Genius dogs

The Animal Care College – caring for people caring for animals

The voyage of discovery is not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes. – Marcel Proust

Like buses, books come along in groups so it not surprising, having waxed lyrically about Angela’s unique book about Finnish Spitz last week, I am now going to be almost equally enthusiastic about another one. It is called the Genius of Dogs and although I had heard about it I had mentally placed it into the basket marked ‘another book for people who are looking for Christmas presents for their friends who have dogs’. As you are well aware there are hundreds of such books – about dogs in general, about breeds and how to care for and train them – but few are of interest to the specialist. It shows how wrong you can be.

This book is written by a scientist, an anthropologist in fact, for whom dogs have been an important factor in his work since he was in his teens. Apart from his own research he has studied with many other scientists over the years and reviewed thousands of papers related to his own specialism and to dogs. I particularly enjoyed the fact that much of what I have been lecturing and writing about for years about the domestication of dogs, based on my own reading and which, as I have freely admitted, has been somewhat speculative, has been confirmed by many carefully constructed but essentially simple experiments with dogs, wolves, various varieties of chimpanzee and bononos (don’t ask – just keep reading!).

The foundation upon which a whole raft of further work has been done and upon which some fundamental and important conclusions are based is extraordinarily simple and you can try the basic experiment for yourself. Take two identical opaque plastic beakers and place them about 5 feet apart upside down on the floor with a treat underneath one of them. Ask a friend to bring any one of your dogs into the room and, when they are settled point to the empty cup. You dog will go to that cup. The point of the treat is that your dog will go to the cup to which you point not the one which has the treat in it and this shows that dog is not being attracted by the smell of the treat. Try it with your other dogs, whatever their age (it works with puppies too) and virtually every time the dog goes to the beaker to which you point.

Would you notice that this is unusual?

This simple experiment works with babies and small children – and bonobos: if you have not heard of them you are not alone – they are a very rare primate. It does not work with chimpanzees, wolves, cats and, as far as is known, any other species. Brian Hare noticed this phenomenon with his family’s Labrador, quite accidentally while he was still at school studying for what we would refer to as A Levels. He had no idea that it was in any way unusual. He went to University to study anthropology and during his lectures the ‘pointing’ example was used to demonstrate a unique characteristic of human infant behaviour. When Brian raised his hand and told the lecturer that this was not the case – his dog also demonstrated that skill. The lecturer did not believe him but was intrigued enough to set up the experiment – more or less to show that Brian was wrong. He wasn’t!

From such simple observations are new perceptions created. The discovery of X-Rays by Curie and penicillin by Fleming both came from such simple, almost accidental occurrences. In this case a new and more plausible theory of the way in which dogs were domesticated has been proposed and, what is more important, is providing an insight into the process by which we, as human beings, made the ‘jump’ between our immediate primate ancestors, who did not understand the ‘pointing’ gesture, to those who did. The reason why it happened is likely to provide us with new insights as to why homo sapiens has become the unique and dominant species we are today.

But there is more – much more. Brian Hare and his team have been working with colleagues throughout the world over the last few years and also been reviewing the mass of data collected by others. I was pleased that he is sceptical about some of the conclusions reached (we have seen a number of projects in the UK which have not been well designed so it is safe to say that others are not founded on sound principles) and he makes it clear where ideas being put forward are speculative. However, there is more than enough to support the core theoretical ideas which have been accepted by established researchers and leaders in canine psychology such as Roger Abrantes and the Coppingers and incorporated into their writings and lectures.

Essential reading

In my view, this book is essential reading for anyone who trains dogs or has any aspirations to modifying their behaviour. The remnants of FE Skinner’s ideas which were encapsulated in the term ‘behavioural’ psychology and have led to many effective dog training techniques have not been made redundant, but the concept of what is now being called ‘dognition’ should be having an impact on our use and understanding of operant conditioning (both positive and negative), our approach to repetition in training, the use of clickers, distraction techniques and the rest. Hart says, ‘Current training methods do work, since dogs can be trained to do many amazing things. But from a scientific perspective, we do not know which method works best’ – and perhaps this is the reason why the disputes about training approaches and techniques lead to such bitter antagonism between trainers and behaviourists!’ He goes on to say, ‘There is currently no formalised training that combines what we know about dog behaviour and training and the latest research in dognition. Cognitive training would not only identify the different ways in which dogs learn but also identify limitations and biases that can prevent learning. Strategies can then be designed to work around these biases and limitations while tapping into the genius of dogs.

Hare’s work is already having an impact, though. You might like to read The Rosetta Bone by Cheryl Smith and Roger Abrantes latest edition of The Evolution of Canine Social Behaviour. You should certainly get a copy of The Genius of Dogs.

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