Interview with Brian Hare, author of ‘The Genius of Dogs’

Brian Hare, author of “The Genius of Dogs,” wrote a revolutionary book that will change the way people think about their dogs.

Brian Hare and dog

courtesy of Brian Hare

Dr. Hare met with me during the Association of Professional Dog Trainers (APDT) conference in Spokane, Washington. He was there to present his findings on “Dognition.” He defines Dognition as how dogs use inferential reasoning to flexibly problem solve. Dogs showed different types of intelligence including navigation, memory, social learning, inhibitory control, and empathy.

Dognition began when Brian was in undergraduate school and was discussing with a professor how only humans can understand flexibly used gestures like pointing. Brian said, “I think my dog can do that.” He proceeded to test his dog at the local pond. He threw three different balls. The dog only saw where the first ball went. But the dog would follow Brian’s gestures to find the other two balls. He taped this. When he showed the video to his professor and a developmental psychologist, they got excited. “Now let’s really do some experiments,” they said.

From that almost accidental beginning, he went on to test chimpanzees, bonobos, wolves, foxes, and dogs of various breeds and how they compared in problem solving while seeing human gestures. He devised a cup test in which a food was hidden under one of two cups. The dog didn’t know which cup had food hidden under it, but when a person pointed or gestured to one of the cups, the majority of the time, the dog would choose that cup.

What Brian learned through his studies is that the genius of dogs is that dogs, unlike many other animals which humans consider to have higher intelligence, are geniuses at comprehending visual gestures.

He plans on continuing to work with Dognition. Currently, there are about 12,000 people who have tested their dogs’ “Dognition” on the website. His plan is to keep analyzing and developing the site and “celebrating individual dogs.”

Brian’s research began with his interest in human evolution. He had studied bonobos and chimpanzees; he had no idea that those studies would cross over into his work with dogs. He likes working with each animal for its own reasons, and because of his work with apes, he gets to go to Africa.

He is passionate about the condition of animals in many places. The bushmeat trade (killing primates for meat) contributes to the transmission of zoonotic diseases like HIV and ebola. He also believes that new strains of HIV and other diseases will emerge from the black market trade, so stopping the trade is vital in stopping the transmission of new diseases.

He also explained how media commercials and movies showing primates as happy, cute animals desensitize people about the true plight of those animals in the entertainment industry, research and the wild. (National Geographic paid to have chimps in their documentaries.) Primates can only be used for commercials and movies when they are young. As they get older and unmanageable, they are often abandoned and abused.

Also, when animals like primates are portrayed as cute in the media, people want them as pets. That perpetuates the sale of those animals on the black market. Then, when people realize that their pets are uncontrollable, they get rid of them, and there are no safe places for them to go. To repeat: Primates do not make good pets.

The media make chimps seem happy, well-cared-for in domestic settings, and generally well-adjusted. Marketing studies show that when the media portray animals like chimpanzees as “cute,” people see them as happy pet-like creatures and are less likely to help those animals in need. In a paid marketing study, after seeing a commercial with a cute chimpanzee, people didn’t donate to a primate-related cause, saying that the chimps in the commercial looked happy.

Regarding his animal studies, Brian said, “The change hasn’t been to the animal, it’s been to me. I had to know about dogs.” One of his dogs, named Oreo, … “changed my life path. And the social system of bonobos changed how I interact with my wife and think about conflict.” He went on to say that if a bonobo, who has a much smaller brain than he does, can resolve conflict without anger, then he can solve conflicts without getting angry.

When I asked what he wanted people to take away from his studies, he said: “Everybody knows that dogs are remarkable, but the exciting thing is that science is now learning why.”

Read “The Genius of Dogs,” a book that will change your thoughts about dogs.

Interview by Liz Kramer, APDT. She is also the co-author of this article.

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