Why Dogs are More Like Humans Than Wolves

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

(Jim Craigmyle/Corbis)

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There’s a lot of research into how dogs solve problems. For instance, in a new experiment, a dog demonstrated opening a sliding door, using one of two techniques. It turns out other dogs will copy the first dog and use that same technique the very first time they open the door. That is not something that most people would have expected. [A hundred years ago, British psychologist] C. Lloyd Morgan was one of the first people to write about animal intelligence from an experimental perspective. One of the great anecdotes he tells is about how his dog Tony struggled to open a gate, and through trial and error, he slowly learned a solution. It looked like Tony the terrier was a genius, but because Morgan had watched the problem-solving develop, he knew that Tony didn’t understand anything, that it was all chance trial and error. Morgan then concluded that when you see animals doing intelligent things, you must consider that there’s a very low-level mechanism that allowed them to solve the problem. But the new finding is, if he had only shown Tony how to open the gate, Tony could have learned almost immediately how to do it. You make the problem social and dogs do fantastically.

You also cite studies that show dogs can be deceptive. How does that demonstrate genius?

Those studies show that dogs are using information about what humans can see or hear to make decisions about how to behave around us. In one study, dogs spontaneously avoid retrieving food from a box with noisemakers when they have been told not to eat it, [instead choosing to steal food from a box that a human has demonstrated does not make noise]. This suggests they might be aware of what we can and cannot hear. Similarly, a number of studies have shown that dogs avoid misbehaving if you are watching them, but are more likely to act up if you have your back turned, or even your eyes closed!

So there is such thing as a bad dog. But can this new science of dog cognition help us train them better?

No pun intended, I don’t really have a dog in the fight about how to train dogs, but it’s an important question. People love dogs, and they want to help their dogs have a rich life, and they can do that by helping their dogs obey some simple principles. But how do you get a dog to do that? One of the big schools of thought is you have to really be an alpha dog. You have to make sure the dog doesn’t think he can boss you around. That premise is probably based on some faulty rationale, that dogs evolved from wolves, and wolves have a very strict hierarchy. That’s a reasonable hypothesis, except that there’s one major problem: dogs are not wolves. Looking at feral dogs, what people have found is that they don’t have a strict hierarchy. It’s not that you follow the dominant individual. With feral dogs, the leader is the individual that has the most friendships in the group. It’s not about dominance.

There’s another school of training, which says that the more you practice the better they’ll be at sitting, staying, listening to you, obeying, etc. But there are studies that show that dogs that are trained less intensely actually learn faster and retain the information they learn longer. If you force animals to perform over and over, it actually makes a response less flexible.

Here’s a question that could get us in trouble. Are dogs smarter than cats?

It’s a very difficult question to answer in any meaningful way. I could ask you, which is a better tool, a hammer or a screwdriver? They’re designed to do different things. Compare the origins of these animals in the wild, their progenitors, the wolf and the wild African cat. You have one that is an endurance runner, a pack animal that relies on cooperation. You have another that is a relatively asocial, stalking hunter that relies on stealth to be successful. These are completely different social systems and ways of life, and evolution shaped those minds to be really different because they do completely different things in terms of how they make a living.

Fair enough. In addition to dog and cat partisans, I’m guessing that many pet owners will have another response to your book: “There’s no way my dog is a genius. He drinks out of the toilet and chases his own tail.” Would these people be wrong?

Everybody loves to talk about how amazing humans are as a species in terms of innovation and technology. We’ve invented the Internet and the iPad, and we have an International Space Station. Yes, as a species we’ve done that, but I can assure you that if somebody said to me today, “You have to invent the next iPad,” you might as well just shoot me. There’s also tremendous individual variation in dogs. In the case of the dog that chases his own tail, that may be a dog that the person thinks is a little bit on the dumb side, but there are some domains of intelligence that people aren’t really thinking about. Just because one individual dog isn’t particularly good at using gestures, for example, it doesn’t mean that they’re not absolutely remarkable in their memory, or that they can’t use your visual perspective to deceive you. One of the things we’re trying to do in the book is change the conversation about what is intelligence. A lot of people may find out, the dog that just chases his tail, there’s actually a lot more there than they expected.

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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