Professor, students research dog behavior

humane society

For the past year, dogs of the Humane Society of South Mississippi have been participating in behavioral studies developed by researchers at The University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Park campus.

Heidi Lyn, an assistant psychology professor, and her students decided to do animal behavioral research on shelter animals because of a change in philosophy on discovering the way animals think.

Instead of comparing complex animals to humans, the researchers have decided to compare animals to animals, recently focusing on domesticated animals such as cats and dogs. 

“We are trying to understand more about the animals we share the Earth with not only to gain insight into how they became what they are, but how we, as humans, evolved into what we are,” said Stephanie Jett, a psychology graduate student. “Studying animals gives us the unique ability to gain insight into the evolution of complex cognition and communication.”

During the research, Lyn discovered that dogs respond to human signals such as pointing, whereas great apes from previous studies did not respond well to the signals. However, Apes who were typically around humans responded to the pointing. Lyn explains that the domestication process has helped dogs to become more accustomed to human culture. This assumption is called the domestication hypothesis.

Another study that the research team has completed collecting data for is the numerosity study. In this study researchers are testing whether dogs realize the difference between the quantity of objects, such as the difference between two treats and four treats. Dogs have responded by choosing the pile with the most treats, showing that they are aware of numerical differences.

The next study that the research team will partake in is animal attachment. They will be observing which dogs have separation anxiety and which dogs are comfortable being left alone. Lyn feels that this research is helping science as well as the dogs at HSSM by allowing the animals to be placed in better fitting homes as well as informing prospective adopters. 

Researchers have developed a program called Research Stars where animals who have shown tremendous results in the research are rewarded with the title Research Star. 

“It’s another way to draw attention to the dogs who are responding well to the research,” Lyn said. 

The stars are listed on HSSM’s Facebook page and video footage of the animals are added to HSSM’s YouTube page so that prospective pet owners can observe the dog’s behavior. 

“We learn something from these animals every day, even if it’s not what we expect to find. We have gotten a lot of data from these amazing dogs and we are never disappointed,” Jett said.