As an anthropology student at Harvard, Brian Hare had a hunch. Although he was studying the cognitive capabilities of chimpanzees, his mind wandered to his youth, to playing fetch with his dog in the backyard. While the chimps he was analyzing failed to read his basic physical communications, Hare recalled how his dog would follow his pointed finger to a hidden stick or ball.” I was studying how chimp cognition compared to human cognition, and the chimps were doing poorly,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘My dog can do this. This is ridiculous.’”
So he left the resources of one of the nation's premier science facilities and traveled to his parents’ garage in Atlanta, where his subjects included Daisy and Oreo—two Labrador Retrievers. After a few rudimentary tests, his hunch was confirmed, his interest was piqued and the theories on canine cognition were about to change.
Ray Coppinger, professor of biology at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and author of Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution (Scribner), lauds Hare’s quest. “As an initial experiment it’s rather interesting,” he says. “Hare is trying to get at the deeper message—the suggestion that dogs have minds.”
The group’s main test was labeled the object choice paradigm, in which “An experimenter hides a piece of food in one of two opaque containers, and the subject, who did not see where the food was hidden, is allowed to choose only one. Before presenting the subject with the choice, the experimenter gives a communicative cue indicating the food’s location, for example, by looking at, pointing to, tapping on, or placing a marker on the correct container.”
The team posed three hypotheses:
Canid Generalization Hypothesis—Many canids (especially wolves) should perform at least as well as dogs on social tasks, as has been found previously with non-social tasks.
“The idea was to compare our closest relative, chimps, to dogs and wolves and see who is more expert at reading humans,” says Hare.“ We thought we’d use chimps as the yardstick; it turned out that dogs are the experts.”
“What was fascinating was discovering that dogs don’t require exposure to humans to use these social cues,” says Hare.
“The big surprise for me was the puppies,” says Hare. “They were litter-reared, and even at a young age they did well.”
In simpler terms: “We sought to discover the origin of this ability,” says Hare. “We showed that there has been cognitive evolution; there has been a change in the cognitive abilities of dogs as a result of evolution. Dogs who could read human cues were more likely to survive, more likely to reproduce and pass their genes on to the next generation.”
“Dogs are so good at flexibly using social cues; over-training can be worse than not training at all. Over-training may make a dog less flexible.” Ray Coppinger agrees. “From a training point of view, if the average dog owner thought their dog had a mind, it could affect how humanely they treat the animal,” he says.
From humble beginnings in his parents’ garage to the discoveries that await him in Siberia, Hare examines the warm bond between man and dog in the cold realm of science, and sheds new light on a phenomenon that dog lovers have always recognized.
“It seems as though dogs, potentially through evolution, have been molded to be sensitive to human needs,” he says. “I don’t think dog owners were surprised by my findings. This is something that all dog owners intuitively know is true.”
Illustration by Graham Roumieu