The Duke Puppy Kindergarten will welcome two puppies in 2018, with more litters to follow in future semesters. Their mission? To spread science and joy.
Above: Assistance dogs in training. Photo courtesy of Canine Companions for Independence.
Editor’s note: Author Elizabeth Anne Brown has worked as a research assistant and “puppy handler” in the Hare Laboratory for the past two years.
Dr. Brian Hare, a Duke professor with shoulder-length hair and a booming laugh, looks more like someone’s cool uncle than an internationally renowned scientist. He rolled into his lab a little late for our Wednesday morning interview, sporting cinch-up sneakers and a Batman belt his daughter gave him.
He’s about to become the most popular man on campus.
In January 2018, Hare and his team will open the Duke Puppy Kindergarten, a research facility on campus that will double as a full-time residence for puppies. Hare isn’t just expecting undergrads to be excited by the prospect — he’s relying on it.
A wunderkind of the animal cognition world, Hare founded the wildly popular citizen science program Dognition soon after his arrival at Duke. (Dognition is an online platform that’s part puppy IQ test, part personality quiz and funnels data into Hare’s lab — read about it here.)
The future Puppy Kindergarten, set to open in January 2018, will provide Hare and his team of undergraduates the opportunity to track puppies through their early development, helping scientists explore the psychology of dogs going through “adolescence.”
Currently, the lab’s flagship project revolves around puppies — more specifically, understanding “how we better predict which dog is going to be best for what job,” Hare said. Bomb sniffers, drug sniffers, guide dogs, and military multipurpose dogs all require a tremendous investment of time, energy, and money. It’s vital to know as early as possible which puppies are ideal candidates for training and which would be better suited for life as family dogs.
Hare needs access to puppies — and lots of them. He found his puppy connection in Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit organization that breeds, rears, and trains assistance dogs at no cost for recipients. To date, Hare and his team have tested nearly 175 puppies destined to be assistance dogs.
It will certainly be more convenient to test puppies on campus instead of commuting to Canine Companions’ Puppy Development Center in Chapel Hill. But Hare confessed that with the new Puppy Kindergarten, science is secondary to joy.
“We could probably do most of the developmental work at [the Canine Companions nursery] in California,” he said. “But honestly the real impetus for all this and the real reason I wanted to do this is that I think it’s going to make people really happy.”
Hare says he’s encountered nothing but open doors since proposing the idea to Duke a year ago. The administration, student psychological services, and faculty all agree that beyond the opportunities for research, giving undergrads access to puppy love will be a boon to mental health. The Animal Welfare Office enthusiastically threw their weight behind the project, Hare said. “They had to be creative, they had to spend their spare time working with us,” he emphasized, to get the project on its feet.
Hare showed me the slick architectural mock-ups for the Puppy Kindergarten like a proud papa fans out wallet pictures of a newborn — an area for daytime romping, an outdoor puppy playground, even a USDA-compliant sleeping room.
Though Duke will be footing the bill for the new infrastructure, Hare says the success of the program rides on the involvement of undergrads. Since his lab doesn’t have the staff to provide 24-hour care to the Puppy Kindergarten’s freshman class of puppies next spring, “this thing flies or dies if people sign up to volunteer,” admitted Hare.
Hare held his breath when they sounded the call for help on Monday. He needn’t have worried — 48 hours later, just under 500 undergrads had signed on to help with “husbandry, socialization, puppy sitting, or training.”
Hare envisions the Duke Puppy Kindergarten as a space for students to cram for tomorrow’s midterm and steal a few puppy-breath kisses from some of the residents. Volunteers will sign up to take puppies on outings to different areas of campus and into Durham at large, one outing in the morning and another in the afternoon — with a nap in the middle.
Next year’s inaugural class of pups will be a pair of littermates from Canine Companions for Independence — Golden retriever-Labrador crosses famous for their smarts, health, and good temperaments.
The puppies will arrive at about eight weeks old and live at the Kindergarten until they age out at about five months. At that point, they’ll be paired with a “Puppy Raiser,” the term for a dog’s keeper between doggy infancy and their formal training, from Canine Companions for Independence. It’s then the pups learn the basics of being an assistance dog for someone with disabilities — socialization, manners, and a handful of basic commands are the first steps.
Who can apply to be a Puppy Raiser? Private North Carolinians, members of the acclaimed Prison Puppy Raising Program, or even Duke undergrads — Canine Companions for Independence puppies were recently cleared to live on West Campus dorms.
Duke sophomore Priya Nakkiran, a volunteer in Hare’s lab who also happens to be co-raising a Canine Companion puppy named Winston, is thrilled her classmates will get to interact with “science pups” the way she has.
“Co-raising Winston has been the best form of therapy I’ve found at Duke,” Nakkiran said. “You’re suddenly responsible for a life besides your own, and I think that can remind you to keep all your personal troubles in perspective.”