25 Apr 2017

Adventures in Dog Research with Stanley Coren

Adventures in Dog Research with Stanley Coren
APA Fellow Stanley Coren's research on dog behavior has brought him worldwide acclaim. (Photo: SC & Ripley UBC photo)

He wrote the textbook on sensory processes, published hundreds of papers on wide-ranging neuropsychological topics—and wrote a groundbreaking book on problems associated with left-handedness.

But it was his 1994 book, The Intelligence of Dogs, which ultimately brought psychologist and APA Fellow Stanley Coren, PhD, worldwide acclaim.

The Intelligence of Dogs was the first popular book to apply multiple intelligences to dogs—including instinctive, adaptive, and working and obedience intelligence—and it blended colorful personal anecdotes with a scientist’s understanding of the dog’s natural history, evolutionary relationship to humans, and trainability.

Notably, the book included data Coren collected from North American dog obedience judges that ranked 110 breeds by intelligence. (Unsurprisingly, Border Collies topped the list, while beautiful, but pea-brained, Afghan Hounds rounded out the bottom.)

It also employed aspects of the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventories to begin measuring canine language comprehension, an innovative adaptation of human psychological testing.

Speaking from his home in British Columbia, with his Toller pup Ranger whining for attention, Coren reflects on the meandering pathways his scientific explorations have taken him on, and the new concepts of canine research his work has unleashed.

“It used to be the case that you didn’t do research on dogs . . . because they were not considered a natural species,” says Coren, adding: “After my book came out, people began to see . . . what a wonderful genetics lab dogs could be because the breeds have been kept so pure that you actually can have genetically determined behavior differences.

“And then the later books that suggested that dogs have a mind of roughly a human equivalent of a 2- to-3-year-old began to impel people to think that maybe dogs are an important species to study.”

The dog book wasn’t his first brush with renown. Just a year earlier, Coren had published a bestseller on left-handedness, The Left-Hander Syndrome, which included nearly a decade of work on handedness.

His research indicated that left-handedness might be associated with birth stress and could cause some psychological and health problems—a highly controversial assertion that spurred new research in the field. Eventually, it also led to design changes in machinery to reduce hazards for left-handers, an accomplishment for which Coren enjoys obvious pride.

The book shot to the top of the bestseller list and landed Coren a spot on talk show couches from Oprah to Larry King to Charlie Rose. “I had been teaching monster-sized classes, hundreds of kids. That’s basically show biz, so I had lots of practice,” quips Coren.

What the two books shared was a deft, natural writing style that blended extensive scientific research with colorful personal anecdotes, examples from history, mythology, physiology and, in the case of handedness, advocacy. “All of my [popular] books are written as though I’m sitting across the table telling a story to my Aunt Sylvia,” he says, laughing. “She had a short attention span.”

Coren says he always knew he wanted to study the human-canine bond even as an undergrad in the 1960s, but in those days there was no precedent for “studying the critter at either end of the leash.”

“Anybody who claimed they wanted to study the human-animal bond at that time was looked at as if they had just gotten out of a flying saucer with a beanie [and] propeller on top,” says Coren. “There was no way for funding for that sort of thing.”

And so Coren pursued research in sensory processing, publishing his first paper in Science before earning a doctorate in psychology from Stanford. He established a prolific research career, publishing on wide-ranging topics that included vision and hearing, perception, laterality, birth stress, sleep, handedness, behavior genetics and cognitive processing.

“I always believed that a good scientist had to follow his interests and the questions which intrigued him,” notes Coren, who has amassed roughly 300 publications in publications including The New England Journal of Medicine, Nature, and American Journal of Public Health.

His body of neuropsychological work earned him the title of Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the highest honor bestowed on a scientist. But even then, Coren was dogged by his “other” life.

“At the induction ceremony the governor general—who is the queen’s representative in Canada—shook my hand,” recalls Coren. “And all she wanted to do was talk about her Golden Retrievers. But, they’re the fourth smartest dogs in all of dogdom and they’re kissy-faced . . . so it’s an irresistible package.”

Coren has heard tales by besotted dog owners from movie stars to presidents. George Bush, Sr., once told Coren that First Dog Millie, his famed Springer Spaniel, routinely took showers with him at the White House.

“For a psychologist like me it was absolute proof of just how strong our bonds can be with our dogs . . .  that we would talk about these intimate moments with people we don’t know all that well when they involve our dog,” Coren chuckles.

Naturally, Coren has been a lifelong dog owner and longtime competitive dog obedience trainer—several of his dogs have won obedience titles. His books are filled with stories of pups he has loved and trained, and he even devoted an entire book to a clever Cairn Terrier, Flint, who could perform counting tasks and operate an answering machine.

Probably not surprising in the often siloed world of science, Coren’s success as a scientist-communicator would eventually undercut his work as a researcher.

“When I published The Intelligence of Dogs I was told by my colleagues it would be the end of my career,” says Coren, who nonetheless balanced his popular writing with neuropsychological research, until funding dried up in 2001. Undaunted, he continued research with his own funds before retiring from academics in 2007.

Coren has made peace with the price of success. He harnessed his own devotion to dogs to publish more than a dozen books on the subject. He writes a regular column on dogs for Psychology Today, and is a frequent contributor to the Canadian TV show “Pet Central.”

Coren says he’s excited about the explosion of dog research taking place internationally since his first book was published and the growing understanding of capabilities of service and therapy dogs. “In 1972, I remember there were 16 assisted-animal programs in all of America. In the year 2000, when I stopped monitoring, there were well over 1,000.”

All of Coren’s dogs are certified therapy dogs, he says, and he also trains them for competition-level obedience trials, whether they compete or not. But even in his household, dogs will be dogs. He confesses: “When my wife is not around they sometimes sneak on the sofa.”

At this Coren lets out a roaring laugh, which Ranger answers with an urgent whimper. “Okay puppy,” he says. “Okay. Time to go out.”

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