WANT TO TELL YOUR STORY ON SPECIFICALLY FOR SENIORS? Here's your chance to tell us your story.
June 23, 2022

Angie Johnson - How Smart is Your Dog

Apple Podcasts podcast player badge
Spotify podcast player badge
Google Podcasts podcast player badge
YouTube Channel podcast player badge
Castro podcast player badge
RSS Feed podcast player badge
Amazon Music podcast player badge
Stitcher podcast player badge
iHeartRadio podcast player badge

Angie Johnson and I talk about the relationship of humans and dogs, comparing learning ability in children and dogs, anthropomorphizing our pets and how dogs respond to our cues.

Link to the Canine Cognition Center at Boston College 


Sponsorship and advertising opportunities are available on Specifically for Seniors. To inquire about details, please contact us at https://www.specificallyforseniors.com/contact/ . 


Disclaimer: unedited AI transcript

Announcer (00:06):

You are connected and you are listening to specifically for seniors, the podcast, for those in the remember when generation today's podcast is available everywhere you listen to podcasts and with video at specifically for seniors YouTube channel. Now here's your host, Dr. Larry Barsh

Larry (00:35):

Today on specifically for seniors, we're going to be talking about how dogs think and learn with Dr. Angie Johnson, an assistant professor at Boston college, Dr. Johnson directs the canine cognition center and social learning laboratory. Her work has been featured on NBC nightly news, the today show and scientific American. Welcome to specifically for seniors. Angie,

Angie Johnson (01:04):

Thank you. It's nice to be here.

Larry (01:08):

Tell us about the canine cognition center.

Angie Johnson (01:11):

Yeah. So at Boston college, we have this new lab space that we well relatively new that we opened up about three years ago. So right before COVID hit and it's basically this custom design space in Boston college's campus, that's specifically for people to bring their dogs so we can do different sorts of studies with them. And so we have a nice little waiting room where people can come in and get acquainted and know that oh, their dog can learn. This is not the vet. This is going to be one of the most fun places they've ever been in their lives, where they're just gonna get a bunch of treats and attention. And what we do is we design puzzles and treat hiding games to figure out what dogs are thinking and how they communicate with us.

Larry (01:58):

I took my dog to the vet this morning and he was not a happy dog.

Angie Johnson (02:04):

<Laugh> yeah, my dogs are the same way.

Larry (02:07):

You received your PhD in psychology from Yale and a BS in child development from the university of Texas. How did you swing over to canine?

Angie Johnson (02:18):

Caucasian? Yeah, that's a great question. So whenever I was in undergrad at university of Texas at Dallas, I worked with children trying to understand how do children decide who to trust for new information. And when I went to grad school at Yale, that's what I thought I was gonna keep doing. But there was a post in one of the labs I was in, who decided that she was gonna take her, she took her dog to a dog daycare and we thought, well, we could see what these dogs would do in our same studies. And so canine cognition is a relatively new field. It's something that started in about 2000. And so it's only, you know, about 20 some odd years old. And whenever I was in grad school, I started grad school in, in 2012. It was such a new field that we thought we could maybe contribute by taking, testing these dogs at the dog daycare.

Angie Johnson (03:24):

And when we were doing the work with the dog daycare, we found that it was a little bit difficult because the dogs were always barking in the background. And we thought, well, maybe we better try to find a space on campus where people could bring their dogs in. So it would be quieter. And when we did that, I just started falling in love with doing the research with dogs. It's so rewarding because it's fun to work with the dogs, of course, but it's also really fascinating because it's such a new field. Every question that we ask is it's groundbreaking in a way, because there's not been much ground broken in the field. And so I just found that I loved this. And so by about my third year in my PhD program, I decided to switch from working with kids to mostly working with dogs though. I do still work with children. But it's only, we only work with children to compare them to dogs.

Larry (04:22):

So people who are in Brookline Boston area where I'm from originally,

Angie Johnson (04:28):

Oh yeah.

Larry (04:30):

Can make an appointment and bring their dogs into the

Angie Johnson (04:33):

Lab. Yes. Basically the way that it works is we bring people's dogs in for an initial visit where they get to do a meet and greet with everyone that works at the center. And they sort of get adjusted to the sort of materials we use in our studies and the lab space. And assuming that all goes well and the dog's comfortable and likes the activities and they can come back for more studies and we always have lots of studies going on. And so there's all sorts of studies that people can bring their dogs in for.

Larry (05:06):

How would people get in contact with you?

Angie Johnson (05:09):

So our website is, let me make sure I get it correct. It is. And I can, maybe you could put this in the link as well, but it's sites.bc.edu/dog lab.

Larry (05:24):

Your research is centered on human learning and how that compares to that of domesticated dogs.

Angie Johnson (05:34):


Larry (05:35):

What questions are you hoping to answer by comparing to?

Angie Johnson (05:39):

Yes. So I think the most important thing is to explain why dogs are such an interesting species to compare. Because a lot of times when people were initially doing research, comparing humans, they would compare humans to primates because primates are our closest relatives. And so by comparing humans to primates, we can see what has been something that's been sustained for a long period of time across our primate lineage, or how has this evolved in the primate line. But the interesting thing is that when it comes to learning from other people, primates are very different than humans are. So for instance, if you hide some something desirable, like a piece of food under one of two cups, while a primate's not watching, and you point with your finger to where it's hidden, and this is something that 12 month old infants understand, but primates don't seem to understand.

Angie Johnson (06:39):

They have to have many trials to learn how to do this, whereas dogs over domestication. It seems that we have shaped them to be able to understand these sort of cues and learn from humans. So even six week old puppies are able to follow pointing which is fascinating because even our closest relatives can't do this. So that suggests that when it comes to these social learning aspects of psychology, that dogs are more similar than our closest primate relatives. So that leads me to ask, well, where do the similarities, how far do they extend and where do the similarities stop? And so one study that we had that we did a little while back was looking at whether dogs will do something that's called over imitation. So with human children, if you show them a puzzle box and you demonstrate to them, lots of actions, some of which are silly and aren't actually necessary, like maybe waving a feather on the side of a box or snapping your fingers or something like that, the children will copy these actions.

Angie Johnson (07:55):

And they'll keep doing this time and time again, where this is something we don't see say chimpanzees or Bonobos or close PRI relatives doing. And so some people had argued that perhaps this tendency to over imitate is really important for supporting our human culture and learning. Because if you think about it, there's all sorts of complex things. We need to learn, like washing our hands and brushing our teeth that you can't necessarily see why they're important, cuz you can't see germs, but they are important. And so we wanted to see what about dogs? Do dogs do this, given that they're so similar to humans and how they learn, perhaps this is something they share as well, but the dogs don't seem to overate because once they learn how the puzzle works, they stop doing the irrelevant actions. And so this is something that we think supports even more strongly that over mutation may be something that's unique to human learners that really helps us learn these complex cultural technologies that we have. And so we're following up on that project and some of our ongoing work trying to tease this apart more and also compare directly to children.

Larry (09:15):

So how did this intimate relationship between dogs and people come to be evolution or

Angie Johnson (09:25):

Yeah, so it's, you know, we wish we had a time machine, so we could go back and see, that would be wonderful. But from what we're able to gather from archeological evidence and fossil records and genetics is that it seems that around 14,000 years ago, at least that humans started living in these dense camps that were tempting for these wild canid that were living at the time to come into the camp and take the food. But it was also sort of scary to come into the camp and take the food because humans could be a predator. And so only the TAST animals were willing to go into the camps and then they would breed together and their puppies would be more tame. And so there is this TA process that happened over the course of thousands of years that we call self domestication because humans were not breeding the dogs, the dogs were just Tamer and more likely to mate together. And then humans took these tame animals that were living in camps and started breeding them for different purposes like hunting herding and all the different breed groups that we know today. And so that's how we think it started was, you know, thousands of years ago with this taming process.

Larry (10:48):

That's interesting because you think that the more aggressive dogs would be the ones that would come into the camp more easily.

Angie Johnson (10:57):

That's interesting. Yeah. You would think so. But I think then humans might have like pushed them out or killed them or things like that. And so then there would be, then it's tricky because the humans aren't like consciously selecting for different breeds, but they might have been kind of unconsciously weeding out some of these more aggressive dogs by kicking them out of camps or killing them.

Larry (11:24):

So did dogs and humans socially interact early on?

Angie Johnson (11:30):

We think they probably did. So I mentioned this 14,000 years ago metric because that's when there is a burial site that they found that was dated 14,000 years ago, where there is a child and a puppy that are buried together and the puppy looks like it had been injured and they were caring for the puppy. And so it seems like there is at least some amount of social integration going on, then

Larry (11:59):

That's even more interesting because I would again imagine that the humans would be more looking for food than for companionship with an animal.

Angie Johnson (12:09):

Yeah, it's true. It it's, it's surprising. Just how much it seems like there's this companionship that's been going on with humans and dogs for thousands of years.

Larry (12:25):

Do we prophies our pets or do they actually read our body language, our emotions, facial expressions.

Angie Johnson (12:35):

That's a really great question. And I think the answer is yes to both <laugh> I think we implies them and I also think they're really good at reading our body language and our emotions. One, if you ask me, you know, you know, Angie, what's the most consistent finding in the literature that you'd really be willing to hang your hat on. I really think dogs understanding human emotion is one that I'm really willing to hang my hat on. There's tons of research that shows that dogs are able to understand human emotion. Even if they do things like break a face down. So you can just see the eyes or just see the mouth they're able to distinguish things like happiness and anger. So I really think dogs do understand our emotions, but there's the flip side, which is how much do we understand dog emotions.

Angie Johnson (13:27):

And that is where I think a lot of anthropomorphizing comes in. And there's a great example of this, where there have been a few different studies that have looked at the guilty looking dogs. So, you know, you come home and they've gotten into the treats and there's just shreded paper everywhere and treats and they give you that look that looks like they're guilty. Well, a lot of researchers have looked into this more and it seems like it's not really a look that's suggesting that they understand they did something wrong and they feel remorse about it. It's more of an appeasement look to try to make you as the owner be less upset.

Larry (14:10):

So they're not saying I'm bad. I was, I was wrong. Just don't be mad at me. Yeah. Okay. Whatever I did. Yeah. That you don't seem to like

Angie Johnson (14:24):

Exactly. Yes.

Larry (14:26):

Do they learn not to repeat that behavior? Because my dog doesn't <laugh>

Angie Johnson (14:30):

I don't think anyone's looked at that empirically, but anecdotally I feel like I'm with you with my dogs that they don't really learn from that.

Larry (14:39):

No, it it's going into the trash and finding a napkin and shredding

Angie Johnson (14:43):

It. Oh yeah. Shredding

Larry (14:44):

And then looking guilty mm-hmm <affirmative> and then totally ignoring it. <Laugh>

Angie Johnson (14:50):

That's exactly.

Larry (14:53):

A question. How do I understand what my dog is telling me? Did I train him or did he train me?

Angie Johnson (15:02):

That's a good question. Probably probably a little bit of both of him training you and you training him. But I think a lot of understanding your dog's behavior and body language is just that it takes time to get to know each individual dog because they have different things that they like and don't like but the general metric I like to use and that we use a lot in our lab and we're trying to make sure that dogs are comfortable is seeing, is my dog choosing to be in this situation or is he trying to lead the situation? And I think a lot can be garnered from that, that for instance, if we have a dog that we're working with and we wanna make sure that they're not anxious, we see are they choosing to participate in this activity or are they trying to do a different activity?

Angie Johnson (16:01):

And so I think that's one way to tell, but then of course there are specific signs that a dog might be anxious or upset. Like they have their whites of their eyes really showing. So like that whale eye is what it's called or a half moon eye body language that's like really tucked in can be an example of an anxiety behavior. And so I think just learning kind of what are common signs that dogs are not feeling happy and learning to pinpoint them in your dog. And there's all these displacement behaviors as well, where dogs will do a behavior in one context that might make sense. Like if it's hot outside and they're panting or they're drinking a lot of water, that makes sense. But if it's not hot and they start panting a lot and they're drinking a lot of water that can be a sign of anxiety. And so kind of knowing your dog's behavior and knowing what context it's in, but it takes time. I mean, we it's, it's hard to learn how to understand them because they don't communicate to us in the same way we are used to communicating with each other

Larry (17:20):

You know, talking about communication when a dog wags its tail, does it always mean they're happy?

Angie Johnson (17:29):

No, that's one of the most common misconceptions, a wagging tail can mean lots of things. In fact when dogs wag their tails, different directions, research has shown that it can mean that they're anxious or not anxious. So I never remember which direction it is if it's the dog's right or your right. But if the tail wags to that direction, it means the dog is relaxed and happy. If it wags to the other direction, it means the dog is anxious. Also sometimes if dogs have a very rigid tail wa that's very rigid, it can mean that they're kind of aggressive or alert, or if they're tails wagging and they're kind of tucking their tail in a little bit, it can mean that they're appeasing or they're anxious. So there's all sorts of things that tail wa mean. But if you see that big wild tail wa that's just going in circles and knocking things off the coffee table that often does mean a happy dog.

Larry (18:31):

Yeah. My dog is tail is up or tail is down <laugh> oh, yeah. And it's funny when I come home and I keep the dog in a crate just to offset the napkin shredding

Angie Johnson (18:45):

NPI of course,

Larry (18:46):

And pillow shredding, and he comes and he'll run out of the crate and then it's like, he says, oh yeah, I forgot to say hello. <Laugh> and he'll run back you know, and jump on me. Yeah. I asked my vet what was wrong with him? And she said he has a screw loose <laugh>.

Angie Johnson (19:09):

So that's funny.

Larry (19:11):

How does, how does a dog's intelligence compare to that of a young child?

Angie Johnson (19:16):

So that's a really good question. And I think this is a place where we have to break intelligence down into its different components. So things like causal, physical reasoning, children, out class dogs, dogs are just really struggle at figuring out how to solve puzzles and things like that. Whereas children tend to be able to figure those puzzles out by a certain age, when it comes to more social intelligence, you know, like I mentioned, dogs are able to understand social cues and things like that. I think they're much more akin to say maybe a toddler,

Larry (20:01):

Do dogs have a sense of time?

Angie Johnson (20:04):

So there's some really fascinating work on this that suggests dog sense of time comes from their sense of smell. So sometimes people have noticed that their dogs seem to know when they're going to come home. And we think that this is because the smell of the person as they've left the house has dissipated to a certain level. And the dog learns that when the smell has dissipated to a certain level, that means the person's coming back home. And so if you think about it, it makes sense because when dogs are tracking things like say search and rescue dogs that are tracking people's movement through space, that the more heightened the smell is, the more recently someone has been there. And that's how they know how to track footsteps and things like that.

Larry (20:57):

But they, they seem to know when it's bedtime mm-hmm <affirmative> and if you violate that bedtime, they come and let you know,

Angie Johnson (21:08):

Oh, it's true. Or dinner time, heaven forbid you, oh, <laugh> you don't get dinner time. Or when daylight savings time happens and everything's off by an hour, then they're still wondering where their dinner is at the normal time. Yeah. I think that they might learn things like how light it is outside or how long it's, you know, they might have different cues like that, or there might be subtle routines that you have that they pick up on. I think they're really good learners that they really can pick up on quite a number of things.

Larry (21:45):

Yeah. I, I, I'm amazed that sometimes that how a astute, the dog is to time

Angie Johnson (21:53):


Larry (21:54):


Angie Johnson (21:55):

I think that's an area that there could be a lot more research cuz it, it really is impressive.

Larry (22:04):

I've heard that some people say that a dog that uses his pause more is more intelligent than a dog who does not.

Angie Johnson (22:15):

Oh, interesting.

Larry (22:17):

I, I was gonna ask you if there's any validity to that.

Angie Johnson (22:20):

I've never, I've never heard anything about that from any research, but I will say that when we have our puzzles, it's quite rare to see a dog that uses its paws. They tend to use their nose more on the puzzles that we create for them. So I don't know if that means that it's more intelligent, but I think that it does seem to me it's a bit more rare.

Larry (22:50):

I know that with my dog again, because it's the only sample I have I have a cabinet where there are two distinct treats that he likes. And if I show him the cabinet and it relates again to time of day and say, which one do you want? He won't point with his nose, he'll lift his paw up and pull the bag down.

Angie Johnson (23:18):

That's so cute

Larry (23:19):

For, for which one he wants. So, oh,

Angie Johnson (23:21):

That's really fascinating.

Larry (23:23):

Or he'll tell me that his ball rolled under the couch by showing me that it has amazing communication.

Angie Johnson (23:33):

Yeah. Their communication really is amazing. Especially what they can do with their eye contact. They, they really are. There's a lot of research that shows when they come to something like not necessarily a ball under the couch, but something they can't solve on their own. They do readily look to their people to as if to say, Hey, you have opposable thumb, you come figure this out for me.

Larry (24:02):

Did doc scream, dog scream?

Angie Johnson (24:04):

I'm not sure about that. That's something that's really hard to study, but it sure looks like they are, doesn't it?

Larry (24:10):

Yeah. he'll run into sleep. He'll bark occasionally.

Angie Johnson (24:15):


Larry (24:17):

Did dogs have emotions?

Angie Johnson (24:19):

I think they definitely have emotions. And I think the question is we might sometimes give them anthropomorphize and think that they're having more complex emotions than they really are. Like there are some emotions I think that are probably unique to humans. Maybe things like guilt as an example, but as far as sort of the basic emotions, like happiness, fear, disgusted <laugh> sadness. Like I think that they have these basic emotions.

Larry (24:55):

Yeah. I was gonna ask you whether dogs have fears.

Angie Johnson (24:59):

Yeah. I think they definitely do. I think a lot of animals have fears

Larry (25:07):

And, and the fear starts by recognizing the location that they're in.

Angie Johnson (25:14):


Larry (25:15):

I know when I bring the dog again to the vet, we don't have to be in front of the door for him to start. <Laugh> answer worrying about it.

Angie Johnson (25:28):

Mm-Hmm <affirmative> yeah. They definitely learn the associations between different places and fear. That's definitely true.

Larry (25:38):

Just one other question. What makes a dog like except tolerate some dogs and develop an intense dislike tense dislike of other dogs?

Angie Johnson (25:57):

Oh, I wish I knew this. I have three dogs and one of my dogs we think had some pretty bad experiences with dogs in his past. And he does not like any dogs at all. <Affirmative> and so I wish that I knew the answer to this question, but I think we're not completely sure what it is about some dogs that other dogs don't get along with those dogs. I've definitely heard of research at dog daycares where dogs definitely have friendships with each other. So some dogs just really get along well and then they don't get along as well with other dogs. And so, I don't know. I think it's like people it's, there's just different relationships and it's not necessarily fully clear why they're not getting along.

Larry (26:48):

Again with my very small sample population we had a, I have a miniature poodle mm-hmm <affirmative> there was a golden, one of the neighbors had the golden passed away about six months ago.

Angie Johnson (27:06):


Larry (27:08):

My dog still stops at the Bush in front of that Golden's house. Oh. To smell. And they used to play wrestle. They were great friends.

Angie Johnson (27:20):


Larry (27:21):

So you know, it it's, this friendship idea of dogs is I think valid.

Angie Johnson (27:30):

Yeah. It was a really it was a study I saw presented at a conference one time with these different they just looked at every pairing of dogs and saw how consistent their behavior was. And it was quite consistent that they would play with there'd be certain pairs that would just really play together and other pairs that maybe had more dominant submissive relationships and things like that.

Larry (27:56):

So what did we miss talking about?

Angie Johnson (27:59):

What did we miss talking about? I think the only thing that we didn't talk about the people sometimes find really fascinating is that I also do work with dingos in Australia.

Angie Johnson (28:09):

Oh. and dingos are a species of canid. That's not dog and not Wolf. It seems like what happened is I told you about how these dogs were, or these animals were self domesticated thousands of years ago. And, but they were then later bred by humans. Dingoes seem to be the direct descendant of these tame animals, but they haven't been bred by humans. So they sort of give us this snapshot into what self domestication did to dogs. And the dingos are very fascinating animals. They, they really are quite good at problem solving and causal reasoning and that sort of stuff. And they're not quite as likely to when they come to something like a ball under a couch, you know, that sort of unsolvable task. They're not really as ready to look to a human for assistance. And so they seem to be much more independent, which suggests that part of what we've bred into dogs over domestication. Since the dingo's last relative is this tendency to really cooperate with us and use us as a tool to solve problems. So that's just one thing that people sometimes find interesting, but I think you covered everything else.

Larry (29:42):

Well, is there a way to determine how to match a person with a dog?

Angie Johnson (29:52):

Oh, you mean like at a shelter? Like if they're able to figure out who to put?

Larry (29:57):


Angie Johnson (29:59):

I think a big one is energy level. Some dogs just need to get energy out more than other dogs. And so I think that's a big one of if a dog's really high energy to be able to be some place where they're able to get a lot of walks or go to the dog park or have a yard to run in or another dog to play with at home. I think that's a really big one is the energy level.

Larry (30:28):

Angie, thank you so much for being on specifically for seniors. Would you give your canine cognition centers, email website address again?

Angie Johnson (30:43):

Yes. It's sites.bc.edu/dog lab.

Larry (30:50):

Thank you. Good luck with your research.

Angie Johnson (30:53):


Larry (30:53):

You. It's been great meeting you. It's been a fun

Angie Johnson (30:56):

Time. It's great meeting you too.

Larry (30:57):

Thanks so much.

Angie Johnson (30:59):

Thank you.

Announcer (31:05):

If you found this podcast interesting, fun or helpful, tell your friends and family and click on the follow or subscribe button. We'll let you know when new episodes are available. You've been listening to specifically for seniors. We'll talk more next time. Stay connected.

Angie Johnson, PhDProfile Photo

Angie Johnson, PhD

Angie Johnston is an assistant professor at Boston College where she directs the Canine Cognition Center and Social Learning Laboratory. She received her Ph.D. in Psychology from Yale University and her B.S. in Child Development from the University of Texas at Dallas. Her research on canine cognition and child development has received numerous awards from sources such as the National Science Foundation, and her work has been featured on NBC Nightly News, the Today Show, and Scientific American. When she's not in the lab investigating how dogs and children learn about the world around them, you can find her at home getting new study ideas from her dogs, Vader, Finley, and Scout.

In her research, she investigates the evolutionary origins of human teaching and learning. In earlier work, she approached this question from a developmental perspective, examining how children evaluate the information they learn from others. In more recent work, she has investigated this question from a comparative perspective, examining which aspects of human learning are unique and which are shared across other species. In particular, she compares human learning to that of domesticated dogs, as dogs demonstrate striking similarities to humans in their capacity to learn from others.