Looking Past the Puppy Dog Eyes

Submitted on November 11, 2019

By Elizabeth Labiner

Gitanjali Gnanadesikan’s research isn’t all puppies and playtime. It is a lot of puppies, to be fair, but working with animals is very different than many people imagine. She explains:

I’ve always loved animals, but I’ve noticed that a huge number of people think that they’ll enjoy research with animals — and they do, in fact, like playing with the puppies — but the repetition of doing the same experiment over and over, sometimes hundreds of times, really gets to them. Many people don’t like doing the exact same thing every day, and so they don’t stick it out. Also, while puppies are a ton of fun, sometimes they just don’t do what you want or need from them. Animals have minds of their own, and you can’t always count on them to cooperate.

Gnanadesikan knew what she was getting into before coming to graduate school, though. After earning her undergraduate degree in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from Princeton, Gnanadesikan knew that she wanted to go to graduate school, but also felt that she needed to take some time to assess her interests and priorities. She had spent over a decade learning Chinese, so she put her language skills to use teaching English and music in rural China for a year. She had planned to stay for two years, but geopolitical events cut her time short; she used the unexpected time to turn her attention back to science and her goal of earning a doctorate.

Before she came to the University of Arizona as a student, though, she joined Dr. Evan MacLean’s lab as a member of the staff. As Lab Coordinator, Gnanadesikan not only learned what to expect regarding lab work, but also was able to reassess her specific research interests before she committed to any particular graduate program. Now, she’s pursuing a degree in bioanthropology, a field in which her study of animals contributes to the broader understanding of evolution, humanity, and civilization.

This is where the puppies come in.

Gnanadesikan’s current research in dog cognition analyzes traits in dogs, examining which are genetically linked and which are more influenced by other factors such as environment, development, and training. She is highly interested in the biological basis of behavior and cognition, a field of study in which she has the opportunity to compare characteristics and biology across both wild and domestic canines. For this research, Gnanadesikan not only studies domestic dog breeds in the lab, but wolves as well. “I spent most of the summer of 2018 at the Wildlife Science Center in Stacey, Minnesota, helping to raise wolf puppies while also collecting biological samples and doing some behavioral and cognitive testing,” she says. While she’s still working on analyzing those samples, she and her co-investigators are interested in exploring genetic and hormonal differences between dogs and wolves to explore whether biological differences relate to differences in behavior and cognition, as well as how all of these measures change over development.

The potential implications of their findings could impact how we understand everything from dog domestication to human group mentality. Their revelations can also help groups such as Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization that trains dogs to be service companions. Each dog represents a huge commitment of time and money, so knowing which breeds have the highest likelihood to successfully complete such rigorous training and become a fully-fledged service animal would mean that CCI could focus their efforts, ideally producing more service dogs and thereby aiding more of those in need.

The research that directly aids CCI is really fun, Gnanadesikan says with a smile. There are tests such as the object choice test, in which food is placed under one of two cups and the dog is allowed to choose one cup. Researchers study both independent choices and influenced choices; for example, whether a dog will choose a cup because a human points at it. “Dogs are very good at using pointing cues to make decisions, which is particularly fascinating because nonhuman primates are actually not good at using this type of information,” she notes. “Dogs seem to accept the cue as helpful in a way that even chimpanzees and bonobos don’t. Even dogs as young as eight weeks old seem to recognize that we’re engaging in a collaborative process with them.” This may indicate some cognitive similarities between dogs and humans, and in turn help biologists and anthropologists better understand both domestication of dogs and human evolution. In addition, Gnanadesikan, says, “despite the repetition of testing hundreds of dogs, one of the things that keeps it interesting and that inspires some of my research is the extreme individual variation. They have such distinct personalities and strategies for solving problems, and I'm interested in how genetics and experience combine to produce all these traits.”

As she presses forward, Gnanadesikan is most excited by the discoveries yet to be made. Questions and the unknown appeal to her:

Early on, I didn’t realize science was for me. Science is often taught to young people as what we know, presented as though we already have all the answers. It wasn’t until I got to college and started engaging with science as a study of everything we don’t know that I realized how much I love it.

Doing the work she loves both provides explanations for currently unexplained phenomena and points out ever more unknowns for which to seek answers. And if her research happens to also demand interacting with puppies, well, that’s work she’s more than happy to do.


Photo of Gnanadesikan and the wolf pup courtesy of photographer David Joles and the Minnesota Star Tribune.