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Tell the dogs something they haven't known all along

Posted: 02/16/2013 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

Last Modified: 02/16/2013 1:43 PM | Updates

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Here's the question: Do you think your dog is a genius?

Here's the answer: Of course you do. All dog owners, in their heart of hearts, are convinced their drooling pet is the canine version of Einstein, only with better grooming.

The thing is, they're right: dogs are geniuses.

In this well-researched, highly readable book, author Brian Hare -- a scientist who is becoming known throughout the world as "that dog guy" -- has laid out a compelling argument for the unique genius of man's best friend.

It's not that your dog has the skill to paint a masterpiece or compose a symphony; it's just that domesticated dogs have developed a special kind of intelligence that gives them more in common with human infants than their wolf ancestors.

Written with his co-researcher and wife, Vanessa Woods, The Genius of Dogs is the first book to provide a complete look at the new world of "dog cognition," which has been playfully dubbed "dognition."

For hundreds of years, researchers largely overlooked the millions of domesticated dogs that serve as pets or service animals, comfortably working alongside humans.

But in the last 10 years, there has been something of a revolution in the study of canine intelligence, and Hare has been the scientist leading the charge.

"We have learned more about how dogs think in the past decade than we have in the previous century," Hare writes. "This book is about how cognitive science has come to understand the genius of dogs through experimental games using nothing much more high-tech than toys, cups, balls and anything else lying around the garage."

An evolutionary anthropologist, Hare is also the director of the Duke Canine Cognition Centre. Most importantly, he's a dog lover. And, thankfully, he's not a blowhard.

In journalism, there's a warning: When dealing with experts, beware the expertise. The concern is when academics write books, they tend to bash readers over the head with scientific jargon in an effort to ensure everyone understands just how clever they are.

Thankfully, Hare, aided by his journalist wife, has crafted a game-changing book that, while faithfully documenting complex research, is clear, jargon-free and relies on a simple narrative style to deliver a truly gripping read.

If you're a dog lover, you'll enjoy it. If science is your passion, you'll probably enjoy it even more.

What does Hare mean when he says dogs are geniuses? Well, he's mostly referring to their ability to spontaneously make inferences, to solve problems by reading human gestures.

Hare recalls his time working at Emory University under a professor named Mike Tomasello, who was trying to figure out what makes us human. One day, Mike was lamenting that only humans understand "communicative intentions," which allow us to spontaneously and flexibly use gestures, such as pointing.

At that moment, the author had a flash of insight. "I think my dog can do it," he blurted.

And, through a series of experiments in his parents' garage with their dog, Oreo, he proved just that. It turns out that dogs have a unique ability to follow human gestures, such as pointing, to locate a food reward hidden under one of a series of plastic cups.

In fact, dogs are at the top of the class compared with wolves and chimps and other wild animals. "In short," Hare writes, "Mike and I concluded that dogs have communicative skills that are amazingly similar to those of infants."

The long-standing belief is that domesticated dogs are less intelligent than wild animals such as wolves and foxes, yet the central point of The Genius of Dogs is that the opposite is true -- human contact has actually increased the genius of the species.

With a nod to Darwin, Hare says survival of the friendliest led dogs to domesticate themselves. A friendly wild dog, one that was willing to tolerate proximity to humans, was favoured with a great reward -- a new food supply known as "garbage."

Hare also dispels the myth that scientists have had their senses of humour surgically removed.

In one chapter, he recounts a hilarious, if uncomfortable, evening spent in a Russian sauna, where the other researchers insisted on calling him "Brain" instead of Brian.

"I sat naked in a Russian banya," he writes. "The air in the sauna was so dry and hot, it scorched my windpipe all the way down to my lungs ... The other eight Russian men, also naked, were leaning against the cedar walls, their eyes closed in ecstasy, as though slowly roasting yourself alive was the most relaxing thing in the world."

There's a lot more vodka and jumping through holes in the ice involved, but you can find that out for yourself. We also aren't going to tell you whether Hare reveals which breed of dog is the smartest.

You're going to have to go out and buy the book. In fact, we suggest you pick up two -- get one for your dog, because, after all, he's a genius.

Doug Speirs is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 16, 2013 J10

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Updated on Saturday, February 16, 2013 at 1:43 PM CST: adds fact box

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