The dog delusion: why your mutt might be smarter than he looks

Eyes on the prize: prolonged eye contact with a dog has been shown to produce oxytocin - 'the hug hormone' - in both dog and owner. photograph: rachel hogue/getty

Eyes on the prize: prolonged eye contact with a dog has been shown to produce oxytocin - 'the hug hormone' - in both dog and owner. photograph: rachel hogue/getty

Sat, Feb 23, 2013, 00:00

When it comes to communication, our four-legged friends could teach us a thing or two

Dog lovers look at their furry friends with a forgiving eye. Cute, they’ll say. Or cheeky. Sometimes even “daft as a brush”. But the words “genius” and “dog” in the same sentence – well, that has been a rare occurrence. Until now.

The Genius of Dogs begins by barking at its own title: “Most dogs can do little more than sit and stay, and can barely walk on a lead,” writes the book’s coauthor Brian Hare, professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, in the US. “They are baffled when a squirrel disappears up a tree by circling the trunk, and most will happily drink out of the toilet bowl.” This is hardly the profile of a typical genius.

But if you take an evolutionary perspective, the game changes dramatically.

According to Darwinian principles, intelligence in animals is measured by how successfully they survive and reproduce. Dogs are well established in all corners of the human world, working as bomb disposal experts, helping with conservation projects by sniffing out the scat of endangered species, visiting retirement homes and hospitals, lounging around on the couch watching TV.

This, says Hare, is what makes the dog “arguably the most successful mammal on the planet, besides us”.

Hare calls this success “the survival of the friendliest”. The accepted wisdom in the doggy fraternity at present is that domestic dogs evolved from wolves between 12,000 and 40,000 years ago, when our ancestor adopted wolf puppies, or when wolves and humans began to hunt together. Given our animosity towards wolves, Hare says this is unlikely. Instead, he suggests, some wolves spontaneously decided hunting was a mug’s game: it was much easier to scavenge on Ice Age leftovers. And so, over the generations, the most tolerant wolves pretty much domesticated themselves.

Hare produces reams of scientific studies in pursuit of his thesis, including first-hand reports from Africa, where he looked at cognition in chimps and bonobos, and Siberia, where he examined a breeding experiment with silver foxes.

But can Hare scientifically explain why, when a human eats a biscuit within shouting distance of a labrador, the dog will gaze intently at them until they feel so guilty they part with a chunk of it? Yes, actually.

“There’s some really nice evidence showing that dogs that make eye contact with their owner more often, and for more sustained periods of time, actually create a physiological response in the owner,” he says. Prolonged eye contact with a dog has been shown to produce oxytocin – in both dog and owner. “It’s known as ‘the hug hormone’,” says Hare. “It makes you feel good and want to look after them and take care of them.”

In other words, we’re suckers for this gazing thing? “Yeah: ‘They’re hijacking a pleasure pathway,’ is a more evolutionary way to say it,” he says.

At the moment, the “alpha male” theory of dog training demands that the owner establish firm control of the animal using a sharp tone of voice and a certain physical stance. Hare’s findings suggest this approach is misguided.

Wolf training

“Nobody has evaluated those training techniques in a systematic way, so I can’t say they work, and I can’t say they don’t work,” he says. “What I can say is that the rationale behind them is faulty. The rationale is, well, wolves are this very despotic species and the reason we can’t train our dogs is we’re not using the pack structure that’s observed in wolves.”

But wolves – even those raised around humans – are almost impossible to train. And research on feral dogs show that their packs are nothing like wolf packs.

“Feral dogs form packs in which there is no real hierarchy. Everybody follows the friendliest dog, not the one that’s the most aggressive and physically dominant.” Be nicer to your dog, in other words, and it might be more obedient.

Being nice to dogs you don’t know is another matter. That’s why German shepherds, pit-bulls and other restricted breeds are legally obliged to wear a muzzle in the park, right? Wrong. Hare is adamant that breed-specific rules make no scientific sense.

“If you go to the literature on dog aggression, there’s not a single paper that can show that any one breed is more aggressive than the other,” he says. “There’s no quantitative data suggesting that bull terrier breeds are in any way more aggressive than any other breed.”

Such is the genetic complexity of doggy inheritance that a dog which looks tough may be anything but, while a dog which looks like a pushover can be quite the opposite.

“Dogs bite people all the time,” says Hare. “It’s a serious problem. I’m not trying to downplay that. But it’s not that pit bulls are doing it.” Rather, research shows that leaving any young male dog and any young male child together, unsupervised, is an absolute no-no.

“It’s just silly to make a breed-specific law and think, Now we’re safe,” Hare says. “The pattern that shows up again and again in the literature is, it’s in your own home and it’s your own dog – if the dog is un-neutered and the child is under the age of 10. That’s what we should be communicating to people.”


The Genius of Dogs, by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, is published by Oneworld on Thursday

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