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GUEST BLOG: The genius of dogs

31st January 2013 - 12 Midnight Dr Brian Hare

 

Dr Brian Hare (pictured below) is Associate Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University, where he founded the Duke Canine Cognition Center. He is also co-founder of dog intelligence testing and training company Canines Inc and co-author of new book, The Genius of Dogs, which explores the ideas that, since their domestication 40,000 years ago, dogs have evolved to suit their environment better than any other species of mammal. Here Brian looks at how our techniques for measuring intelligence have changed and why dogs have been so successful in integrating themselves into a human-dominated world.

 

Dr Brian HareIf I were depending on the clichéd definition of genius, The Genius of Dogs would be a very short book. Forget Shakespearean sonnets, space flight or engineering the internet. Most dogs can do little more than sit and stay, and can barely walk on a leash. They are baffled when a squirrel disappears up a tree by circling the trunk, and most will happily drink out of the toilet bowl.

 

Luckily, the way we think about genius has been redefined. Most of us have been given a test at some time where our scores determine how we are taught or which college we get into. Alfred Binet designed the first standardized intelligence tests in the early 20th century. His goal was to identify students in France who should receive extra scholastic attention and resources. His original test evolved into the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale that is known as the IQ test.

 

IQ tests only provide a narrow definition of genius. As you probably remember, tests like IQ tests and SATs focus on basic skills like reading, writing and analytical abilities. The tests are favoured because on average, they predict scholastic success. But they do not measure the full capabilities of each person. They do not explain Ted Turner, Ralph Lauren, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg who all dropped out of college and became billionaires.

 

A cognitive approach is about celebrating different kinds of intelligence. Genius means that someone can be gifted with one type of cognition while being average or below average in another.

 

When judging the intelligence of animals, the first thing we look at is how successfully they have managed to survive and reproduce in as many places as possible. In some cases, like cockroaches, their success does not have much to do with intelligence at all. They are just very hardy and excellent reproducers.

 

But with other animals, surviving takes a little more intellect, and a very specific kind of intellect. For instance, it does not do any good composing sonnets if you are a dodo. You are obviously missing the intelligence you need to survive (in the dodo's case, this was learning to avoid new predators such as hungry sailors).

 

With this as our starting point, the dog is arguably the most the successful mammal on the planet, besides us. They have spread to all corners of the world, including inside our homes, and in some cases, onto our beds. While the majority of mammals on the planet have seen a steep decline in their populations as a result of human activities, there have never been more dogs on the planet than today. In the industrialized world, people are having fewer children than ever, but simultaneously are providing an increasingly lavish life style for a growing population of pet dogs.

 

Meanwhile dogs have more jobs than ever. Service dogs assist the mentally or physically disabled, military dogs find bombs, police dogs do guard duty, customs dogs detect illegally imported goods, conservation dogs find scat to help estimate population sizes and movements of endangered animals, bed bug dogs detect when hotels have a problem, cancer dogs detect melanomas or even intestinal cancer, therapy dogs visit retirement homes and hospital patients to lift spirits and speed recoveries. I am fascinated with the kind of intelligence that has allowed dogs to be so successful. Whatever it is - this must be their genius.

 

Until recently, science has not taken the genius of dogs very seriously. When scientists began studying animal cognition in the 1970s, they were more interested in our primate relatives. Eventually, enthusiasm extended to other animals, from dolphins to crows. Dogs were mostly left out of the equation because they were domesticated. Domestication supposedly dulled an animal's intelligence because a domesticated species had lost the skills and intelligence needed to survive in the wild. Only two research projects were conducted to evaluate dog intelligence from 1950 until 1995 and both found dogs to be unremarkable.

 

Then in 1995, I did an experiment with my dog in my parents' garage and started something new. I discovered that instead of domestication making our best friends stupid, our relationship with dogs gave them an extraordinary kind of intelligence. Almost simultaneously on the other side of the world, Adam Miklosi conducted a similar study to ours and independently came to the same conclusion.

 

These studies caused an explosion in the field of dog cognition. All of a sudden, people from all sorts of disciplines realized what had been under our noses the whole time - dogs are one of the most important species we can study. Not because they have become soft and complacent compared to their wild cousins, but because they were smart enough to come in from the cold and become part of the family.

 

The Genius of DogsThe Genius of Dogs is that story of discovery, as well as the explosion of research that followed. We have learned more about dog cognition, or 'dognition' in the past decade than we have in the past century. The cognitive world of every dog is far more complex and interesting than we thought possible. We also have a tantalizing glimpse into the secret of their success. We can now pinpoint the stuff of dog genius.
Some of what we have discovered will shock even the most knowledgeable dog owners. It is not always obvious where dogs will show an ability to make inferences or show more flexibility than other species. But in the end, your intuition is correct - your dog is a genius.

 

Even more exciting is that now you can find out how. Together with the world's leading scientists, we have developed Dognition, a toolkit of simple and fun science-based games that will give you a dog's eye view of your best friend's world - what they excel at, what they find challenging, and how they're trying to connect with you.

 

Not only will Dognition help you learn about your dog, you will also help create the largest collection of canine cognition data ever compiled. We're excited to see what this data will reveal and look forward to the new research it might spark that can benefit all dogs.

 

© Brian Hare 2013

 

 

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