The internationally renowned Hungarian scientist Vilmos Csányi studies canine behavior and intelligence at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, where he chairs the department of ethology. We had the pleasure of speaking with him about his recent book, If Dogs Could Talk: Exploring the Canine Mind (translated by Richard E. Quandt). Much of his book draws upon his astute observations of his own pet dogs, the delightful Flip and Jerry. He makes a convincing case for special social and emotional bonds between dogs and humans, and for the idea that, by observing the cognitive behavior of dogs, we can also learn much about how the human mind works.
Bark: In your book, If Dogs Could Talk, you write that dogs are excellent human ethologists, what do you mean by that?
Vilmos Csányi: A family dog constantly observes human behavior and always tries to predict interesting actions in which he could participate. Dogs can learn any tiny signal for the important actions and is always ready to contribute.
B: You also say that dogs can show empathy, especially toward their owners. Are you familiar with any cases in which a dog has been empathic to a species other than humans?
VC: They are also empathic with each other. On one occasion Flip wanted to go out in the middle of night but I slept too deeply and was not awakened by his murmur; Jerry came and started to bark loudly, which instantly made me awake. I believed that Jerry had the problem, but he went back to his sleeping place and Flip was the one who enthusiastically ran to the door to be let out as soon as possible.
B: You write about the similarities between dogs and humans, including that both species seem to have a genetic imperative to follow rules. What evolutionary advantage does this bestow on our two species?
VC: Following rules is a very important human trait, which is shared with dogs to some extent. In animals, behavior in a group is regulated by aggression and rank order. In humans, in-group aggression is very mild and the rank order is of a mixed type. Not only persons but rules also get a place in our rank order. Our behavior is influenced by persons who have authority over us and rules that regulate certain conduct. Even “alpha persons” have to obey rules, which makes human social groups very complex and adaptive.
An important task for a group can be prescribed by rules, and group members do not have to exert any aggression to fulfill the given task, just follow the rules. It is a human-specific trait and the basis of complex human societies. Its importance is shown by the fact that dogs also acquired the rule-following ability. If a dog recognizes a rule created by the master, he follows it. Sometimes the problem is how to explain the given rule to a dog. They are not able to perceive rules above certain complexity
B: The bond between humans and dogs exists because dogs acquired traits that resemble those of humans in many respects; could you give some examples of this? Also, can the same be said about the humans “acquiring” canine traits, or, at least, evolving differently because of dogs, such as the reduction of our olfactory senses.
VC: Dogs have indeed acquired behavioral traits that have human analogues. For example, dogs form an attachment relationship with their owners, and very likely (to some extent) with other members of their group, that resembles the way human children are attached to their mothers. Moreover, we have shown that even adult dogs [living in dog shelters] can very rapidly form attachment to humans [after only approximately 30 minutes of interaction]. The development of attachment between adults is again a human-specific trait.
There have been suggestions that dogs and humans co-evolve, but at the moment there is little clear evidence for this. One could suppose that at some point of human evolution, human groups sharing their life with dogs had some advantage over groups avoiding dogs. Dogs could have been helpful, for example, in removing [eating] garbage, providing protection during cold nights or alarming people in case of potential danger. Some of these functions can be still witnessed in tribes living at remote places in Africa and Australia.
It is, however, more difficult to provide evidence that such association was the cause for any behavioral or other changes in humans. Such evidence should rely on showing that, for example, there is a progressive trend in the difference in human remains over a long period of time when they are found together with dogs.
B: Your investigations into dogs’ ability to “read” us and having a greater aptitude than chimpanzees to comprehend human signals seem to have been conducted well before those that were reported in Science, which were conducted by Brian Hare in 2004. Why do you think that your studies did not receive the same level of recognition in this country?
VC: We started our research program in 1994. At that time nobody was working with dogs in the ethological community, so we had to develop our research methods basically by trial and error. Our first paper on human–dog communication was published in 1998 after being rejected by a leading journal because they found it “unbelievable.” In other words, the results were “too good to be true.” The editors probably never had dogs. Further, we had a far-reaching research program in mind that took time to develop, and was aimed at finding parallels for various human-specific behaviors, not just in the case of interspecies communication.
We have some connections to Hare’s group in Germany and his team was faster to get an interesting aspect of this work into Science in 2002. We, however, were more careful in our experimental design and analysis (and consequently slower), but were able to publish our observations and provide a behavioral basis for dog-wolf differences in another high-profile journal, Current Biology with our tame wolf “Minka” on its cover-page. (Current Biology 13, no. 9 : 763-767)
B: You believe that dogs ask questions. Could you give some examples of canine questioning? How do you think a dog ponders an answer to a question about a future action—the example you give is asking your dogs “Which way?” while taking them on a walk.
VC: Questioning is very important in human group behavior. To pose a question is to show interest in the thoughts of someone else. Young dogs also question us: Where do we go? Which way? Who is coming? Who goes down with me? Is it permitted? And so on. If people are careful and answer the questions, it can soon become a regular method of communication with the dog. If questions do not get attention, dogs give up, just like human children.
If I go for a walk with Jerry, at a crossroads I frequently ask a question: “Which way?” If I ask, then he carefully sniffs in both directions and selects the “better” one and starts to go. If I am not posing the question, then he just follows me.
B: I also took delight in your “do as I do,” dogs imitating their humans—could you suggest an example that our readers might try with their dogs?
VC: When I tried it first with Jerry, I put a chair in the middle of my room and placed a rubber toy behind him, then I performed one of three possible actions: put the toy on the chair, go around the chair, or stand on the chair. After each performance I asked him to follow. With some help, he was successful after three to four days, three to four trials each day. After this, I moved the chair somewhere else, and requested only one action each time. When he performed the action well, I showed him new actions: place the toy into a bucket, for example. Dogs usually learn this after a week. However, the rigorous scientific training procedure is not so simple. We will have a published paper about this research soon explaining all the “tricks” in detail.
B: What do you think of Rico, the Border Collie in Germany who made the news last year because he could differentiate the names of so many different toys?
VC: In my view, the Border Collie represents a very interesting case, suggesting that dogs indeed have the potential for fast “word” learning. Of course, this does not mean that they could acquire language like children, but they might have some skills for recognizing the connection between a novel vocalization (“word”) and the presence of a novel object.
The performance of this dog resembles that of a 14- to 16-month-old baby; this is in general agreement with what dogs can achieve in other faculties of mind [relative] to human cognition. This study also hints that in the case of “talented” individuals, with special training or “education,” dogs can show an even higher potential for social cognition than has been appreciated so far.
B: Are you familiar with Dr. Temple Grandin? She is the autistic animal scientist, and in, Animals in Translation, she compares the way she thinks and feels to that of animals. Because of her autism she thinks in “pictures” and not in “language,” similar to the way dogs and other animals perceive the world. The perspective she brings to this subject is quite amazing. Can thinking in pictures rather than language explain many of problems that researchers are faced with when they develop language-based testing for animals?
VC: I do think that dogs are thinking in pictures, and even many people are able to do that, not only [those who are autistic]. My best scientific ideas come from thinking in pictures. To some people this is very strange, they feel they can think only in the medium of language. I hope that understanding our thinking processes will get us closer to understanding animals, especially dogs, which are already “more” than animals in the area of thinking.
B: I agree with you about the importance of social intelligence and that the mind needs to be exercised—how can dog people best exercise and enrich their dogs’ minds?
VC: As a result of their unique evolution, dogs have the potential to be humans’ best friends. However, this is not an automatic process, it depends crucially on the human partner. Just as we have a responsibility for our children, dogs require the same attention on our part. They are very much social animals, like humans, and depend in their development on continuous and variable social input from the environment. This means that they do not only need to be walked twice a day, but strive for substantial social interactions, which can take the form of play or joint sporting or even training.
B: What do you consider to be the most exciting research currently in progress about cognitive abilities in dogs?
VC: In my view, the study of dog cognition could still reveal some interesting secrets. Our work on imitation is far from over. At the department we have now a couple of young dogs who are able to imitate simple body movements, so now we can investigate in detail what they really understand from each other’s and their own body movements. We also study their barking, how they express vocal signals and how they interpret such signals.
Illustration by Gerard Dubois