Tuesday, August 18, 2015

URSP Student Ashley Frongello Researches the Domestication Hypothesis

Last winter in my psychology honors class, my now-mentor, Dr. Doris Davis, gave a presentation on a study in which a Border collie was trained to identify 1,022 different toys by name; fortunately for me, Dr. Davis was looking for a student to replicate this study with her two newly obtained Great Pyrenees puppies, and I jumped at the chance to work on a project so fetching.  For those unfamiliar with this breed, Great Pyrenees are huge, fuzzy, polar bear-esque canines, with stubborn temperaments likely stemming from historical autonomy.   In other words, as opposed to Border collies and other so-called “herding” dogs that are known for their apt communication abilities with humans (e.g., a farmer’s dog who can herd sheep back to the barn on the farmer’s command), Great Pyrenees still remain a breed who typically operate as guard dogs for the farm animals, independently of their owners.

My research is concentrating on what is referred to as the Domestication Hypothesis, which loosely states that the ability of dogs, like the aforementioned Border collie, to exhibit some features of human language, is the product of social communicative exposure with humans.  Bluntly speaking, however, this summer I have had the wonderfully fun task of spoiling my mentor’s two puppies, Marina and Sugar, rotten.  I regularly bring them new toys and train them to identify such with specific proper nouns through repetitive exercises and play, in turn I reward them with treats and tons of affection.  Some of Marina and Sugar’s favorite toys include Spaceship, a little, red, squeaky rocket ship and Trunks, a plush, squeaky elephant.

I have learned that there’s a definite quota of difficulty involved in animal behavioral research, but I love a challenge and I’m really thankful for the opportunity to independently problem-solve through them. I particularly have had a ruff time navigating the puppies’ natural insubordination and aversion to hot weather.  One example I can think of is how when I first tried to begin their experimental training, I realized that Marina and Sugar didn't know how to fetch!  My study revolves around the dogs using retrieval as a method of identification, and even though I had spent the months prior teaching them simple behavioral commands like sit and roll over, it never even dawned on me that they didn’t know how to play with toys!  They wouldn’t even touch the toys I showed them, never mind fetch them; but after a good week of training focused solely on touching, going to, and later fetching objects, I could finally restart the study.

As we are now reaching the tail end of the summer, my research is far from done!  I will continue to work with Marina and Sugar throughout the fall, and use this project for my honors thesis culminating next spring.  But I already have ideas for future experimentation with the pups to expand on this particular subject area of human-dog social cognition in Great Pyrenees.  Paws down, my experience with URSP has been a blast!