Duke professor explores ‘The Genius of Dogs’

mschultz@newsobserver.comMarch 23, 2013 

  • “The Genius of Dogs:”

    An excerpt

    Just about everyone thinks domestication makes animals somehow weaker or less noble or just plain dumber, since our assumption is that humans created domestic animals for our own needs. People think of wild animals as noble and natural, and domesticated animals as artificial and engineered. It turns out the truth is more nuanced, once we consider the origin of domestic animals.”

— Call it an anti-spoiler.

Before Duke professor Brian Hare started telling the audience what was in his new book, he started telling them what was not in it.

“There’s no sex,” he said. “There’s no romance.”

Both were in “Bonobo Handshake,” the book his wife and co-author Vanessa Woods wrote about the couple’s work and love affair while studying rare apes in Africa.

Compared to that book, subtitled “A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo,” Hare said their new collaboration, “The Genius of Dogs,” might even seem a little dry.

His talk before a full house at Chapel Hill’s Flyleaf Books, however, quickly disproved that. People who may have never heard of bonobos can’t seem to get enough of dogs.

“Who would ever call a book ‘The Genius of Dogs?” Hare began. “They drink out of a toilet bowl. They chase their tail.”

“But I’m here to tell you they are,” he said.

“Genius” is not a dog-training book. You don’t get prescriptions for teaching your pet to sit, stay and come.

You do get Hare’s take on why dogs, in their own way, are as smart and in some ways smarter than more lauded species like the great apes and dolphins.

And it all started with a Lab named Oreo in Hare’s parents’ garage.

Hare noticed that Oreo – a slobbery beast whose previous claim to fame was being able to carry four tennis balls in his mouth – could follow his human friend’s gaze and gestures.

If you have a dog, that may not seem so revelatory. But in the cognition field, it’s long been thought the ability to “read” or infer meaning from unspoken communication was a particularly human trait. Babies as young as nine months start paying attention to and understanding gestures.

One day, talking with a professor, Hare said, “I think my dog can do that.”

What he meant, he told the bookstore crowd, was that he could point in a direction and Oreo would follow the gesture and find the ball. Later experiments found the dog finding items under cups or directed to hidden items with a simple shifting of the body or casting of the eyes.

And it turns out Oreo wasn’t especially special, Hare said. Other dogs could do it too.

No other species has been able to do that, he said Chimps, our closest living relatives, are the only animal that approaches dogs, but only if they have been raised with humans.

And, Hare continued, dogs’ abilities to infer meaning go further.

When faced with a situation they have not seen before, dogs figure stuff out.

Say a dog knows its red ball and yellow handkerchief, Hare said. Tell it to go get a third object – make up a name for it – and the dog will go get the object it knows is not the red ball or yellow handkerchief.

It’s not true of every dog, Hare said. “But the only other species that does it is dogs,” he said.

If the book stopped there, it would be a fun read. But Hare, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology and the founder of Duke’s Canine Cognition Center, keeps going.

The unique intelligence of dogs, he says, may explain while the species has become ubiquitous, thriving in unprecedented numbers around the world, while its wild cousin the wolf clings precariously to survival in those few pockets it has left.

It explains too how dogs continue to find new roles assisting their human partners, becoming the eyes and ears of people with disabilities, anticipating seizures before they occur, or cancer sometimes months before medical tests.

Dogs, Hare posits, may have even evolved precisely to live alongside humans – and perhaps, as others also theorize, vice-versa.

This co-evolution theory may seem far-fetched, but Hare says dogs may have domesticated us as much as the other way around.

Still, not buying it?

Play “the staring game,” he says.

Look into your dog’s eyes – they’re one of the few species that will hold your gaze. In scientific studies, researchers have found the shared eye contact raises blood levels of oxytocin.

“It’s called the hug hormone,” Hare said. “Essentially what they’re doing is they’re making you love them.”

Hare paused while the audience laughed.

“From an evolutionary perspective, your dog’s manipulating you,” he said. “From your own personal perspective, it’s wonderful.”

Schultz: 919-932-2003

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