Review of “The Genius of Dogs” by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods

The authors, both scientists of canine cognition, explain the results of scientific testing about how dogs make inferences and solve problems, and they also share interesting research and theories about the effects of domestication. The findings are presented in an entertaining way and provide lots of background on wolves versus dogs, as well as interesting insights into what your dog is really “thinking.”


Some highlights:

    Perception and projection skew our assessment of dog characteristics. For example, “…contrary to popular belief, there is no experimental evidence that dogs experience the feeling of guilt or that they have a human-like concept of guilt. Currently we only have evidence that dogs react to their owner’s frustrated behavior.” That is, the dog may understand you are stressed, and this in turn will stress the dog, but it is too much of a leap to identify this response as guilt.

    Pit bulls are blamed for most dog-bite-related incidents, but many people incorrectly identify aggressive dogs because of their preconceived beliefs about pit bulls. One study found that people blamed pit bulls for “a notable proportion” of 84 dog bites in children, even though the actual rate was only 13 percent. Yet another study showed that, when shown pictures of an identical dog appearing in one picture with a scruffy looking owner versus another with a nicely dressed owner, people were more likely label the first dog as the aggressive one, even though they were looking at the very same dog.

    Even adoption agencies can’t be relied upon to tell breeds apart; in one study they were asked to identify a series of dogs. Then blood samples of those dogs were sent for DNA analysis. The breed was misidentified two-thirds of the time.

    Dogs playing at the Duke  Canine Cognition Center

    Dogs playing at the Duke Canine Cognition Center

    Domesticated dogs and foxes, as well as bonobos (similar to chimpanzees but much less aggressive) are different from non-domesticated close genetic relatives both in terms of their social skills with each other and in the nature of their interactions with humans. In addition to a less aggressive demeanor, other traits seem to have accompanied domestication, such as smaller body size and sometimes floppy ears and curly tails.

    It is believed that bonobos domesticated themselves; the authors speculate that early humans might have gone through a similar process. Maybe it wasn’t the smarter people who had the survival advantage, but the friendlier people – those most apt to cooperate with others. Cooperation can lead to better food, better protection, and more knowledge sharing, all of which would help contribute to higher intelligence. As the authors suggest:

    “Before humans could become ultra-cooperative, we had to become ultra-tolerant. This tolerance preceded the evolution of more complex forms of human social cognition. Inferential reasoning, planning, and skills for coordination do little good in planning for hunting or finding shelter if no one can tolerate engaging in group activities or even listening to what others have to say. … [S]elf-domestication may have … catalyzed an evolutionary chain reaction leading to the evolution of completely new cognitive abilities…”

Illustration by Leah Goren for TIME Magazine in an article about dog intelligence studies at the Duke Canine Cognition Center

Illustration by Leah Goren for TIME Magazine in an article about dog intelligence studies at the Duke Canine Cognition Center

At the end of the book, the authors reverse the focus of the book and include a small section on how humans react to dogs.

Evaluation: This book will interest ethologists and dog-lovers alike.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by the Penguin Group, 2013

Note: You can read more about the work being done with dogs at the Duke Canine Cognition Center, directed by author Brian Hare, here. [No, it is not named after a dog. It is located at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.] You can also check out the entertaining Time Magazine article about the DCCC here.


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5 Responses to Review of “The Genius of Dogs” by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods

  1. Beth F says:

    Have you read The Secret Life of Dogs? I loved that. Now I’ll add this to my list.

  2. sandynawrot says:

    I think I need to read this. Even though I really want a dog, I have to wait until we don’t have six cats to terrorize it. But I work with dogs all the time, and I love spending time with those sweet babies. At the shelter, we stopped identifying breeds on their info sheet, first because who really knows what breed they are, and second the pits are unfairly judged and thus are over-looked for adoption.

  3. stacybuckeye says:

    I miss having a dog in the house 😦

  4. Care says:

    Did you see the video about the Human Walking Program by Lost Dogs Home? so cool. 🙂

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