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What in the World is Your Dog Thinking?

The social skills that dogs developed over time have resulted in the warm co-existence we enjoy with them in our culture today. But, what exactly goes on in the mind of a dog that contributes to their special connections with us?

Since the earliest recorded history of man, dogs have been closely linked in our lives for their hunting skills, guarding abilities and warmth on a cold night. Many experts say that first, wolves learned to perform tasks and follow rules and they were rewarded with scraps of food. As wolves became more comfortable around people they eventually domesticated themselves and became man’s best friend.

The social skills that dogs developed over time have resulted in the warm co-existence we enjoy with them in our culture today. But, what exactly goes on in the mind of a dog that contributes to their special connections with us?

Dr. Brian Hare, an Assistant Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University’s Institute for Brain Sciences, is one scientist on a mission to find the answers. Hare clinically observes dogs to understand how evolution changes cognition. He is attempting to document canine psychology — ‘dog thinking’ — that currently does not exist in the field of brain science.

Hare recently established the Duke Canine Cognition Center (DCCC), a lab at Duke University, filled with cameras, microphones and a team of researchers. Each day, volunteer owners bring their dogs to this unusual lab where they are tested and evaluated. Hare uses a series of experiments, then records — in great detail — what dogs do when they are given commands and shown gestures. He looks closely at how dogs solve games and problems and how they interact with their owners. (PHOTO of DCCC courtesy of D.L. Anderson, www.dlanderson.com)

“Dogs have to learn how to interact with humans in much the same way that small children do,” Hare points out. “I want to determine if dogs also think about their world and arrive at solutions as small children do. If they don’t then how are they different? How do dogs figure out what we want and don’t want? How do they interpret what our gestures mean?”

Before owners bring their dogs to the DCCC, they fill out a questionnaire that records breed characteristics, medical history, behavior, obedience traits, and home life. There are also questions that give owners a chance to express their dog’s individuality, such as “Does your dog have any special abilities? Does your dog ever do anything that surprises you?” (PHOTO of DCCC courtesy of D.L. Anderson, www.dlanderson.com)

Hare and his staff evaluate each questionnaire and then choose experiments that are best suited to each dog. He is hoping to understand more about the effects of domestication on dog cognition, identify breed differences in problem solving skills and also understand the limits of how dogs think.

One type of test Hare conducts involves trust. Do dogs trust their owners more than strangers? We’d like to think that they do but the assumption has never been tested — until now. Another test example is about what canine affection really means: a kiss from a dog might mean that he loves you or perhaps he is just trying to manipulate you for something he wants.

Why analyze dogs and not other animals? In the past, Hare has studied Chimpanzees, Bonobos and Great Apes. He found that primates aren’t really very good at deciphering human cues and concluded that what makes dogs special is their ability to ‘read’ humans. “When you go to the Lemur Center,” he shares, “the lemurs like you and they’ll pay attention to you, but not the way a dog that’s obsessed with you does. You can get dogs to do things and see what’s going on inside their heads in a way that you can’t with other animals.”

“Dogs are all the same species,” Hare continues “and they’re very closely related genetically, but each breed is very different. Unlike primates, you can see how canine cognition has changed over time because of the variety of breeds. You can understand why dogs are different, why they’re similar and why it is that some dogs can solve problems that other dogs can’t.”

Why hasn’t dog cognition been seriously studied before? Hare believes that, until now, many scientists had misconceptions that dogs were totally “uninteresting and artificial.” Of course, Hare intends to challenge that way of thinking with his findings. He’d also like to understand how we might help dogs become more effective companion (and service) animals.

One thing is certain though – in the end, no matter what we discover about how dogs actually think — we will end up caring for them in the same way. We will continue to love our dogs for their loyalty and distinct personalities. We will celebrate them as remarkable ‘thinking animals’ that have a special place in our homes and in our hearts.

Brian Hare holds a Ph.D in Biological Anthropology and an M.A. in Anthropology from Harvard University, as well as a B.A in Anthropology and Psychology and Human and Natural Ecology from Emory University. For more information on the Duke Canine Cognition Center or to sign up your dog as a volunteer subject, visit: www.dukedogs.com

 

 

 

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