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Lab reports or labradors? New collaboration brings puppies to Duke for stress relief, research

To say the least, Duke students easily get stressed. But the Duke Canine Cognition Center thinks it has a solution—puppies.

Beginning next semester, the Canine Cognition Center is teaming up with Canine Companions for Independence—a service-dog training group—to bring puppies to campus. At first, the puppies will be available upon request for groups, but eventually, the center will open walk-in visiting hours for students to play with the Labrador and Labrador-golden retriever mix puppies. 

“We want to spread joy,” said Brian Hare, co-director and founder of the Canine Cognition Center. “A lot of people on campus might enjoy interacting with these puppies as a break from whatever they’re working on.”

The puppies will be living at the Biological Sciences building on campus, with student volunteers and staff taking care of them and playing with them during the day. But they won’t just be there for stress relief—they’re part of ongoing research for the Canine Cognition Center and are being trained to become service dogs down the road. 

“The idea is to have puppies on campus, and we’re going to take care of them and do some research on how dogs develop,” Hare said. “But in the meantime, we’ve got take them all over campus and have them socialize and learn about the world.”

Canine Companions for Independence is a non-profit that has partnered with the center since 2009 and provides service dogs to those in need for free. The dogs on Duke’s campus will be trained to help those with physical and mental impairments as therapy and facility dogs, Hare said. He added that some will even be trained as hearing dogs, which can alert their hearing-impaired owner if the doorbell rings or the fire alarm sounds.

“It’s everything from a dog sitting with a kid while they’re reading, to help somebody with a really serious physical disability,” Hare said. “It’s a range of skills these dogs learn.”

As for the dogs themselves, they have been bred for generations for the purpose of helping people, which makes them much more successful in being trained to help those with disabilities compared to other breeds. 

“While they look like Labradors and look like they might have some golden retriever in them, behaviorally and psychologically, they’re their own breed of dog,” Hare said.

Traditionally, CCI researchers had travelled to Orlando and Santa Rosa, Calif., to perform research on dogs and their development. But now they’ll have dogs right in their own backyard to work with, an exciting new research opportunity for the center. 

For the past few years, the Canine Cognition Center has worked on building a method to predict which dogs will be suited for which service job since not all of them make it through the training, Hare noted.

Identifying the traits that qualify dogs for specific jobs would help increase the supply of service dogs CCI could provide by allowing for more targeted training earlier in the process. 

Another intended topic of research is determining why dogs bring so much joy to humans, in addition to examining dog developmental psychology—a topic that has received relatively little attention. Hare explained that there are lots of studies about child development and specific teaching or rearing techniques for children, but very little research on the equivalent for dogs. 

“Dogs have become such an important part of people’s family life and have more jobs than ever,” Hare said. “We want to study how dog psychology develops and how different rearing techniques might affect their growth so we can do a better job with dog rearing.”

Ben Leonard profile
Ben Leonard

Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor 

A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks. 


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