The friendly brain of family dogs

Research on how pets think and bond with people could teach us more about ourselves

CorrespondentJuly 5, 2010 

  • Brian Hare

    Title: Assistant professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University

    Age: 34

    Family: Wife, Vanessa Woods

    Education: Harvard University, Ph.D. in biological anthropology (2004); Harvard, M.A. in anthropology (2000); Emory University, B.A. in anthropology and psychology and human and natural ecology (1998)

    Philosophy: "I try to chase a question I am passionate about answering to the end of the world if necessary. I love everything about discovery - particularly when it might give us insight into the mind of another being, and this understanding might lead to a more compassionate world."

— Rocky was hungry. But when a stranger tried to give him food, the pooch had to decide whether he trusted her as she pointed to where some tasty morsels might hide.

Initially, he stared at her finger, refusing to move. Finally, he trotted to the cup she had hidden the food under and knocked it over.

Rocky is a 3-1/2-year-old Pekinese, and his trust test is one of many run daily at the Canine Cognition Center at Duke University. The lab uses ordinary family pets such as Rocky in different behavioral experiments to help researchers understand how dogs think and bond with humans - and vice versa.

"It's interesting to see how Rocky makes decisions and how he reacts based on how he feels about the researcher running the experiment," said Claudia King, a Greensboro resident who owns Rocky and plans to return to the lab for more experiments. "All of this makes me think about dogs' thought processes and how they think. There's a lot more to them than we know."

Brian Hare, the Duke evolutionary anthropology researcher who runs the center, opened his lab last fall as part of a small research field nationwide looking at canine cognition. The hope is that knowing more about what goes on in dogs' minds and how they communicate will improve training programs for service and companion dogs and offer a deeper glimpse into human psychology.

In fact, it's possible that humans are responsible for dogs' cognitive abilities.

"It very well could be a product of domestication - the effect of dogs living with humans for so long - that led to dogs evolving with the skills to understand and interpret," Hare said. "Finding out how this evolved in dogs could help us figure out how the same skills evolved in our species."

Through generations of living with people, dogs have learned to perform high-functioning mental cartwheels, Hare said. They have a social intelligence that eludes even primates who have long been considered humanity's closest relative.

By simply fetching a ball or gobbling up food on the floor when their owner points to it, dogs, including puppies, show they can read and understand hand gestures. Primates can't make the same connection.

"Despite being very smart and cunning, chimps struggle with this behavior," Hare said. "They can't solve this really simple problem. So, the fact that they can't and dogs can makes this very important information in understanding the link between human and canine behaviors."

A shell game to test trust

To test how quickly and accurately dogs process hand gestures, Hare and his group test them with a modified shell game. Hare shows the dog a piece of food, hides it under a cup, and steps back to see if the dog can find it. Then the test gets harder. He adds a cup, shields both while he hides the food, steps back and points to the cup hiding the treat.

At first, most dogs hesitate to trust anyone other than their owner to lead them to food. Over time, however, many realize strangers can also be truthful about where to find snacks. The question is how and why they make that deduction.

"We tell people that this is a 'does your dog love and trust you more than a stranger' test," Hare said. "But we're really gathering evidence to support whether dogs have the ability to be flexible about understanding our intentions and what we want them to do."

Trusting humans and correctly interpreting gestures prove dogs can recognize hand movements as conveying the thoughts and desires of another animal - in this case, a human.

Discovering how dogs evolved with this ability, which is also evident in 12-to-18-month-old toddlers, can potentially uncover what makes the human species unique, Hare said.

How big a gesture is made directly affects whether a dog will successfully interpret the cue, according to evidence from the University of Florida's Canine Cognition and Behavior Lab.

Duke's lab has registered 750 dogs for studies to determine what occurred in canine history that gave dogs the ability to understand human social behaviors. Eventually, they'll apply the research results to real-world scenarios that could benefit from improved interactions with dogs.

Why study how dogs think?

Historically, researchers claimed studying an animal's mind was impossible because animals were limited to learning simple responses rather than performing higher thought processes or decision-making. This isn't true, Hare said, especially with dogs trained to be companion or service animals.

Evidence is growing to show that dogs play an important role in human happiness and in helping people with physical disabilities, Hare said, and the demand for service animals is greater than the supply.

Understanding how dogs absorb and process information can lead to better training programs and a larger number of dogs passing the exam to be service animals. These programs have a 50 percent failure rate because some dogs cannot transition between handlers or learn appropriate behaviors. Hare said designing the programs around how dogs solve problems could overcome those learning issues and result in improved graduation rates.

In addition, Hare's research results could also produce dogs that are better prepared to navigate the streets for the visually impaired. The findings could develop assessment tools that identify which dogs can adapt and remember locations in relation to other landmarks regardless of their direction of approach, he said.

Barbara Sherman, an associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine at N.C. State University who specializes in canine behavior, agreed that knowing more about how dogs think could aid the companion animal industry.

"Some contemporary dog training techniques are not based on science, and they make erroneous assumptions about dogs' motivations," she said. "Dogs are highly sophisticated, and I am hopeful that research like what Dr. Hare is doing at Duke will help us understand how to shape training programs based on canine behavior and not how people behave."

whitneyljhowell@gmail.com

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