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Canine Cognition

Did Dogs Become Smarter Through Domestication? An Interview with Dr. Brian Hare


Dr. Brian Hare is an associate professor in the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University and in the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. Hare is a pioneer and a key expert in the field of dog psychology. Together with Vanessa Woods, Brian Hare has written about the revolution in the study of dog cognition in the fascinating book The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think. The book, in their own words, is “about how cognitive science has come to understand the genius of dogs through experimental games using nothing much more high-tech than toys, cups, balls, and anything else lying around the garage.”

Hare and other researchers showed many times that dogs are good at understanding humans’ communicative intentions. With the help of a brilliant experiment with foxes begun by Dmitri Belyaev in the 1950s and continuing to the present day, Hare’s research uncovered what allowed dogs to develop this remarkable skill: domestication. After 45 generations, Belyaev’s foxes in the experimental group had floppy ears, curled tails, and were much better at reading human gestures than the foxes in the control group. The key point is that Belyaev didn’t select for foxes better at reading human gestures; instead he selected for foxes less afraid and friendlier towards humans. As Hare and Woods note in their book: “Domestication, selecting the friendliest foxes for breeding, had caused cognitive evolution.”

In order to understand even more the limitations and flexibility of canine cognition, researchers have established dedicated laboratories, such the Duke Canine Cognition Center, created by Hare.

Nogueira: In your book, you talk about the genius of dogs. But what do you mean by “genius”?

Hare: If you’re talking about high IQ, or who is going to be recruited to work for NASA, that would make a very short book. In my opinion, the big discovery in the cognition revolution is that cognition it’s not a unique dimensional trait. Actually, it’s a whole set of skills that can vary independently and we don’t know how many skills there are. For instance, one can be great at math, but a terrible communicator. Regarding species, each one evolved to solve a set of problems that helped them survive and reproduce in their particular environment; dogs are no different. My book The Genius of Dogs is all about trying to understand how a species that seems utterly unremarkable can be so successful. Dogs are successful from an evolutionary perspective because everywhere there are people, there are dogs. It’s the most successful mammal—aside from humans, and maybe cows. That’s what the book explores: do dogs have some type of genius psychologically or cognitively? Yes, they show an unusual degree of sophistication and flexibility for solving problems.

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CAMPUS CRAZINESS: THE WAR ON SCIENCE No Barriers to Inquiry; I Am Not a Racist, And So Are You: An Unauthorized Peek at the Great Shaming Taking Place at an Institution of Higher Learning Near You, and Other Fireside Tales; Radically Wrong in Berkeley; When Secularism Becomes a Religion: The Alt-Left, the Alt-Right, and Moral Righteousness; When Science Becomes the Enemy SPECIAL SECTION — BIOLOGY & BEHAVIOR Canine Cognition: Did dogs become smarter through domestication? An interview with Dr. Brian Hare; Bird Brains: Are crows as intelligent as some scientists claim?; What Biology Can Teach Us About Crime and Justice ARTICLES: Gary Taubes and the Case Against Sugar; From Camelot to Conspiracy: Memory, Myth, and the Death of JFK; Now Playing at a Cartesian Theater Near You: Dualism Returns COLUMNS: The SkepDoc: Diet Sodas: Are the Dangers In the Chemicals or the Headlines?, by Harriet Hall, M.D. JUNIOR SKEPTIC: Ghost Ships, by Daniel Loxton