Reviewed by Boulder Dog Food Company LLC
Brian Hare is an associate professor in the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University where he founded the Duke Canine Cognition Center. This book details his investigation into how dogs evolved from wolves and why their intelligence can be considered “genius” in many senses of the word.
In terms of animal cognition, intelligence is judged firstly by how well the species has reproduced and survived in different parts of the world. However in some species – the authors give cockroaches as an example – survival depends less on intelligence than on pure hardiness and great reproductive abilities. But surviving for most animals does take a form of intellect to overcome the obstacles that nature and human beings put in their way. Given this as the basis for assessing intelligence, Brian Hare makes the claim that “the dog is arguably the most successful animal on the planet, besides us. Dogs have spread to all corners of the world, including inside our homes, and in some cases onto our beds. While the majority of mammals on the planet have seen a steep decline in their populations as a result of human activity, there have never been more dogs on the planet than today.”
A cognitive approach recognizes that there are many different kinds of intelligence throughout the animal kingdom, including for humans. Neuroscientists believe that the brain is like a computer in that individual parts are specialized to solve different problems. Memory is a well-recognized cognitive ability, but there are many different forms of it including memory for faces, events, facts, navigation etc. So it is no surprise that IQ tests only measure a very narrow slice of intelligence.
According to Hare, “The genius of dogs – of all animals, for that matter, including humans – has two criteria:
1. A mental skill that is strong compared with others, either within your own species or in closely related species
2. The ability to spontaneously make inferences”
Hare and his co-author, Vanessa Woods, then relate the many experiments they conducted that prove how dogs excel using the above criteria. The really interesting fact emerges that they excel because of domestication. Their desire to please humans makes them learn more like human infants than wolves.
When scientists started to study animal cognition, it was believed that the intelligence of domesticated animals had been dulled since they were by-products of human breeding and they had lost the skills to survive in the wilderness. Hare discovered the opposite was true, that “our relationship with dogs gave them an extraordinary kind of intelligence.” In essence he argues, “they were smart enough to come in from the cold and become part of the family.”
Wolves arrived on the scene roughly 2 million years ago and migrated from North America to Asia, Europe and Africa. Many wild carnivores and of course, the Neanderthals, went extinct when modern humans arrived in Europe 43,000 years ago. Humans became the socially dominant carnivores and, apart from the brown bear and the wolf, few other predators survived.
Archaeological and genetic evidence suggests that dogs began evolving from wolves between 12,000-40,000 years ago. Domestication requires genetic changes over many generations. The process of how wolves evolved into dogs remains controversial. One theory holds that wolf puppies were brought into the home and tamed. Hare disputes this accounting since the wolves would have competed with modern man for food – both would have been fiercely possessive of their food and would have fought each other for it.
Hare believes that dogs were “self-domesticated.” He explains this term by saying that the least fearful and aggressive animals had a natural advantage in dealing with humans and that this population evolved on its own to survive and prosper with the newly dominant humans. He believes that these less aggressive animals would have been more successful in foraging near human settlements because they would have posed less of a threat. Subsequent generations would have reinforced these less threatening characteristics of the wolves until, eventually, physiological changes appeared (e.g. floppy ears, splotchy coats) to make themselves more recognizable to humans. An offshoot of domestication was their ability to interpret human gestures. So essentially, natural selection, predisposed to friendliness, led to the self-domestication of dogs.
Hare traveled the globe to see the same kind of natural selection favoring the most friendly members of other species: to Siberia to see an experiment with silver foxes, to New Guinea to see the Singing Dogs, to the Congo to see the bonobos. Hare believes that this same natural selection can be seen throughout the animal kingdom, including in humans.
Selection for friendliness and cooperation and against aggression allowed humans to cooperate and communicate. Early humans would have seen the advantages in sharing food, protecting one another, and caring for each other’s children – which eventually would have led to more reproductive success. Contrary to earlier beliefs that natural selection always favors the smartest, this is the case only if it goes along with the friendliest.
In attempting to answer the question of which breed of dog is the smartest, there are many things to consider including the specific kind of intelligence being sought – working or obedience intelligence. But the short answer is that no breed is clearly the winner. And, there is as much variation within each breed as there is between different breeds.
Although there are broad differences in personality and behavior traits between breeds, it is important to recognize that dogs are genetically very similar despite their specific breed or appearance. Most of the breeds recognized today are less than 150 years old. The dog genome, published in 2003, allowed geneticists to finally confirm their wolf ancestry along with the fact that dogs are still 99.96% wolf. Their physical appearances may vary greatly, but only a small number of dog genes are responsible for the variations in size, skulls, coats and other morphological traits.
The genius of dogs is their ability, across all breeds, to understand verbal and visual communication from humans. A cognitive approach to training works well because dogs are motivated to cooperate with humans and because they can make inferences from solving past problem to tackle new problems.
The domestication of dogs has been a complete success story. Toward the end of his book, Hare concludes, “Dogs show an affiliation toward humans that is unlike any other in the animal kingdom. They prefer humans to their own species and can behave like human infants toward their parents. If the dictionary defines love as ‘a feeling of warm, personal attachment, or deep affection,’ then this is definitely what dogs have for us.” It is up to us to demonstrate that we deserve this devotion.