Puppy Kindergarten Class. Photo by Jared Lazarus

In a season dominated by uncertainties, Duke University welcomed five of the cutest puppies who will spend their lives in service to others this week.

As Duke University puppy research reporter Gregory Phillips so aptly put it in a report in Duke Today, the lab pups, named Fearless, Dunn, Ethel, Gilda, and Gloria, “sat, and stood, and lay down for their class portrait Wednesday.”

Call it puppy Kindergarten: the pooches are participants in a long-term study conducted by the Duke Canine Cognition Center where researchers will study the cognitive development of potential service dogs. 

According to the school’s website, the Duke Canine Cognition Center focuses on the study of dog cognition. The center, founded in 2009, is the first of its kind in the United States. 

The Center officials say its goal is to understand “the flexibility and limitations of dog cognition and how it compares to other animals, including our closest living relatives, the great apes.”

Researchers say their work will aid in the understanding of how human minds evolve while noting that, over the past 10 years their research has fostered discoveries in how “dog and human minds converge in astounding ways. 

“Understanding the dog mind will help us support dogs in their many jobs in society, from being a part of the family, to bomb detection, to assisting people with disabilities,” officials state on the website.

According to a story in Duke Today, the five puppies arrived on Duke’s campus from Canine Companions, a California-based agency that has been providing service dogs free of charge to people with disabilities since 1975. 

The pups, before taking a group and individual photos, were outfitted in yellow service dog vests with the words, “Future Service Dog” emblazoned in blue across the back of the garments.

Veteran Duke photographer Jared Lazurus was on hand to snap the doggies’ photos. He compared the task at hand to his previous work taking photos of members who worked in different departments with the Duke School of Medicine. Phillips, the puppy reporter, narrated a play-by-play of the photo shoot that was live-streamed on social media.

“That was great practice for this because the doctors would get really restless and squirmy after three or four frames and it taught me to work really fast,” explained Lazarus, who has been taking photos on the Duke campus for 27 years.

Still, the pups in-training present their own unique challenges during picture-taking time.

“One of them peed in my camera bag the last time,” Lazarus told Duke Today.

Vanessa Woods, a research scientist who directs the puppy research program, told Duke Today that there’s not a whole lot of research on how to raise a puppy to serve as a service for people who need help with mobility, hearing and other challenges.

“We take a puppy at 10 weeks old, run them through a series of service games and see which puppy is suited for which job,” Woods said.

Woods said part of the training relies on research with human children.

“We know with children that if they get exposed to a lot of different people early on that they become more tolerant, and in some cases more cooperative,” Woods said. “So we want to expose the puppies to all the love on Duke’s campus, with lots of different puppy-raisers, to see if that makes a difference in their success.”

Duke Today reports that “dozens” of trained student volunteers will help care for the puppies while the animals participate in the canine care curriculum at Duke.

The student volunteers positioned the puppies on a white canvas in front of the camera.

“Okay, we’re ready,” Phillips intoned with a confident sensibility that calls to mind a Costco version of Sir David Attenborough, the British naturalist.

Alas, the pups scattered in different directions, following the volunteers they have already grown attached to. Gloria chewed on a mat behind Lazarus, while Gilda went to the far end of the studio before a volunteer scooped her out and carried her back to the well-lit photo set.

“One of our expert undergraduates distracts [Gloria] with a treat,” Phillips says, à la  Attenborough on Netflix describing the courtship rituals displayed by a bird of paradise.

Phillips further explains that “one of the things that makes this a limited window of opportunity to get a photo of the puppies is that they tend to start napping, and when it happens it is a fascinating thing to see.”

The puppies never actually settle down for their class picture, but Lazarus manages to get a group shot of Duke’s newest students.

The live-streamed video also prompted questions from its virtual audience.

“How many puppies do I get to keep when this is done?” one viewer asked.

“Unfortunately none,” Phillips answered. “But I’m just grateful for the opportunity to snuggle them while they’re here.”

Watch the video below:

Puppy Kindergarten Photoshoot Recap from Duke University on Vimeo.

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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.