Brian Hare is a progressive scientist. An associate professor of evolutionary anthropology, Hare leads the Hominoid Psychology Research Group and directs the Duke Canine Cognition Center. In his spare time, he is also a vocal advocate of the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Bill, which calls for ending chimpanzee research in laboratories. This commitment led him to speak at an Institute of Medicine hearing on behalf of the bill last year, which passed a Senate committee in July and is currently under review in both chambers of Congress.
Though canines are the Hare lab’s main research subjects, the group is interested in understanding the human evolutionary process. Using canines and primates as comparative research subjects, the lab seeks to determine what distinguishes human nature and cognition from that of other species.
“What makes us unique and special?” Hare said. “That’s really where studying bonobos and chimpanzees is really important, because when we find we’re different from them, we can infer that it’s something that’s evolved in our own lineage.”
Next, the lab studies how one species has an effect on the other’s evolution.
Canine Cognition Center
Founded in 2009, the Canine Cognition Center studies dog psychology and the effects of domestication on cognition. The center tries to understand individual differences among different types of dogs, including explosive detection dogs in the military and service dogs. Most of the dogs used in the laboratory are pets, whose owners volunteer to participate in various trials.
Why dogs? Hare chose to focus on domestic dogs in his lab because the animals have coevolved with humans for at least 15,000 years, meaning that each species has affected the other’s evolution.
“Dogs have been a really powerful tool for us to understand how social skill evolved,” Hare said. “[They are] really important economically. Dogs have a lot of jobs in our society, so what we’ve learned is applicable to real world problems.”
For experiments involving pet dogs, the center has a database of more than 1,000 dog owners in the area who bring their dogs in to play games—which members of the lab describe as “fun.” Hare noted that the experimental structure of the research he runs is similar to child psychology studies. The center’s extensive database allows the lab to test different dogs depending on their specific research objectives—for instance, studies comparing certain dog breeds or sex differences. For each experiment, the lab invites 30 to 50 dogs and their owners to be tested for several months. Each test takes one hour. The dogs receive a treat, a toy and a diploma for their participation.
“If you were to come into the lab it would basically look like we’re just giving a dog a lot of treats and playing with them,” said research associate Emily Bray, Trinity ’12. In fact, some experiments conducted at the lab involve popular games like “fetch.”
So far, researchers at the lab have discovered that results vary significantly among different dogs. Analyzing these differences will allow them to better predict which dogs are more suited for certain capacities, such as serving as a guide dog.
This line of research is important because comparative psychologists have not studied individual differences within a species to a large extent, said Evan Maclean, a senior research scientist who has worked at the Hare lab as a part of his doctoral degree.
“We’re usually so busy trying to understand the nature of the species—like what is a human mind like, what is a dog mind like?” Maclean said. “We have a lot of information about that so we can really start to ask interesting questions about individual differences.”
Studying service dogs presents the researchers with a unique population for comparison. Eventually, the lab will compare service dogs to pet dogs, but for now their focus remains on applying their findings about cognition to screening dogs for service programs. The skillset necessary for a service dog differs somewhat from that of a pet dog. A dog whose job is to help somebody move around in the environment needs navigational skills and an increased understanding of the spatial world, Maclean said. On the other hand, dogs who are just emotional companions must have better social skills and be tuned into other individuals.
“The whole point is to try to understand what skills these dogs need in order to be successful [in service training programs],” said Korrina Duffy, former lab manager and first year graduate student in cognitive neuroscience. “[Our goal is] ultimately to be able to predict early on which dog will be successful and basically try to reduce the attrition rate and narrow that gap—ultimately leading to more people having access to service dogs.”
The center collaborates with Canine Companions for Independence, a non-profit that provides trained assistance dogs for children and adults with disabilities—for free. The Hare lab, which has worked at the organization’s location in San Jose, Calif. for the past two years, does not help with training the dogs and instead uses cognitive tests to correlate success in the program with specific skill sets and temperament, Duffy said.
For almost 50 years, service dog organizations have been genetically selecting dogs—who are mostly labradors, golden retrievers or some combination of the two—to have puppies who will more likely be successful in training. A dog from one of these breeding programs has around a 40 to 50 percent chance of success. On the other hand, a similar dog from outside of the breeding program would only have a 10 to 15 percent chance of success. By developing a way to screen dogs at an early age, the lab hopes to increase the efficiency of these programs.
Like most canine studies at the Hare lab, the research with service dogs is still in its early stages and has yet to generate conclusive results. Last year, the lab finalized the cognitive assessment and this summer it conducted its first round of data collection.
Hare studies pet dogs because they offer better cognition data than dogs kept in cages.
“I want to see animals at their best, at their smartest and there’s no dog on this planet that’s going to be more cognitively sophisticated than the one that is raised as a human pet,” Hare said. “I don’t really want to be studying dogs living in cages if I want to see dogs being cognitively sophisticated.”
Hare’s philosophy differs from traditional research methods. Animal cognition researchers working with primates often use a few caged monkeys that a lab supports for 30 or 40 years. Hare noted that rather than working with a small number of primates, he has access to a database of 1,000 dogs that he can study. Pet dogs are more relevant to his research because they use their cognition to solve problems involving people every day.
“I’m not against biomedical testing of animals, but in our area it doesn’t make any sense to have animals in cages,” Hare said. “When I have 1,000 dogs, then I can look at all sorts of variables that I normally can’t look at. My sample size is bigger, I can look at things in more detail and I can do more powerful science.”
Keeping Chimps out of Labs
Hare’s emphasis on researching dogs who don’t live in cages extends to his research on great apes. He says working with apes in sanctuaries also produces better results.
Hare has been an advocate for the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act, a bill that is currently under review in Congress. Last year, he spoke at an Institute of Medicine meeting regarding current areas of biomedical research where chimpanzees are still relevant—which he says are few and far between.
Chimpanzees are expensive to maintain, and with laboratory research on them steadily decreasing, a large cohort of scientists who study chimps in sanctuaries, zoos or the wild—as well as some who have studied chimps in a lab setting—believe the research setting will soon be obsolete.
Much of Hare’s motivation to end laboratory work on chimpanzees stems from his undergraduate years at Emory University. Hare worked in Yerkes Regional Primate Center—a laboratory that he says needs to close.
“When I was an undergraduate, I was told that the work with chimpanzees… was actually crucial to saving humans,” he said. “At that point I agreed that it should continue because I could recognize the importance. Now I come to find out that the scientists who were saying that were exaggerating and were really wasting a lot of money, so I’m embarrassed, and I’m really angry.”
The United States is currently the only nation that continues to keep a laboratory colony of chimpanzees, Hare noted. Unlike those labs in the country that use caged chimps, Hare founded the Hominoid Psychology Research Group in 2004. The group of Duke researchers studies apes in sanctuaries and zoos, and lemurs at the Duke Lemur Center.
“Chimpanzees are not useful,” he said. “People can make an argument about their psychology and how sophisticated they are. People can make an argument that they’re endangered, and they don’t deserve it, but I don’t even think you need to do that in this case.”
Even if Hare’s work to eliminate the use of caged apes doesn’t amount to legislation, Hare is hopeful that the practice will phase out. In fact, he said many of the researchers who continue to use chimpanzees are nearing retirement. When they began their careers, using chimps in a lab was acceptable. But now, those scientists are clinging to an obsolete resource.
“We think you could do much better research in other ways,” he said. “Most scientists like myself who want to study apes have realized that you don’t do that in the laboratory if you want to have good results.”