The Brilliance of the Dog Mind

New science reveals the multiple intelligences of mankind’s best friend

By Gareth Cook

Scientist Brian Hare with his dog Tassie, aka Tasmanian Devil Image: Gretchen Mathison
Scientist Brian Hare with his dog Tassie, aka Tasmanian Devil Image: Gretchen Mathison

Just about every dog owner is convinced their dog is a genius. For a long time, scientists did not take their pronouncements particularly seriously, but new research suggests that canines are indeed quite bright, and in some ways unique. Brian Hare, an associate professor in the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University, is one of the leading figures in the quest to understand what dogs know. The founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, Hare has now written a book, “The Genius of Dogs,” with his wife, the journalist Vanessa Woods. Hare answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.

Cook: What is the biggest misconception people have about the dog mind?
Hare: That there are “smart” dogs and “dumb” dogs. There’s still this throwback to a uni-dimensional version of intelligence, as though there is only one type of intelligence that you either have more or less of.

In reality there are different types of intelligence. Different dogs are good at different things. Unfortunately, the very clever strategies some dogs are using are not apparent without playing a cognitive game. This means people can often underestimate the intelligence of their best friend. The pug drooling on your shoe may not look like the brightest bulb in the box, but she comes from a long line of successful dogs and is a member of the most successful mammal species on the planet besides us. Rest assured – she is a genius.

Cook: What are the “different things” that dogs are good at? What are the areas of dog intelligence you have studied?
Hare: We know that as a species, dogs are remarkable in certain areas, like taking someone else’s visual perspective, or learning from someone else’s actions. In particular, I’ve been interested in how dogs recruit help and how they take someone else’s visual perspective. However, most of my research with dogs has been about the cooperative way they use human communicative gestures. Or put more simply, how they can interpret our gestures to understand us or get what they want.

Cook: But other animals are intelligent, right? What makes dogs unique?
Hare: Absolutely. Other animals have their own unique genius that was shaped by nature. In the case of dogs it happens to be their ability to read our communicative gestures. We take it for granted that dogs can effortlessly use our pointing gestures to find a hidden toy or morsel of food, but no other species can spontaneously read our communicative gestures as flexibly as dogs can. It allows them to be incredible social partners with us, whether it’s hunting, or agility, or just navigating every day life.  Their ability to interpret our gestures also helps them solves problems they can’t solve on their own.

Cook: I see you have created a new website, Dognition. Can you tell me about it?
Hare: Dognition is about helping people find the genius in their dog. The only way to find their genius is to compare them to other dogs who all play the same cognitive games. As I said, different dogs use different strategies to solve problems. Does your dog rely on you to solve problems, or are they more independent? Do they pay attention to where you are looking before they decide to sneak food off the coffee table, or are they unaware when you are watching —  making it hard for them to be sneaky?

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