Date July 28, 2021
Media Contact

Sarah Zylberfuden: Making connections in canine cognition

With dogs important contributors in everything from rescue operations to assisting people with disabilities, the rising senior is spending her summer in a Brown laboratory researching the reasoning abilities of man’s best friend.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — What is my dog even looking at? Why are they barking? Can they tell when I’m upset? And how does my dog always seem to know when I’m about to go on vacation?

At times to their dismay, most dog owners can only wonder about the answers to these questions. But Sarah Zylberfuden is spending her summer investigating them — and given the importance of dogs in everything from search-and-rescue operations to assisting individuals with disabilities, finding answers could be significant.

As a rising Brown University senior concentrating in cognitive neuroscience and literary arts, Zylberfuden is researching the learning and reasoning abilities of man’s best friend in the laboratory of Assistant Professor of Cognitive, Linguistic and Psychological Sciences Daphna Buchsbaum.

“We’re trying to look at it from a comparative perspective — how dogs are different from other animals considering how domesticated they are, and how their intelligence compares to ours,” Zylberfuden said. “Then, of course, there’s the goal of seeing how dogs can be helpful to us, like with therapy or service dogs.”

Faculty and student researchers affiliated with Buchsbaum’s laboratory at Brown investigate dogs’ learning in a variety of contexts, including their physical problem-solving abilities and understanding of social information. Scientists record dogs’ actions as they interact with people, toys and puzzles, and the choices they make to learn more about their understanding of the world.

Zylberfuden is collaborating with lab members on two current research projects.

The first study seeks to determine how dogs visually navigate a human-built world. Using an eye-tracking device installed in goggles worn by the dogs, researchers are able see both what the dogs see and what they choose to focus on. Volunteer study participants train their dogs at home to wear the goggles under supervision of the team; once the dog is comfortable wearing the goggles, they join their owner and a researcher on a walk. It’s a first step to understanding the science behind how dogs look at and move through the world around them.

The second study, conducted remotely over Zoom, investigates what factors impact dogs’ preference for food items. In a typical session, Zylberfuden helps guide participants in presenting their dogs with foods that are very familiar to them and predict what they’ll be excited about, and vice versa. In addition to studying choice between foods, other exercises, in which dogs have to paw at certain levers to receive treats, explore problem-solving.

Happy Bruno
For tens of thousands of years, dogs like Bruno have played a crucial role in humans' lives, from simple companionship to search-and-rescue operations and assisting individuals with disabilities.

Given the unique closeness of humans and dogs, studies like these play a crucial role in identifying the links between the intelligence of man and man’s best friend — which helps scientists determine what kinds of factors lead to different cognitive abilities.

“It’s important to understand different things around us, rather than just people,” Zylberfuden said. “Also, there are connections between dogs and humans — seeing which cues dogs can understand, such as pointing, or how they solve puzzles can be bridged to help us better our understanding of how infants learn the same things.”

Buchsbaum’s laboratory is a recent addition at the University. It’s a sister lab to the Canine Cognition and Computational Cognitive Development labs at the University of Toronto, where she served as an assistant professor until 2020, when she joined the faculty at Brown.

Knowing she wanted to apply for a Summer/Semester Projects for Research, Internships and Teaching (SPRINT) Award, Zylberfuden said she perused many opportunities before finding Buchsbaum’s research project. When she read its title, “How do dogs think and learn about the social and physical world around them?” Zylberfuden, a bona fide “dog person” — she has seven at home — said she knew she had to join.

Aside from the occasional training or behavior video, “I had never known much about the science behind studying what dogs do,” she said. “I thought it would be really fascinating to actually use research methods to study how dogs learn about things.”

With prior experience working in a children’s cognition lab, Zylberfuden thought the project would offer a stellar opportunity to augment her cognitive neuroscience pursuits by studying a different species.

"There are a lot more questions we can ask about dogs and humans that would be important to learn about to better our understanding of these creatures that are just walking around our homes, on the street or in shelters. It connects to how we can better understand ourselves."

Sarah Zylberfuden Class of 2022
Sarah Zylberfuden

“I’m really interested in studying the brain, mental health and mental capabilities in general, and using animal research is such an important way to discover new things about humans,” she said.

That drive to examine human cognition in a variety of contexts is bolstered by Zylberfuden’s other field of study: literary arts. In reading and writing, she said she most appreciates the vastly different worlds writers create and how they use their own unique experiences to create them. By adding foundational knowledge in cognitive neuroscience to the literary arts, Zylberfuden says she can not only explore those worlds, but understand how they come to exist.

She hopes to learn more about how the two connect in “Neuroaesthetics and Reading,” a course she’s set to take next year that focuses on what happens in the brain when someone is reading and writing.

Zylberfuden said she enjoys explaining to people beyond Brown who view her areas of concentration as strange bedfellows why the combination is so valuable. Ultimately, she said, it’s about making connections, investigating and eventually understanding how those connections can benefit two seemingly disparate things — like dogs and humans.

“There are a lot more questions we can ask about dogs and humans that would be important to learn about to better our understanding of these creatures that are just walking around our homes, on the street or in shelters,” she said. “It connects to how we can better understand ourselves.”