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In New Audiobook, IWU Psychology Professor Helps Dog Owners Understand Their Furry Friends

Dog owners who often wonder what's going on in the minds of their furry friends can now find some answers.

Illinois Wesleyan Psychology Professor Ellen Furlong has a new audiobook available on Amazon’s online audiobook platform Audible called, "Decoding Dogs: Inside the Canine Mind". Furlong recorded the audiobook at The Great Courses headquarters in Virginia. 

Furlong, a dog psychologist, works in IWU's dog scientist research lab where she and students study hundreds of pets of local dog owners. She walks the listener through the thoughts and behaviors of dogs based on her own research and the findings on dog behavior over the last two decades.

Furlong had so many questions about her own dogs, Coco and Sassy from her childhood. 

Credit Ellen Furlong
Furlong and a student conducting research in IWU's dog scientist research lab.

 “Coco, the terrier mix, was really stubborn. When she wanted to learn something, she was excited about it, and she learned it really fast. But if she didn't want to learn something or if there was something she didn't want to do, she would be so stubborn about it and just refused to learn. But Sassy, our cocker spaniel, just lived to please me, she just wanted to do whatever I asked her to do and learn anything. She didn't care about the food or anything, it was really about pleasing me. And so those two dogs had very different motivations. And so that got me really interested in what kinds of things motivate dogs? Why are these different? And what are they thinking in their little heads? What do they think about me?”

Furlong decided to embark on a journey to find the answers to her burning questions.

Often, humans try to decipher the emotions of dogs by looking for indicators such as wagging tails or panting. Furlong said because the study of dog cognition is pretty young, there’s limited research for pinpointing dog emotions. However, dog psychologists have learned that close human contact releases a cuddle hormone in dogs called oxytocin that helps them feel warm and fuzzy. 

“When they smell that smell that's associated with their owner, their reward system in their brain goes crazy,” Furlong said. “So that's sort of the closest we can get to very clearly measuring emotion.”

In the audiobook, Furlong talks about comparing the behaviors and intelligence between humans and dogs. She said she's often asked, "How smart are dogs?"Furlong said the comparison is problematic and comparing the two is like comparing apples to oranges. 

“The kind of world that a dog lives into the kind of world that human lives in are two very different things,” Furlong said. “For example, some problems that dogs need to encounter, they live in this world of smells, right. And that's a very different world than the world that we live in. So if we were, to say, compare ourselves to dogs on a smelling task, we would be, we would look totally ridiculous and incapable of doing anything because they are so much better than us. But if we were to compare dogs to us on say, a language task, they would look utterly ridiculous, like they can't do anything.”

Instead, Furlong said the behaviors dog exhibit can say a lot about human behavior because of actions dogs have picked up, over time, from human relationships.

“We know that social cues are really important for humans navigating social relationships," she said. "And dogs have been bred now over many thousands of years, to pick up on such social cues that humans give off. So a lot of times, looking at what the dogs are doing and how the dogs are thinking, and what kinds of probably bred dogs to solve, can tell us more about our own selves in some interesting ways.”

Credit Ellen Furlong
A dog participates in a study conducted in IWU's dog scientist research lab.

 For dogs, it’s all about the smell. They use their keen sense of smell to navigate their environment which is beneficial for their mental health. It can even diagnose an illness. For example, dogs are being used in research studies to sniff out COVID-19 patients. Furlong said dog’s sense of smell is arguably more accurate than other tests on the market

“Dogs have incredible noses. And I know that a lot of people know that dogs are good at smelling things, but I don't think people really understand just how good they are,” Furlong said. “So their noses are something like 10 to 100,000 times more sensitive than ours are. So just to put this in perspective, they can sniff out one pair of clean socks and a pile of two million dirty socks. One of the first times that people discovered that dogs are good at diagnosing people with an illness was when a dog kept sniffing his owner's leg in this one spot where she had a mold. And she finally went in to the doctor and the doctor said she had melanoma. And so her dog had been telling her for like months that she had a melanoma on her leg. And so researchers at that point really became interested in this and now they've discovered that dogs can even smell mouth melanoma on a band-aid that somebody was wearing.”

Furlong encourages owners to take their dogs on “sniffy walks” to let their dogs sniff out their environment to help them feel happier.

 Some of the techniques Furlong uses in her lab to research cognition and behavior includes a puppet show, playing with toys, and even employing a touchscreen computer. Furlong said while some studies are successful, others can be both chaotic and amusing. 

“With the tennis ball study, for example, we had a dog who got loose from the student who was sitting with him, and he charged the stage and grabs those tennis balls and ran around the room with these tennis balls. It was chaos, we were trying to catch balls from him. But it's always fun, they always do something unexpected,every day is an adventure with working with animals.” 

Because of the pandemic, Furlong said in-person research projects have been on hold, but researchers are starting a project on virtual dog science, where they make videos of how to do some research at home with dogs. Owners can sign up and follow the instructions sent to them and take a video of their dog and send in a video to participate in dog research.

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Darnysha Mitchell is an Illinois State University student and reporting and social media intern at WGLT.
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