A black-and-white Boston terrier named Chevy, as sleek and dapper as a seal in a tuxedo, trots crisply into the soundproof testing room. His jaunty confidence will fade quickly as a team of researchers subjects him to a series of psychological experiments that will daunt, dismay, and ultimately baffle him. Poor Chevy is about to be gaslit for the sake of science.
This spiffy little terrier is volunteer number one on day number one of an ambitious project launched by Harvard University evolutionary neuroscientist Erin Hecht to answer basic questions about what dogs do and why they do it. She plans to collect data on the psychology and behavior of hundreds of them across all breeds over many years: how easily they make friends, how well they behave, how they feel about vacuum cleaners. Four video cameras document Chevy’s reactions to an experimenter’s precisely scripted maneuvers. From a reception room next door, the rest of Hecht’s team watches through a one-way mirror.
After some preliminary scratches and pats, Harvard undergraduate Hanna McCuistion gives Chevy a few treats, then places the next one under a glass jar. He sniffs eagerly at it, then gazes beseechingly at her, cocking his head back and forth, turning up his dials to maximum cute. A classic move, Hecht explains: Faced with a difficult situation, a dog quickly turns to a human for help. After 20 seconds, McCuistion lifts the jar for him, and he gobbles up the snack.
A few more simple tests, then she ushers Chevy into a large wire cage and leaves him alone in the room. He fidgets and softly whimpers. Experimenter two, Stacy Jo, soon enters, but she turns away, facing the wall for a few long moments while Chevy stares fixedly at her back. Without making eye contact or speaking, she approaches his cage and sits precisely 1 foot in front of the door, eyes on his chest. Chevy stands stock-still, ears perked, trembling slightly. Nonscientifically speaking, this dog is completely weirded out. From the other side of the mirror, the scene is both agonizing and hilarious, like the world’s most awkward date. Heroically, Jo keeps a straight face.
The data from these tests—plus DNA samples—will ultimately give Hecht new hints about what changed in dogs after their wild leap into tameness. Biologically, they are almost all wolf; technically, they’re the subspecies Canis lupus familiaris, but they are fundamentally different from their forebears. You can hand-raise a wild animal to be tame, and that individual might be gentle and mild-mannered. But domestication is a different story. For dogs and other animals who live with us, tolerance and trust are engraved in their genes and in their brains.
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