Why Dogs are More Like Humans Than Wolves

The dumb dog days are over, says evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare

(Jim Craigmyle/Corbis)

Brian Hare began studying dog intelligence as an undergraduate at Emory University in the 1990s, after realizing that Oreo, his Labrador retriever, had a remarkable ability. Unlike other animals, even chimpanzees, Oreo could interpret human gestures, following a person’s gaze or a pointing finger. From early experiments with the family dogs in his parents’ Atlanta garage, Hare went on to found the Canine Cognition Center at Duke University. Now, in The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter than You Think, Hare and coauthor Vanessa Woods detail recent research about man’s brilliant best friend. Not only do dogs possess social intelligence far beyond that of their wolf ancestors, Hare says, but in many ways they’re more like us than our own primate relatives. Hare is also the lead scientist behind Dognition.com, a new website that offers pet owners the opportunity to participate in a massive citizen science project—and uncover the genius in their own precious pooches.

What is the secret to dogs’ intelligence?

The genius of dogs is that they use probably the most powerful tool on Earth to solve problems—humans. At one point in wolf evolution, a group of wolves decided to take advantage of humans, and they have been really successful because of it. It’s probably not a surprise to people that dogs are socially tuned-in to us. But I think what’s new is the understanding that this skill is absolutely remarkable in the animal world. When you talk about survival of the fittest, most people think nature is “red in tooth and claw.” But dogs domesticated themselves through a natural process, where the less aggressive, most friendly, tolerant individuals actually did much better.

How has the scientific understanding of dogs changed?

We’ve learned more in the past 10 years than in the previous 100 years. When identifying intelligence in animals, what people are most interested in is where animals make inferences. These are situations in which they can’t actually perceive a solution, so they have to infer it spontaneously. If you are going to find that kind of intelligence, you’re not going to find it in a dog, or so it was thought. Scientists had theorized that dogs, through domestication, have become dumbed-down, because they just sit around and take scraps from us. What do they need to be smart about? The guess was animals like a bonobo or a dolphin or other charismatic megafauna were where to look. But it turns out in many ways dogs are more like us than even great apes.

How are they like us?

Dogs are the only species that have demonstrated that they can learn words in a manner similar to a little kid. It’s not that other species that we think of as being highly intelligent, like bonobos and dolphins, can’t become sophisticated at communicating using symbols, but there’s some nice evidence that dogs are using an inferential strategy, which takes advantage of what’s called the principle of exclusion. They know that a number of objects are named or labeled with a sound, and when a new one is introduced that they do not have a label for, and they hear a new sound that they’ve never heard before, they infer that the new sound must apply to this new object. That has only been observed in human children before. That was a big shocker, and it’s been replicated. It even gets crazier than that—several border collies are using what’s called the principal of iconicity. You can show them a two-dimensional picture, and they will then go fetch the object in the picture. That’s something people thought only kids could do, and that it would only be in a linguistic species that that would be possible.

That’s amazing, but it’s a small sample size—isn’t it possible these dogs were outliers?

We don’t know. I don’t think it’s chance that the dogs that have demonstrated this are border collies. But that is not to say that border collies are somehow the most intelligent breed. All dogs are probably able to make the type of inferences that the border collies are making. The question is, can they use that exclusionary principle when learning words? It’s entirely possible that all of our dogs have this hidden talent that we just don’t know how to take advantage of.

What are some other new findings about dog intelligence?

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Boston-based freelance journalist writing about government, education and ideas. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, Slate, Boston Magazine and the Boston Globe.

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