News & blog British Science Festival: Unlocking the secrets of the canine mind By Fred McNamara, British Science Festival Dogs may be a man’s best friend, but while they may share a bond, they don’t strictly share the same line of thinking. At the Unlocking the secrets of the canine mind event, lecturers from the University of Hull, with the help some fluffy assistants, demonstrated how a dog’s mind functions when it comes to learning to be social and gaining treats. Four different types of dogs delighted a large audience inside the Dogs Playpark at Hull Sports Centre: Fraya the newfoundland, Phoenix the border collie, Pan the Siberian husky and Mabelle the hound. All four dogs were given the same objective – get the treat from their respective handler. All four breeds showed different behaviour patterns The lecturers and their canine companions took it in turns to show how each dog attempted to gain their treat, and it’s here that one of the more fascinating elements of dissecting a dog’s cognition arose – that different breeds of dogs boast different capabilities. This is something that scientists relish when performing experiments with dogs. During the ‘barrier’ exercise, in which lecturer Blake Morton shut himself inside a three-fence structure with a selection of treats, the handful of pups displayed their strengths and weaknesses to their fullest. Fraya, with her mass expanse of all-encompassing fluff, chose to wind her away around the three fences, trying to see some weakness in them. Mabelle however, with her strong sense of smell, was able to discern the gaps between the fence posts and opted for tunnelling her way to victory. The experiment looked at the dogs' social skills and cognitive reactions The barrier experiment is a muscular example of how different dogs’ minds operate differently. Fraya’s thick fur and plump body weren’t as nimble as Mabelle’s comparatively smaller frame, which had no problem bending itself into a position to try and reach underneath the fence. “Animals are creative”, Blake explained. Using experiments such as the ‘barrier’ is just one of numerous methods scientists make use of when testing a dog’s cognition. Harking back to Blake’s explanation of how creative animals can be, it is important to give dogs as novel tasks as possible, but it’s equally as important to make the task uncomplicated, because it’s not easy to test an animal. A dog understands the getting of the treat far better than the process involved in getting the treat itself. To them, it may almost be like magic! The simple yet important tasks demonstrate how dogs of all breeds possess a sharp, unshakeable sense of objective Unlocking the secrets of the canine mind was an entertaining and illuminating explanation of how dogs process information to achieve a goal. Sometimes it can disarmingly simple, such as when they were presented with two separate handlers, one with food and one without food. Having seen which owner possessed the food prior, Pan naturally zoomed towards the handler with the food! Despite both handlers calling her attention, Pan already had her objective in mind – retrieve the treat. This simple yet important task demonstrates how dogs of all breeds possess a sharp, unshakeable sense of objective. Find out more about the British Science Festival here.