Brian with his dog, Tasmania.
Brian Brian with his dog, Tasmania. Photo courtesy Duke Canine Cognition Lab

A Duke researcher looks at dogs, and learns that they tell us a lot about people.

By Stephanie Soucheray

If you want to understand, from a scientific perspective at least, what it means to be human, it might help to study non-humans. That’s the ethos behind Brian Hare’s work at Duke University, where the founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center works with dogs to better understand different types of cognitive processes and profiles.

Brian with his dog, Tasmania.
Brian Hare with his dog, Tasmania. Photo courtesy Duke Canine Cognition Lab

Hare is a professor of evolutionary anthropology. Besides dogs, he studies bonobos and lemurs to explore issues of cognition. His work at the Canine Center (which he started in 2009, gaining national recognition) has led to many discoveries, some of the most interesting gathered in “The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter Than You Think,” written with his wife, science writer Vanessa Woods.

The book, released on Feb. 5, made it to The New York Times bestseller list, and is helping dog owners become “citizen scientists” who can use simple games to explore Sparky’s inherent cognitive abilities.

“You can play the same games with your dog as with non-verbal human infants,” said Hare. “You can determine what and how they’re thinking.”

Hare explained that his work with dogs shows the animal’s genius for inference, or making logical guesses based on past experiences. He said dogs, more than any other animal on the planet, use humans as tools. Like pre-verbal infants, dogs know how to use humans to solve their problems.

“The book is about cognitive science and human evolution through the eyes of dog research,” Hare said. “It’s a bigger project than just dogs.”

He said that like humans, dogs display different types of intelligence: empathetic, social, problem-solving and others. Not all dogs are smart in the same way though, a lesson Hare said must be translated to humans.

“My work shows how something like standardized tests are incredibly biased and bad at showing us a real reflection of different types of intelligence,” he said.

Hare and dog playing cognition game.
Hare demonstrates a cognition game that involves hiding treats under cups.

One of the most important types of intelligence is based in empathy, or kindness.

“The first misconception people have is that evolution is the survival of the fittest,” Hare explained. “Through research with dogs and bonobos, we see what’s super-powerful is survival of the friendliest.” Hare said survival of the fittest just measures success in reproduction. But in the case of dogs and bonobos, success comes through cooperation – not being aggressive and not dominating.

“That’s a big part of our human story too,” he said. “There have been changes in our species that make us more tolerant and peaceful than before. The main thing you learn: There’s a very powerful force in evolution that often favors the friendliest.”

On the book’s website, Dognition, readers can pay a one-time fee of $60 to join a community where they learn how to do their own experiments with pets and common household objects.

“We’ve had thousands of visitors from all over the world on the website,” said Hare. “Dogs from Chile, Argentina and Austrailia. It helps owners understand their dogs better”

Joining the website helps pet owners learn about Sparky and Spot, but it also helps Hare broaden his research on dogs. He said that each year at Duke, he has the chance to work with 100 or so dogs (he noted that no animals are harmed in his work and the same standards for giving children psychological tests are used with dogs). Still, comparing 100 dogs is not a large sample. But with information gleaned from the website, Hare can create a database that compares the intelligence types of shelter dogs, breeds and dogs of certain ages or even color.

“Are dogs in North Carolina different than New York? Are Great Danes relatively empathic relative to Chihuahuas? Are younger dogs better at differential reasoning or more reliant on other ways of solving problems?” Hare asked. “There are 50 million questions to answer from this data.”

Hare said dogs are worthy of rigorous scientific study. After all, they’re a successful species (dog jobs have withstood the recession, he noted). And they like us.

“If you give dogs the choice of being with dogs or people, they prefer us,” he said. “That doesn’t happen with any other animal.”

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Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...