Canine Cognition

Kia Radovanovic studies the effects of experimenter familiarity on inequity aversion in dogs

Kia Radovanovic, who grew up spending time on her family’s farm in Serbia, has been asking questions about animal cognition all her life, and she shaped her Wooster experience to match that interest. “I love finding out how animals’ minds work. This is the kind of work that I’ve always wanted to do and want to keep doing in the future,” she said. Her passion for working with animals led her to work with Associate Professor Claudia Thompson on a study that “looked at whether dogs have a sense of fairness or justice.”

“It’s not often among psychology majors to have a student walk in and describe a keen interest in exactly what I do as a comparative psychologist—study animal behavior,” said Thompson. “She appreciates that people make many inaccurate assumptions that both underestimate the sentience and emotional complexities of nonhuman animals or overestimate them.” Radovanovic sees these assumptions as an ongoing challenge in animal cognition research. “It’s so easy to misinterpret animals because that’s how you’d interpret humans, but it doesn’t actually apply to them,” she said. “We have to be strict about separating what could be simple instinctive mechanisms versus higher cognitive abilities, especially when we’re comparing them to humans.”

Throughout her four years at Wooster, Radovanovic found herself becoming comfortable with all aspects of the research process. “I felt very prepared for lit reviews and was always keeping an eye out for holes in the research for something I could do,” she said. “It surprised me in the end how easy it was to find my own question that had a real basis in comparable studies.” For her study, she looked at inequity aversion in dogs—“having a negative reaction to unequal treatment.” Seeing several similar studies in her research, she focused mainly on “whether familiarity of experimenter (or having a bond with the person) is going to impact their behavior more than with a stranger.”

For her four-legged subjects, Radovanovic appealed to faculty and staff from the College community to participate in the study, and she compared how their dogs reacted to unfair treatment from her compared to unfair treatment from their owner. “One dog serves as the partner or comparison for the dog that’s being tested (the subject),” she explained. Under the condition and not the control, Radovanovic or the dogs’ owner would reward the partner dog for giving their paw but would not reward the subject dog. Throughout the testing, Radovanovic measured the dogs’ responses, “Stress was a great indicator. Some dogs keep giving paw on first command, but I can see them starting to pant, whine, or pace,” she said. “It was funny to see even if they turn away from me because I’m not rewarding them, once they hear me talking to the other dog they immediately turn around and watch the other dog being rewarded.”

Though her study supported research that dogs respond negatively to unequal rewards, with only eight participants, Radovanovic recommends a larger study to further explore the effects of their familiarity with the experimenter. “The dogs’ personalities really dictated how they responded. A much larger sample size could nullify the extreme personalities and outliers that had a strong impact on data.” With these experiences as an undergrad, Radovanovic plans to continue her work in animal cognition research as she determines a focus for a doctoral program.