I get paid to play with dogs and figure out how they communicate. Here are the qualifications I needed and the challenges of working in a niche field.

I get paid to play with dogs and figure out how they communicate. Here are the qualifications I needed and the challenges of working in a niche field.
Juliane Bräuer and her dog, Nana, who helps pilot experiments.Juliane Bräuer
  • Juliane Bräuer is a researcher of comparative psychology. She studies how dogs communicate.
  • Her job entails playing with dogs to test experiments and working closely with her own pup, Nana.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Juliane Bräuer, the head of DogStudies at the Max Planck Institute in Jena, Germany, about studying dogs for a living. It has been edited for length and clarity.

I have worked with apes, wolves, wild boars, and also a bit with children. Now I work with dogs, and I spend a lot of my working hours watching dogs play and recording their behavior.

I am an academic researcher in comparative psychology researching the general question: What are the similarities and differences between humans and other species? I try and answer this question by studying how dogs communicate with humans.

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It's been proven that dogs understand human communication and cues better than most other animals, including monkeys and apes

I currently run the DogStudies Lab, which I founded in 2016, at the Jena Max Planck Institute in Jena, Germany.

Max Planck Institutes are scientific research centers that work alongside universities to support scientists pursuing niche or nontraditional research areas. There are around 80 institutes, mainly in Germany.


I started working with dogs in 2000, just after joining the institute, carrying out research with my colleague Juliane Kaminiski. Our first paper about the comparative psychology of dogs came out in 2001.

My job is to develop experiments to test ideas about how dogs communicate with humans and with other dogs.

First, you have to come up with an idea you'd like to explore; then you create the experiment.

I spend a lot of time reading papers, working out the theory, and then designing the experiment to pilot. The process usually takes between three and four months.

We have to send a proposal to the Max Planck Institute or the university — our lab is connected to the University of Jena. I applied for this approval before I started the tests.


When I start an experiment, I invite dog owners to the institute. Once a month, I go to the lab for around four days to conduct experiments. Students test the experiment and I supervise them.

My Border collie, Nana, is our pilot dog, and she does any experiment I am working on for the first time. When she learns a trick or game for an experiment in 20 minutes, I know it will take a normal dog two hours.

The experiments are enjoyable games for the dogs. If a dog seems distressed, we will not test them.

I watch closely during the most exciting part of the experiment — the first three dogs you test. During these initial tests, you see if the dogs are doing what you wanted them to do and get an impression of whether your experiment will work.

When you have to test 50 dogs, watching the 45th dog do the test is less interesting.

We record all the the tests. The next step is to watch the recordings, which takes a long time. Then we have to code the behavior, do the statistics, and then write the paper.


The time it takes from beginning to end is varied and depends on the size of the project, how long it takes to write up, and other factors.

We recruit the dogs for our experiments from local pet owners. When we relocated to Jena in 2015, we had an article written in the local newspaper asking dog owners if they wanted to fill out a questionnaire and participate in our experiments.

We also posted flyers in vets' offices and made a Facebook page. Now we have a database of around 300 dogs and owners we can reach out to.

The dog owners get a little gift if they volunteer a certain number of times: a dog toy or some food, but I don't have the money to pay them.

The most significant drawback of doing this job is the insecurity. You are constantly applying for funding and never know when you will receive your next contract.


It's very difficult to get funding because 'dog studies' isn't well-known and the process is drawn out

I have written about 40 proposals and only gotten three funded. It takes me four months to come up with the idea and write it up for funding, and it takes the German Research Foundation, which hands out the money, between six to nine months to make a decision.

I most recently got funding in 2020 for a project I started working on in early 2017. At the moment, I'm very happy because I got funding for the next three years.

Loving dogs is not enough to be able to do this job. You have to love the science, also. I am not around dogs 24/7. I spend the majority of my time researching, writing proposals, and designing experiments.