claire class studying how dogs understand the world

Published: Mar. 1, 2023 at 10:41 PM CST
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EAU CLAIRE, Wis. (WEAU) -If you have ever wondered how smart your dog is, a team of students at UW-Eau Claire is trying to find out by taking a look at how man’s best friend learns.

At emBARK in Eau Claire, more than 20 UWEC students like Tia Ravara are getting the chance to work with man’s best friend. One of the goals of this class, which is called Animal Behavior, is to see how dogs process information.

That’s something Ravara hopes to use with her own pet.

“My family is trying to get my dog to become a service dog, so using these tests would be really helpful in knowing how to train my dog and putting my knowledge and experiments in science into training my own little dog at home,” Ravara said.

As part of these tests, 35 to 40 dogs try to find treats under certain conditions.

“We look at four different levels of cognition,” said Dr. Jennifer Smith, the professor behind the class. “The first is pretty simple. We put a treat in a bucket, and we ask whether a dog can see us doing that and go to the correct bucket. Each of them is set up as a choice test, so they have three buckets, and they have to choose the right one.”

Smith said each test is a bit different looking at aspects of how dogs understand the world around them. Her favorite one is where a person points to the bucket with the treat inside it.

“A lot of dogs that have a high pack drive or prey drive or are working dogs often look at an owner and then go directly to solve that task,” Smith said. “It turns out that those dogs are better than chimpanzees at recognizing how well humans communicate to each other.”

When all these tests are done, Smith’s students will take the data they collect and try to answer questions they come up with like the impact age has on how well a dog performs.

For those who train dogs like Heather Mishefske, the owner of emBARK, they’re excited for what these kinds of insight into our four-legged friends can mean for working with them.

“I think it’s so good to kind of have some information on how dogs learn, so we can look at training in a different light, so we understand our learner a little better,” Mishefske said.

By doing that, we might just be able to answer the question how smart is your dog?

Smith said this is the class’ first year at UW-Eau Claire. She hopes to expand the testing session to include more dogs next time.