Meet Dr. Emily Bray, Canine Cognition Expert and Puppy Wrangler!

March 28, 2022 - 5 minutes read

Our Canine Cognition series explores the many ways in which our scientists are studying how dogs think and experience their worlds. Follow this series to learn more about the work being done by an incredibly diverse team of experts at the Dog Aging Project.

Read all articles in the Canine Cognition series here.

As part of the blog post series exploring Dog Aging Project cognitive research, we had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Emily Bray, a postdoctoral research associate at the Arizona Canine Cognition Center (in the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona) and Canine Companions, where she studies how early developmental, behavioral, and cognitive factors impact later life outcomes. We hope you enjoy the following excerpts from our conversation!


First, congratulations! I understand you won the 2022 Outstanding Postdoctoral Scholar Award at the University of Arizona.

Yes, I was really pleased and honored! I particularly loved one part of the write-up about the award, which said, “She has performed as the lead principal investigator in externally funded longitudinal studies that few early career researchers have the patience or long-term vision to attempt.” Patience is definitely the key word when you are working with puppies!

You have a really interesting professional background! How did you get involved in the Dog Aging Project?

As a research psychologist, I’ve been studying cognition in dogs, especially service and guide dogs, for over ten years. Up until now, I’ve really focused on understanding early life experiences: How do your earliest interactions affect the rest of your life? Why is impulse control so difficult in some contexts but not others? What are the characteristics of a successful working dog, and how soon can we tell?

In the Dog Aging Project, I saw the opportunity to expand the scope of my research and investigate the other end of a dog’s life: How stable are patterns of cognition over time? When and why does cognition start to decline? Can we protect dogs against cognitive decline? And of course, how do environment and genetics affect these processes?

What is your role on the project?

I’m responsible for helping to create cognitive measures for the Dog Aging Project that will be employed to investigate cognitive and physical biomarkers associated with Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, a disorder that is similar to Alzheimer’s disease in humans.

What excites you the most about working on the Dog Aging Project?

It’s a fantastic opportunity to be part of a rich, interdisciplinary team. I’m a psychologist who gets to work with geneticists, geroscientists, molecular biologists, biostatisticians, research veterinarians and so many other smart people. One aspect of our work will involve combining the cognitive data that my team collects with fecal microbiome data collected by our colleagues at Tel Aviv University. The prospects for exciting discoveries are vast!

You’ve worked on so many different and interesting projects. Is there a through line that connects it all together?

It’s true! I’ve studied everything from what makes a great guide dog to the role of maternal care in canine cognition. In some of these projects, I’m the one guiding puppies through their paces; in other cases, we’re relying on community scientists like our Pack members to collect data.

While these avenues of research might all seem very different, they are connected. My research is directed toward a unified goal. I want to understand the entire cognitive pathway from squirmy puppy to mellow old dog. The whole trajectory of life matters!

Learn more about Dr. Bray’s work here, and if you want to dig into the science, she suggests the papers below!

Bray, E.E., Gnanadesikan, G.E., Horschler, D.J., Levy, K. M., Kennedy, B.S., Famula, T.R., & MacLean, E.L. (2021). Early-emerging and highly heritable sensitivity to human communication in dogs (PDF). Current Biology, 31(14), 3132- 3136. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.04.055.

Bray, E.E., Sammel, M.D., Cheney, D.L, Serpell, J.A., and Seyfarth, R.M. (2017). Effects of maternal investment, temperament, and cognition on guide dog success (PDF). Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114(34), 9128-9133. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1704303114.