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How dogs think

Getting to know man’s best friend

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April 23rd, 2013
The Genius of Dogs
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Dogs have been our faithful companions for thousands of years. As loyal protectors and useful friends, they’ve earned a place among humans that few animals have enjoyed. Even so, scientific researchers have largely ignored dogs over the last century, judging them inferior to more intelligent mammals like dolphins and chimpanzees.

But evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare is giving dogs the attention they deserve. The founder of Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center, Hare is at the helm of groundbreaking research on the canine brain and how it works. Playfully named “Dognition,” the project’s findings, which Hare describes in his book, The Genius of Dogs (Dutton, 2013), sheds much needed light on the unique social intelligence that sets dogs apart from other animals.

He recently spoke with the Tribune about his work.

Q: What exactly is Dognition?

A: Dognition is a research project at Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center, the goal of which is to understand how dogs think.

Dogs play an important role in our lives. They serve in the military, assist search and rescue personnel and law enforcement officers, aid the disabled, and, for many people, they’re family members. We interact with them on a daily basis.

How your dog thinks and makes decisions, in large part, defines his personality.

Q: Dogs can’t speak. How do you figure out what’s going on in their heads?

A: We’ve adopted the approach that developmental psychologists use with infants. Like dogs, infants can’t speak, so to assess their cognitive abilities, researchers play games that require the babies to make choices. Based on these choices, they can draw conclusions about the way an infant thinks.

We employ the same methods with dogs.

Q: What kinds of games do you play to do this?

A: In one game, for example, we hide a piece of food in plain view of the dog. Then we point to another location in the room and tell the dog to get the food. Different dogs react in different ways.

Some are incredibly reliant on a person’s communicative gestures and will go where you point even though they saw you hide the food somewhere else. Other dogs rely on memory and observation and will go where you had hidden the treat. Dogs in this group think more independently. They ignore what you directed them to do and instead act on what they observed earlier.

Games like these help us to assess a dog’s cognitive dimensions, which include their ability to pay attention to their owner, to read and interpret human gestures, to recall information and solve basic problems.

These skill sets shape your dog’s personality. He may be wily or trustworthy. We’ve been able to show that some dogs are really sensitive to whether you can see them or not, and they use that sensitivity to decide whether to listen to you.

Q: Can any dog owner participate in this project?

A: Absolutely. The goal is creating a big picture. While owners who participate in the project learn about their dog on an individual level, we’re using the data from all of the dogs to grasp the full spectrum of canine cognition.

Q: How does Dognition work?

A: It costs $60 to take part in the study, which you can do online at dognition.com using a computer or a tablet.

You get access to ten games that measure various cognitive factors important for dogs throughout their lives. We walk you through a questionnaire about specific behavioral traits and habits that you’ve observed in your dog. Then you’re taken to a portal where you play the games and record how your dog performs.

The whole process takes about 80 minutes. When you’ve finished, the data is automatically sent to us for analysis. Based on the results, we create a cognitive profile of your dog. Collectively, these reports contribute to our larger understanding of dogs and how their minds work.

Q: How have people responded to the project?

A: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. We’ve gotten a lot of interest from the veterinary community, the members of which hope to use this research in the treatment of dogs with behavioral problems.

The beautiful thing about Dognition is the potential it offers for learning about breed differences, which is a difficult area of study. The American Kennel Club has 177 breeds in its registry. We would need at least 100 dogs per breed, per question we want to answer, to have what the scientific community considers a valid sample.

This presents tremendous challenges in terms of manpower and funding. By making dog owners active participants in this research, Dognition addresses these challenges.

And as more and more data comes in from our participants, it’s clear that dogs have their own unique social intelligence and unique personalities that make them compatible with people.

michael.williams@erickson.com

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