Dog intelligence was of no interest to scientists until something drastic happened to turn that thinking on its head 15 years ago. Now it seems everyone’s getting into the act! Dr. Brian Hare, associate professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University, was the catalyst for that change. He tells the story in the interview below, and it’s one of the things that makes science an interesting and unusual field to operate in.
Dr. Hare says he’s changed as a scientist because of dogs — he studies human evolution, and in order to better understand what it means to be human he says you need to understand what it is to be not human. Studying how dogs got to be dogs, how they think and make choices, what changed to get them where they are as a successful species, took his findings beyond where they would be had he only studied primates.
Dog cognition, or intelligence, is often thought of as something you have either more or less of — we even think that way of ourselves. It’s not true. Dogs have learning styles, competencies, much like us. The Dognition program helps you better understand your dog’s learning strengths, making training according to your dog’s cognitive profile a more positive experience for you and your dog.
Some exciting news — there’s a new project! You’ll be able to see what cutting edge research interests Dr. Hare, and hear from those involved. Read on…
Dancing Dog Blog is pleased to offer readers this interview:
What got you interested in and how did you prepare for studying dogs’ minds? Was there a mentor or friend who introduced you to what was available and where to find it, or did this topic find you?
I was a 19 year old undergraduate at Emory University and I was working with an amazing Psychology Professor Mike Tomasello. Mike was one of the first to realize that human infants develop powerful social skills as early as nine months. This is when infants begin to understand what adults are trying to communicate when they point. Infants also begin pointing out things to other people. Whether an infant watches you point to a bird or the infant points to their favorite toy, they are beginning to build core communication skills. By paying attention to the reactions and gestures of other people, as well as to what other people are paying attention to, infants are beginning to read other people’s intentions.
Mike knew that our closest living relatives, the great apes, could not use human gestures, so he thought that perhaps this ability was unique to humans.
But like many dog owners, I’d spent countless hours playing fetch with my childhood dog, Oreo. If he lost a ball, I’d help him find it by pointing in the right direction. When Mike told me that a chimpanzee couldn’t follow a human point to find food, I blurted out ‘my dog can do that!’ and it all began from there.
Genius of Dogs, authored by you and your wife, science journalist Vanessa Woods, is a review of the published literature on dog cognition that gives the reader a basis for understanding 15 years of what is known so far in this field. What new discoveries might readers make in how dogs see the world?
I think the biggest surprise is that there are no such things as ‘smart’ dogs and ‘dumb’ dogs. There’s still this throwback to a linear version of intelligence, as though intelligence is a cup of coffee that is more or less full.
Different dogs are good at different things. The pug drooling on your shoe may not look like the brightest bulb in the box, but she comes from a long line of successful dogs and is a member of the most successful mammal species on the planet besides us.
Did any of the findings here surprise you and if so, how?
One of the biggest surprises for me was the ability of dogs to read human social cues. We take it for granted that dogs can effortlessly use our point to find a hidden toy or morsel of food, but this ability is unique in the animal kingdom. No other species can read our communicative gestures as well as dogs can. It allows them to be incredible social partners with us, whether it’s hunting, or agility, or just navigating every day life. Their ability to interpret our gestures also helps them solves problems they can’t solve on their own.
Dognition.com is a membership site where some of what we find in the book can be applied in an up close and personal look at our own dogs using science-based cognitive games at home. In what ways does this program help dogs and their people?
Dognition is about helping people find the genius in their dog. Different dogs use different strategies to solve problems. Does your dog rely on you to solve problems, or are they more independent? Do they pay attention to where you are looking before they decide to sneak food off the coffee table, or are they just straight up the king of the household and don’t feel the need for any sneakiness – if they see something they want, they just take it?
Dognition is all about playing fun games that will give you a window into your dog’s mind, that will in turn enrich the relationship you have with your dog.
On top of that, the data that you enter will contribute to a huge citizen science project that will help us help all dogs, from shelter dogs, to service dogs. It’s an incredibly exciting project and I can’t wait to see what we find out!
I know there have been recent calls for participants in cognitive research studies. Is there a link you can offer to those interested in participating with their dogs in current open or future studies?
Sure! Anyone can become a citizen scientist by visiting www.dognition.com/BRIGHTMIND to play Dognition games for free.
You are currently hosting DogSmarts a new Podcast series. How does it feel to be on the other side of the microphone? What can listeners expect?
It was so fun for me to be the one asking the questions! Everyone I interview is the top person in their field – they also happen to be my friends, so we had a lot of fun making the podcast.
These people are also the people responsible for most of the dog research coming out these days, so it’s a chance for listeners to hear these people talk about what inspired them and what they have learned.
The sponsors of your show are Purina Pro Plan Bright Mind dog food. How did this partnership develop?
Dognition and Purina Pro Plan BRIGHT MIND are both about helping your dog reach their full potential. Dognition is all about giving dog owners cognitive games to play to exercise their minds and discover their unique cognitive style. BRIGHT MIND is a food full of nutrients that improve cognitive health. We recognized that we were both trying to achieve the same thing in different ways – so it seemed a natural and perfect partnership.
What role does food and its quality play in the care of feeding of a dog’s mind?
Dogs have incredible cognitive abilities and that’s why it’s so important to nurture your dog’s mind to preserve the things we love the most about them. I feed my own dog Tassie BRIGHT MIND, which has helped bring back some of his bonding behaviors (nuzzling / hugging) that he had stopped demonstrating in his senior years. This was especially important to me since his Dognition profile showed me how remarkable his empathy levels were compared to other dogs when he was younger.
In closing, what key thoughts or principles should we keep in mind as we go through life working to better communicate with and understand our dogs?
Dogs have amazing cognitive abilities. We need to take care of their minds as well as their bodies. They are our best friends, after all!
Thank you so much for spending time with us, Dr. Hare =)
Check out DogSmarts here on itunes. Podcasts are short presenting interesting findings and introducing you to other experts working in the subject field. For example, there’s a discussion on memory and Dr. Hare is joined by Dr. Josep Call, Professor in the Evolutionary Origins of Mind at the University of Saint Andrews, and Dr. Adam Miklosi, Head of the Department of Ethology at Eötvös University in Budapest, Hungary, to explore verbal and non-verbal communication between humans and dogs.
If you’ve joined Dognition, I’d be interested to hear about your experience if you care to share!