Founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, Brian Hare is an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University. He recently co-authored "The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think," with his wife, Vanessa Woods. He also launched a website, www.Dognition.com, which offers cognition tests you can do on your dog.
Excerpts from an interview:
Q: In the book, you say you don't use breed, such as standard poodle vs. border collie, as a measure of intelligence. So how do you measure a dog's intelligence?
A: From a scientific perspective, there is nothing to base that on. If you are interested in having rigorous science back you up, there isn't any. We are starting this new company called Dognition, and that is what this company is really all about -- helping everyone, including scientists, get at these types of questions.
Q: Is part of the issue that there isn't one general test you can use to measure dogs?
A: We have come up with a standardized set of tests that everyone can use with their dog. It's going to be really fun because I think it is going to help people understand their dog better. It's going to be really revealing. You find out the strategies your dog uses to solve all sorts of problems.
Q: So what are dogs thinking when they stare at us?
A: (Laughs) Well, that's interesting. That is one of the things people have measured. How important is that connection, the gaze or sort of staring? What is that? What does that mean? It seems to be very important as acting as a bonding mechanism. There is evidence that basically when a dog stares at you it releases a lot of oxytocin, which is sort of a hug hormone. I don't know if I can tell you what they are thinking, but I know what they are making you feel and they are feeling the same thing, which is wonderful.
Q: Sometimes it feels more like "I want something."
A: That's true. They may also be trying to communicate something to you, which is "Come on, let's go." I think the thing people would not know is, there is actually a physiological response occurring, and it's not different from how you might respond to a baby.
Q: What about emotional intelligence? Can you hurt a dog's feelings?
A: We know that dogs definitely have emotions. That is one of the major arguments in the book. Their genius is that instead of a negative emotional response to people, like wolves do, they have an incredibly positive response. They are attracted to us. They get really excited around us. That allows them to treat us as if we were like them and part of their group or that they are part of our group. So they can deploy their intelligence in a way other animals can't. So what we know about their emotions is it is the secret to their success. I mean, dogs prefer people to other dogs.
Q: In the book, you discuss how the dog we know today was not created by early humans taking wolf puppies and raising them.
A: Yes, the idea is that dogs chose us. Accidentally, by choosing us on their own, they began the process of domestication. That may have played a role in domesticating our species as well. That is very different than the story of "I'm a hunter-gatherer who is really busy hunting and gathering and thinking, 'Oh, wouldn't it be great to also have to feed a wolf that is always competing against us for food.' "
Domestication is a genetic process. It involves genetic changes. So you can take a puppy wolf -- I wouldn't advise it -- and you can tame the wolf. It might be more comfortable around people than if you took a wolf out of Yellowstone Park and tried to interact with it. But that (puppy) wolf still has the genes of a wild wolf. It can be incredibly aggressive and very erratic. Whereas a dog has genes that allow it not to do that, and when they are socialized they are the puppies that we love. It was the wolves that weren't afraid of us that approached us and used refuse and garbage to have a better living than the wolves who were living like normal wolves.
Q: You also describe how different a wolf pack is vs. a feral-dog pack, with the dogs supporting a different hierarchy, following the dog with the most friends.
A: That's right, that's absolutely right. Even I was surprised to learn that. We have learned more in 10 years than we have in the previous 100 about dog psychology because dogs were not really seen as particularly remarkable. Now everybody says, "My gosh, this is the species we should be studying." Even though wolves are their closest genetic relative, you have to realize they have a different social system when they organize themselves without interference from people. They do not organize themselves like wolves do.
Q: What explains the recent interest in dogs resulting in a multibillion-dollar pet industry?
A: Not to turn into a long-winded academic, but I could write a chapter about that. (Laughs) It is such an interesting phenomenon. I think science has gotten interested because dogs have converged and have social skills that people thought were unique to humans. Not only unique, but maybe the crucial thing that makes us human and that dogs have evolved. They haven't become like us, but they have moved in our direction more than other species. So for an animal so distantly related to be more like us than a chimpanzee is just amazing.
We have over 1,000 people who bring their pet dogs into the Duke Canine Cognition Center. That means we have this new model of doing research. We realized there is so much interest in this that we needed to reach more people. Dognition.com will allow everybody who has a dog to play a set of games and to use that to learn how their dog thinks relative to other dogs. We will be using that data to learn more about dogs.
Q: The disturbing part of the book is how dogs are treated in parts of China and Korea. They are still consumed as a food product. While we don't eat them, our treatment in the U.S. of dogs is not always humane, i.e. puppy mills.
A: The hope is through dog psychology people will appreciate how sophisticated and how intelligent dogs are, and they deserve as good of a world as we can provide for them. That's the hope. And everybody can do better. It's not just China, and it's not just Korea. The United States has its own ways in which we could do a much better job. We have a problem with the breeding of dogs and how you acquire a dog. We have tons of shelters that are full of dogs that would be just wonderful (pets).