How smart is your dog?

CARL ZIMMER

In 1995, Brian Hare began to wonder what his dog Oreo was thinking. Back then he was a sophomore at Emory University, in Georgia, US, studying animal psychology with Michael Tomasello. Tomasello was comparing the social intelligence of humans and other animals. Humans, it was known at the time, are exquisitely sensitive to signals from other humans. We use that information to solve problems that we might struggle to figure out on our own.

Tomasello discovered that chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, typically fail to notice much of this social information. Pointing to the location of a hidden banana will usually not help a chimp find the banana, for example. Perhaps the pointing test revealed something important about how the human mind evolved.

But Hare had his doubts. "I think my dog can do that," he declared. To persuade his mentor, he videotaped Oreo chasing after tennis balls. And indeed, when he pointed left or right, off the dog would run, in the indicated direction, to find a ball. He then followed up with a full-blown experiment, using food hidden under cups in his garage; Oreo consistently picked out the right cup after Hare pointed to it, and other dogs did well too.

After he got his doctorate in biological anthropology from Harvard, Hare and his colleagues finally published their results: Dogs could indeed pass the pointing test, while wolves, their wild relatives, could not.

Hare, now an associate professor at Duke, has continued to probe the canine mind, and he hopes to expand his research geometrically—with the help of dog owners around the world. He is the chief scientific officer of a new company called Dognition, which produces a website where people can test their dog's cognition, learn about their pets.

From his previous research, Hare has argued that dogs evolved their extraordinary social intelligence once their ancestors began lingering around early human settlements. As he and his wife, Vanessa Woods, explain in their new book, The Genius of Dogs, natural selection favoured the dogs that did a better job of figuring out the intentions of humans. While this evolution gave dogs one cognitive gift, it didn't make them more intelligent in general.

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