The Genius of Dogs

Speaker: Dr. Brian Hare, PhD, Duke University

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Dr. Brian Hare was the Keynote Speaker at the 2013 AKC Canine Health Foundation Parent Club Conference and is the founder of the Canine Cognition Center at Duke University. Since 1999, he has pioneered research in the special genius of dogs. Out of this work comes his newly published book, “The Genius of Dogs”, and his canine cognition website, Dognition.

“Genius” is about celebrating different kinds of intelligence. “Genius” means that someone, or some creature, can be gifted with one type of cognition, while being average or below average in another. He utilizes the cognitive approach in his research in understanding mental capacity; that is, investigating skills such as navigation, social learning, memory, inhibition and control.

Dr. Hare’s background is in evolutionary anthropology ­– trying to understand the origins of humans, the biological study of humans, and the evolution of humans. If it is possible to understand what makes us human, and the path that we followed to get that way­, it is also possible to “gain a window into the minds of animals as well as the evolution of our own species.”

The dog plays an important part in our history, knowing that dogs have evolved with us over the past 15,000-40,000 years. Through the years, every human culture on every continent has included dogs. How and when did this powerful relationship begin?

Prior to 1998, the existing domestication hypothesis “dumbed dogs down – they were dependent upon us for livelihood. They didn’t have to solve problems on their own. They were not considered so intelligent.” We have found the opposite is true – dogs are remarkable because they understand our communicative gestures and spoken words. The thinking abilities and flexibility of dogs to solve problems with the information supplied to them by humans is far beyond anything that bonobos or chimpanzees are capable of doing, or even what wolves are capable of doing.

How old are dogs when they begin to interpret cues from humans? Research shows that they are young puppies between the ages of 6-9 weeks. This demonstrates that these particular social skills have a heritable component. They demonstrate the ability of the puppy to make inferences using basic human gestures like pointing and gazing, things that you do not see in other species. Dogs are able to communicate with humans in a way that other species cannot.

Tests have been developed to answer these questions: How do dogs solve problems? Do dogs imitate?  Are dogs capable of intentional deception? How do dogs navigate? Do dogs take shortcuts? Do dogs have certain ways that they see the world? Do dogs know what you can and cannot see? Do dogs understand symbols like children? Do dogs understand any causal properties of the world (i.e., gravity)?

One of Dr. Hare’s first experiments tested “communicative inference.” This experiment used his dog Oreo. He placed 2 cups on the floor about 6 feet apart and he stood in between them with the dog facing him and the cups. He placed food under one cup, and pretended to place food under the second cup. Initially, he pointed to the cup with food underneath it. Oreo went to the cup to which he gestured.  In repeated experiments, Oreo always went to the cup indicated by the hand gesture. Interestingly, the gestured cup was not necessarily the cup that had the food under it. To Oreo, the gesture from his owner was a more powerful signal than where the food was located. Subsequent experiments using visual gazes instead of hand gestures had the same results with the dog correctly interpreting the visual cues.

These first experiments in canine cognition demonstrated that dogs are just superior to our closest animal relative, the chimpanzee, when it comes to understanding human gestures that are meant as cooperative and communicative. Additional research comparing dogs and wolves showed the same thing. Wolves just don’t exhibit the same flexibility in understanding human efforts at communication.

Additionally, it is important to study the science of Intention Reading. “Intention reading provides a cognitive foundation for all human forms of culture and communication… Intention reading allows infants to accumulate cultural knowledge that would be impossible for them to obtain on their own…The theory and methods for studying infant psychology allowed for the revolution in our understanding of dogs.” Through studies, it was concluded that dogs have communicative skills that are amazingly similar to those of human infants.

What about cognitive limitations of dogs? Understanding these limitations will also enhance training techniques and allow for application of our knowledge to improving the programs in which dogs are trained to help humans (i.e., service dogs, military dogs, etc.).

One of those limitations, contrary to popular belief, is there is no experimental evidence that dogs experience guilt, or have a human-like concept of guilt. Guilt is a feeling of remorse for committing an offense. More than 75% of dog owners believe their dog feels guilt for a wrongdoing. The way dogs slink away or cower when the owner is angry certainly appears that they do. However, the most current evidence shows that dogs are only reacting with fear due to their owner’s anger and frustration. Scolding or physically punishing a dog only raises the stress levels of the dog.

The genius of dogs is their ability to understand human communication and their motivation to cooperate with us. Dogs also have biases and limitation to their understanding of how the world works. You can read more at the Duke Canine Cognition Center or buy Dr. Hare’s book, “The Genius of Dogs”.

Now About

Dr. Hare has created a website where you can play science-based games with your dog. They measure empathy, communication, cunning, memory, and reasoning. Dognition finds your dog’s unique genius via the Canine Assessment Tool (C.A.T.), a proprietary synthesis of the world’s most cutting-edge cognitive research. And it’s all available via a mobile app. There are two goals for this website: (1) For you to gain a greater understanding of your dog, and (2) To collect data from canines worldwide. With this collaboration involving dog owners, they will be able to understand canine thinking and behavior at a much faster rate than the research performed on location in their physical laboratory.

Dr. Hare noted that in 1987, the National Institutes of Health released the following recommendation:

“All future studies of human health should consider the presence or absence of a pet in the home. …No future study of human health should be considered comprehensive if the animal with which they share their lives are not included.”

Funded Research Grant 1995: Understanding the Flexibility and Limitations of How Dogs Acquire Knowledge and Understanding: Application to Service Dog Emotional Health and Selection

Dr. Hare is an associate professor in Evolutionary Anthropology and Director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University. In 2009, he started the Duke Canine Cognition Center which is dedicated to the study of dog psychology and the effect of domestication on cognition. He has recently co-authored the book, "The Genius of Dogs". He is also the founder and Chief Scientific Officer of the citizen science website Learn more about Canine Cognition and the Genius of Dogs by listening to the podcast.

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