Original Publication Date: 2013
Genre(s): Nonfiction, Science
Brian Hare is a professor at Duke University’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. He lists his primary research topics as Domestication, Human Cognitive Evolution, and Social Cognition. His research subjects are primarily the great apes and dogs. In The Genius of Dogs, Hare and his wife Vanessa Woods focus on the uniqueness of the domestic dog’s cognition.
The book is divided into three parts: Brian’s Dog, Dog Smarts and Your Dog. Part one is the most substantial section and focuses on the elements in dog’s cognition that are most amazing and how their abilities evolved. In a nutshell, dogs are head and shoulders above other animals in being able to communicate with humans. They innately from puppyhood understand human gestures much like a human infant can. The current thought is that this ability evolved along with domestication and that it may also shed light on the evolution of human cognition. Is our ability to cooperate and live relatively peacefully in high densities a result of our own self domestication? There is lots of interesting discussion about how dogs and humans evolved in comparison to other animals particularly using evidence of present day cognitive skills.
Part two touches on some other signposts of intelligence that dogs are actually not that great at; things like navigation and basic physics. He uses an example that I know all too well – that dogs on leash are seemingly flabbergasted that the leash cannot pass through solid objects like telephone poles or people’s legs and they rarely seem to figure it out no matter how many times it happens and how many frustrated sighs they must endure from their human companion. The concept is beyond them. Dogs’ counterparts in the wild do much better at these cognitive exercises though they failed the tests for reading human signals.
Part three focuses on the perceived differences between breeds, the correct method for training, and some educated musings on the true nature of the dog-human relationship. The trust that dog’s put in their human companions is similar to an infant with their mother. But they do look for opportunities where they can ignore/disobey disliked commands (i.e. lie quietly and don't eat the food just out of reach).
Overall this was an interesting and quick read. The first section is the most substantial and for me the most interesting. The other two sections are a somewhat loosely grouped grab bag of topics related to dog cognition. These sections still had some interesting tidbits like the fact that besides appearance, the difference between breeds of dogs is minimal. Section three is especially weak and grab-baggy and comes across as more anecdotal and musing rather then based on Hare’s own research. I was especially disappointed that he seems to discount the current behaviorist methods of training, but doesn’t really provide much in replacement but a few disparate ideas currently being researched.
Still if you’re a dog lover you will likely enjoy every bit of it. It’s written engagingly with plenty of examples and interesting descriptions of the behavioral trials that are used to test dogs and other animals. If you are like me and are also interested in the evolution of humans and human culture than you will especially enjoy the book, particularly section one. And if you’re like me you’ll be trying (in vain) to teach your dogs to do some of the amazing things Hare and Woods illustrate they can do. Good Luck to you!