Is your dog smarter than the average mutt? Are dogs smarter than other animals? If our canine companions really are geniuses, how can we tell?
When Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods set out to discover just what it is that has made man’s best friend so attractive to humans than other mammals, they broke new ground in our understanding of dogs—largely because research into dog intelligence had never been studied before!
“Genius means that someone can be gifted with one type of cognition while being average or below average in another.” With this in mind, the authors focused on two criteria: they sought to determine whether dogs have (1) strong mental skills compared with others in their own or closely related species, and (2) the ability to make inferences.
We might reasonably expect dogs and wolves to perform equally well in tests designed to study these criteria. Surprisingly, however, the two appear to have little in common when it comes to most of the cognitive skills written about by Hare and Woods. In a carefully crafted maze problem, for example, “wolves quickly solved all the various detour problems” while dogs wandered aimlessly for a long time without showing any evidence that they learned from hitting dead ends.
One of the most common beliefs among those who’ve spent time with dogs is that dogs are cognizant of their own ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behavior (“More than 75 percent of owners believe their dog feels guilty for disobeying”). Based on the results of an experiment conducted by Alexandra Horowitz, it appears that dogs who seem to feel guilt about their behavior are actually responding to their owners’ chiding tone of voice and corresponding body language.
It may be this ability of dogs to interpret human language and behavior that is the true genius of the species. No other animal has been so successful at creating a symbiotic and sympathetic relationship with human beings.
Hare and Woods track research from around the globe and share it, complete with extensive end notes, in The Genius of Dogs. In the process, they answer questions that many of us have pondered: Do dogs really understand what we’re saying? Did we domesticate dogs or ws it the other way around? Are some dog breeds smarter than others?
The authors do an excellent job of summarizing a multitude of experiments without sacrificing the most important components of the studies. Case studies and personal stories about human-dog relationships keep the book fresh and relevant for the average reader, although those who are keenly interested in the science will enjoy those sections, as well. Anyone who loves or ever has loved a dog will benefit from reading The Genius of Dogs.