The Genius of Dogs

By Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods. Dutton. $27.95.

If this title doesn’t tease your inquisitiveness, then you are visiting the wrong web site.

Hare, director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, nimbly crafts a rationale why dogs act like they do, emphasizing that scientists have focused more in the last decade on dog cognition (he labels it dognition) than in the last century. In the process, he argues dogs boast a kind of genius for being compatible with people more than any other animal species.

This scholarly work, however, is only devoted to areas that have been scientifically studied. “We may not cover some areas of interest, simply because no scientist has published anything on the topic. But on the flip side, there is tons of fascinating research on dognition you may never have imagined,” the author says.

Hare’s striking literary portrait is painted with a detailed background of detailed impressions he has gleaned from visits to sites like Siberia and Africa and from studies by European scientists.

While the dog is inextricably linked to the wolf by historians, Hare punches holes in some long-held arguments about how this relationship evolved with man. “The revilement of wolves was not limited to myths and fables,” he writes. “Almost every human culture in the world that has come into contact with wolves has persecuted them at one time or another, and these persecutions have often led to their annihilation.”

The genesis of Hare’s interest in dognition began at age 9 in his parents’ Atlanta garage and evolved from a special relationship he cultivated with a Labrador retriever puppy named Oreo. A decade later an Emory University professor Mike Tomasello (where Hare was enrolled) was attempting to determine what makes us human. The theory and methods for studying infant psychology simply opened the door for our understanding of dogs, Hare says.

Food identification tests, where Hare pointed to the cup beneath which it was situated and Oreo’s continued spot-on response, left the author smiling, “Hey, Oreo, you’re a genius!”

Recognizing they shouldn’t get too excited over one dog’s ability to interpret hand signals, the pair decided to take it a big step further with additional pooches, seeing the same results. The two concluded dogs have communicative skills that are highly akin to those of infants.

Ironically, one of the most compelling chapters does not involve dogs. “Clever as a Fox” details the author’s visit to a fox research facility in Siberia, begun by the late Dmitrii Konstanitinovich Belyaev, about who little is known. Like Darwin, Belyaev was interested in domestication. His subject was the silver fox, which had been bred on fur farms in Russia since the late 19th century.

Instead of breeding for different physical characteristics, he bred for behavior only, and how they reacted to humans. Each season he bred the foxes which were the least aggressive and most interested in humans, eventually forming an experimental population.

Hare writes, “After only 20 generations, the experimental foxes began to change in ways that might take thousands, if not millions of years, in the wild. By the time I arrived, the foxes had been bred for 45 generations and the experimental and control populations were radically different. Comparing the cognition of the two groups would test whether the key to the genius of dogs was domestication.”

During his visit, the “foxes uncontrollably wagged their tails like puppies, pushing their noses against the bars, desperate to be petted. When I took these foxes out of their rooms, they leapt into my arms, nuzzled against my face, and licked my cheeks with their little pink tongues.”

Belyaev, who died in 1985, is a key pioneer in the study of animal domestication. While behavior was his No. 1 focus, all other changes associated with it were simply a bonus byproduct.

Hare details a behavioral research project with chimpanzees and bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) in Africa, attempting to get both to play the same experimental games he conducted with the silver foxes in Siberia. The result: bonobos were much friendlier to strangers, exhibiting “no fear, no intolerance, just successful cooperation, sharing and play.”

The genius of dogs extends to their vocabularies, which can range from a few to several hundred words; homing instincts that have enabled them to travel hundreds of miles back to their owners after weeks, months and sometimes years of being separated; and a keen sensitivity when supplying needed companionship for the sick, injured and dying.

Hare concludes, “Despite the abuse dogs can suffer at our hands, no other species is as loyal to the human race as the dog. Throughout the centuries, their devotion has not gone unnoticed.”

The author’s ability to unravel the mysteries and complexity of the canine brain in an earthy yet simplistic context provides the reader with a fresh new insight and appreciation of this incredible species.