January 31, 2013


The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think. By Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods. Dutton. $27.95.

      Think about that subtitle for a moment: “How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think.”  Does that “how” seem a touch peculiar?  Brian Hare, who founded and runs the Duke Canine Cognitive Center at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, and his wife, Vanessa Woods, a research scientist at the center, here offer a combination of fascinating, research-based information on domestic canines with some statements that will seem beyond obvious to anyone who has ever lived with a dog: “Experiments have now shown that dogs use different barks and growls to communicate different things.” Wouldn’t you like to get a research grant to figure that out? Or to determine that “86 percent of people feel like [sic] they sometimes know what their dog is trying to communicate by barking”?

      Much of the book, though, is far more interesting than this example. Hare discusses some highly personal and very amusing experiences as he looked into Nicolai Belyaev’s world-famous domestication experiments involving foxes. He talks about testing the extremely rare New Guinea Singing Dog, which produces a sound “that has been described as half wolf howl, half whale song.”  He delves into friendliness as a survival trait, not only for dogs but also for bonobos (apes that have some dog-like characteristics).  He compares cooperative behavior of wolves and dogs in a chart that interestingly notes that wolves, even when raised by people, are relatively uninterested in cooperating with them – while dogs rely on humans to solve problems and are highly trainable. True, this is scarcely surprising information: Hare and Woods find themselves rather too surprised by rather too many things. For example, they note that puppies with little exposure to humans are nevertheless skilled at comprehending human gestures – but this is scarcely unexpected in light of the fact that dogs have been domesticated for thousands of years, selectively bred again and again to be cooperative with and attuned to human behavior.

      Still, some of the research reported here is highly intriguing. In one experiment, dogs were rewarded unequally when both were asked to “give a paw,” and the one that received less gave paw more reluctantly and stopped giving the paw sooner – which could indicate that dogs possess a basic sense of fairness or objection to inequality (an intriguingly human trait, if it exists).  In another case, researchers found that dogs could identify pictures of smiling faces, not only of their owners but also of other people – but only when those people were the same gender as their owners.

      “The genius of dogs is their ability to understand human communication and their motivation to cooperate with us,” the authors write. “But dogs also have biases and limitations to their understanding of how the world works.”  Well, of course; the same is true of humans.  A fascinating chart showing “dognition relative to cognitive ability in other mammals” indicates that dogs have remarkable abilities to understand an audience’s perspective, communicate vocally and with visual signs, copy others’ actions and recruit others’ help – and are at “genius” level in comprehending visual gestures and learning new words. Again, most dog owners will not be surprised at this, or at the chart’s note that dogs’ understanding of physics is “vapid.”  (So is that of most human beings.)  Indeed, Hare and Woods express an amusing level of surprise at canine behaviors that sometimes seems put on, given the authors’ involvement in serious research.  “I was shocked that dogs could be anything but beloved pets,” they write (the “I” inevitably refers to Hare, making the dual-author nature of the book somewhat awkward, if not actually suspect) – referring to dogs being unwanted predators of marine iguanas in the Galapagos Islands. It is hard to believe that any adult, much less a scientific researcher, can be so surprised to learn about differing cultural and practical attitudes toward canines.  Indeed, there is nothing the slightest bit unexpected in the comment, “Dogs show an affiliation toward humans that is unlike any in the animal kingdom. They prefer humans to their own species and can behave like human infants toward their parents.”  Well, yes – we humans have bred them for exactly those characteristics. What is most intriguing about The Genius of Dogs is the discussion of experiments showing that our canine companions, in addition to being artificially moved in directions that humans prefer, may have evolved on their own in ways that created increased interdependence between them and their human partners. More intriguing than the book’s somewhat awkward subtitle is the title of one chapter’s subsection: “Did Dogs Domesticate Us?” Readers of this book will find that possibility well worth contemplating.

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