University of Nebraska-Lincoln associate psychology professor Jeffrey Stevens and senior psychology major Madeline Mathias visited the Clever Dog Lab in Vienna last year. Six months later, the two started a canine lab on campus based on the European experience.
“He thought it was a really cool study and wanted to do something similar here,” Mathias said. “Transitioning into a new project from the ground up was a whole new experience. You’re a lot more appreciative of the process once you work with something from the beginning.”
The lab in Vienna studies dogs’ impulsivity, so Stevens decided to study American dogs’ impulsivity. Mathias said his research focuses on the behavior of animals, and how animals with limited time, information and abilities make decisions. So far, they have found that the impulsivity of dogs in America is different from European raised dogs.
Stevens and the team, which consists of all undergraduate students, began looking for dogs to conduct research with through an event called the Husker DogFest. The free, public event on campus was held on Aug. 11, 2018. Visitors toured the new Canine Cognition and Human Interaction Lab and watched demonstrations of dog obedience. Dogs played with each other and performed tricks.
The team received 400 applications from attendees who wanted to have their dog researched during the spring semester. In January, after the lab went through protocols and approvals, they began the research process. So far, they have tested 50 dogs, according to Mathias.
The research process consists of experiments based on impulsivity, Mathias said. Upon arrival, the dogs are taken to a separate room from their owners and given two plates: one with a single treat and one with three treats. If the dog chooses the plate with more treats, the plate is moved farther away.
The researchers then observe whether the dog ignores the length and eats the one treat on the other plate or patiently walks over and eats from the plate of three treats again.
“We’ve found that more impulsive dogs will just skip the trek and eat what’s in front of them,” Mathias said. “The dogs with less impulsive tendencies will just walk to the better plate, no matter how far away it is. It’s super interesting.”
Afterward, the researchers survey the owners and ask them about their dog’s impulsivity. So far, the researchers found that American owners cannot predict their dog’s impulsivity, but the owners in the European study could.
Mathias said they believe this is due to the difference between how Americans and Europeans treat their dogs.
“In the United States, we treat our dogs like family,” she said. “When I went to Austria, they treat their dogs like pets. When dogs are viewed as family, people tend to be more blindsided by their faults.”
McKenna Yohe, a sophomore veterinary science and psychology double major, also works on this study and agreed the research differences are based on culture.
“We’ve been experiencing a lot of dogs having separation anxiety from their owners,” Yohe said. “In the European study, they didn’t mention having these types of problems, so it kind of shows that dogs in Europe are treated differently.”
Yohe and Mathias agreed that working with dogs has its good and bad days but said they’ve both gained helpful experience from this study that can help them in their future careers.
Yohe is on the pre-veterinary track and said this project has taught her how to handle dog and owner situations.
“I’ve really learned how to pick up on the signs of anxiety in dogs from the moment they walk into the lab,” she said. “I’m not just getting how to work with data but also some hands-on skills I will need for the future.”
Mathias said she plans on going into the medical field, but the research has helped her in both a personal and professional way.
“I think it’s made me more aware of my own dog’s behavior,” she said. “It’s an overwhelming project, but it is by far the coolest research I have ever done.”