Photo: Lewis Marien, AP
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BLOOMINGTON, Ill. (AP) — Ella and Bruno stood nearly still as they stared at Ellen Furlong, an associate professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University.
Moments before, the two rambunctious pups had been barking and play fighting — practically bouncing off the walls — until Furlong asked, “Who wants a treat?”
The answer to her question was clear without words, but one couldn’t help wondering what the two dogs were thinking beyond, “Me. Me. I want a treat,” as they cocked their heads from side to side.
Furlong seeks to answer that question — and more — in her audiobook, “Decoding Dogs: Inside the Canine Mind,” part of the Great Courses series produced by Audible, an online and podcast platform owned by Amazon.
“Audible was doing some research on what kinds of things people do when listening to books. One of the top three was dog walking,” so an audiobook about dogs was a natural fit, she told The Pantagraph.
When Audible approached her to write and record the book, she jumped at the chance with the same enthusiasm as Ella and Bruno seeking a treat.
Furlong has written about the research she conducts with students at the IWU Dog Scientists lab, but this was different.
“Mostly I’ve written academic articles before, so it was fun writing for a broader audience,” she said.
It took Furlong about a day and a half to record the 5 hour 43 minute audiobook at the Great Courses studio near Washington, D.C.
“I talk about dog evolution, how dogs became dogs,” said Furlong, covering such topics as dog perception, their senses of smell and hearing, their relationship with humans and their ability to learn.
“Dogs do well with social reasoning. They perform better than chimpanzees,” she said.
For example, dogs will follow where a human points.
Furlong performed a demonstration in the IWU Dog Scientists lab, showing each dog two cups and one treat. Then she blocked their view with a piece of cardboard as she put the treat under one of the cups. When she lifted the cardboard and pointed to one cup, the dog immediately went to that cup.
“Chimpanzees won’t do that. They’ll just randomly pick a cup,” she explained. Dogs “understand that a person has information that they don’t have and they are trying to convey that information to the dog.”
Does that mean dogs are “smarter” than chimpanzees?
“There are many different ways of being smart,” she says in an excerpt from the book provided on the Amazon website.
“If you judge a dog by its ability to think and act like a human, you will always think dogs are stupid. … If, however, you assess dogs by their ability to survive and thrive in their doggy environment, then you will appreciate how incredibly smart they are,” she says in the book.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Furlong has not been doing research in the IWU Dog Scientists lab on campus. However, the lab is looking for dog owners interested in participating in studies they can do with their dogs at home, sending video recordings to IWU researchers.