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
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.”