If you think your dog is genius, you may not be projecting.
Oreo, Brian Hare’s childhood dog understood where to go when Brian would point. But as an undergraduate, his college adviser said dogs don’t understand gestures.
The adviser was wrong.
Thus began a journey for Brian that would turn him into a dog expert – and the director of the Duke University Canine Cognition Center. Brian is the co-author of “The Genius of Dogs: How Your Dog Might Be Smarter Than You Think.” And you should know this isn’t your average dog owner’s manual.
“If you turn to the back, there is over 70 pages of references,” Brian told KIRO Radio host Dave Ross. The book is backed up by scientific research – most of which has been done over the past 10 years.
Brian says scientists have found that dogs are more like infants than many primates. Many scientists were excited to find out why that is and understand dogs better. His book reviews what’s been learned since science got excited about dog psychology.
Take gestures, for example – something that Oreo understood. What we know is when little kids begin to learn language and participate in culture one of the things that scaffolds their ability to turn into adults is their understanding of human gestures.
Brian’s adviser suggested they play some games with kids, “and what we found is the dog that I had grown up with was doing many of the things that children do, but that our closes relatives, like bonobos and chimpanzees don’t do, which was a real surprise.”
Not only can your dog understand when you point in a direction, but according to Brian, they can make inferences too.
While dogs can take in what we’re trying to tell them, they can also make inferences about what you’re trying to communicate. They also infer what they can and cannot do when you can see them.
The latter is something that isn’t often associated with dogs being clever, but Brian says it should be.
While your dog might not try to sneak a snack from the kitchen table when you’re in the room, they may try if you leave them to their own devices.
“When dogs are sort of disobedient it’s not because they don’t understand. It’s that they’re being really sophisticated in choosing when they have to listen to us, or when they can ignore us.”
How do dogs choose their favorite people? Brian says their is evidence that dogs watch how people interact. The dog knows when someone is nice to someone else.
Let’s not forget, dogs communicate through olfactory signals. Their perceptive nose helps police dogs smell out bombs, or even detect cancer in people.
One of Brian’s favorite stories of late, is about a dog in Japan. “[The dog’s been trained] to smell your breath to tell if you have colon cancer. [The dog’s] as effective as a colonoscopy – so I would possibly raise my hand for the dog smelling my breath to the colonoscopy.”
And their nose, is why, no matter how smart they are and how many times you tell them not use the neighbor’s lawn as the bathroom, they’ll keep going back. That’s how your dog and the neighbor dogs communicate with each other.