By Maritza Cruz

The Arizona Canine Cognition Center is a University of Arizona School of Anthropology research facility run mostly by graduate students. The center researches canine psychology and their connection with humans, primates and other animals.

The center is led by Doctor Evan MacLean, a biological anthropologist and comparative psychologist with interests in cognitive evolution and the study of animal minds.

The most recent finding that came out of the cognition center was published early this year. MacLean compared the physical and social cognition of humans, chimpanzees and dogs. He found that humans and dogs are similar in social and cooperative cognition whereas chimpanzees were a little different.

The researchers are currently working on an experiment to study human and canine collaboration.

Daniel Horschler, UA graduate student, conducts research at the cognition center. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2016 with a bachelor’s in psychology and a minor in anthropology. He previously conducted research on human metacognition at UNC and canine and primate cognition at Yale University.

Horschler said the first experiment is meant to see if canines prefer interacting with an object with a person or alone. There are two identical objects on the ground, and the experimenter interacts with one of them. Then the dog is released and they see which object the dog wants to play with – the toy the person is holding or the toy lying on the ground.

“There’s this finding that apes tend to not really have a preference, so we are trying to see if dogs are a little more social people than some of the other apes are,” Horschler said.


Yuki is a labrador and hound mix. Yuki is Japanese for the “snow.” (Photograph by Maritza Cruz)

Yuki is one of the most recent dogs that has gone into the cognition center. She is a black Labrador and hound mix. Yuki was adopted after living most of her life at a research center where she spent most of her time in a small kennel. Horschler said he thinks that is why she walks in circles all the time because she was used to confined spaces.

Yuki chose to interact with the person holding the toy rather than the toy on the floor every time. She sniffed the lone toy but ultimately chose to interact with the person instead.

In the second experiment the dog played fetch with its owner and with a stranger to see if the dog will play with anyone or if the dog prefers a familiar face.

Yuki played fetch with both the stranger and the familiar person. After a while, she was no longer interested in fetch and began walking in circles.

The third experiment was the most complicated. The experimenter taught the dog how to nudge open a clear box with its nose to get a treat inside. Eventually, the researcher adds a second screen door that the dog cannot open and must ask help from the human by sitting and staring at the human, barking or pawing. This experiment is meant to test dog and human cooperation.

Horschler said it usually takes a while for the dog to understand the mechanism.




Yuki sniffed the box when it was first introduced. Her tail was in between her legs. When she realized the treat was in the box, and she had to nudge the door open with her nose to retrieve it, she was hesitant. Gradually, the more Horschler pointed to the treat in the box, the faster Yuki would retrieve it. They never got to the second part of the experiment.

Experiments like these help researchers understand human and dog relationships.

“Dog/human cooperation is a big thing mostly because of working dogs,” Horschler said. “So some of the work that we do is with a few of these organizations to see if these cognitive skills that we measure tend to predict success in these training programs, and if they do we can administer tests when these dogs are puppies or young adults to help predict which ones they should invest their resources in to train in order to be service dogs in the future,” Horschler said.


Handi-Dogs is one of the Tucson organizations the cognition center has collaborated with to determine the best qualities that make up a service dog. Handi-Dogs helps people train their own dogs to become service dogs. They offer training for diabetes alert, hearing alert, mobility assistance and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder/ psychiatric services.

JoAnn Turnbull is the president and CEO of Handi-Dogs.

Turnbull said the most essential behavioral trait for a service dog is confidence. They must be confident to fulfill their tasks when they go into a new place.

“Most of our dogs are medium to larger size simply because they’re going to be able to help with mobility and different tasks like picking up objects, and also if someone is taking them into a store the dog should be able to walk by their side, and a very small dog we don’t want to potentially get injured because somebody steps on them because they’re not seeing them,” Turnbull said.

Handi-Dogs will work closely this year with the Arizona Canine Cognition Center to determine what behavioral and cognitive traits are good indicators of successful service dogs.

The Arizona Canine Cognition Center will be launching a sign-up and scheduling system later this year. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in enrolling your dog for an hour of games to test cognition email for more information.