Rating: 5 stars
Dog lovers, rejoice. Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, in their book “The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think,” explains that dogs are really just as smart as we (dog lovers) think they are. And what makes them so smart? Their association with us.
The book gives a brief history of the evolution of both the wolf and man. And then Hare writes about what started him on his Dognition journey. He was a sophomore in college. A professor was doing research on whether primates could understand visual cues like pointing. Unless they had been raised by humans and thus spend thousands of hours with them, they could not. Hare commented, “I think my dog can do it.”
During part of Hare’s studies, he tested the hypothesis that dogs “slowly learned to use gestures during the thousands of hours they had spent as part of a human family. Just as chimpanzees who were raised by humans could spontaneously pass the gesture test, perhaps dogs raised by humans had learned the same skills.”
So puppies were tested. Shockingly, it seemed that nine-week-old puppies were as skilled as twenty-four-week-old puppies when humans used a basic pointing gesture. While wolves of any age could not read human gestures, puppies and dogs who lived in shelters could.
In Russia, Hare tested the famous foxes who have been selectively bred for 45 generations based not on physical characteristics but on one behavioral characteristic: friendliness toward humans. The tests confirmed that the domesticated foxes could follow gestures, while the group of control foxes could not.
This gave some insight into how wolves evolved into domesticated dogs. “Only the wolves who were least fearful and non-aggressive toward humans would be able to take advantage of this new source of food. Like the foxes, they, too, accidentally became more skilled at responding to the behavior of humans.” Humans did not domesticate wolves, rather wolves, by selectively hanging out near humans, domesticated themselves.
Regarding the intelligence of dogs, there are myriad examples in the book. There are the dogs who make inferences — which it was previously thought only humans could do. Chaser, a dog who learned more than a thousand words, when asked to find “Darwin,” a new toy she had never seen before, inferred that the new toy must be “Darwin.” A study also showed that dogs can understand symbols instead of words. When shown a picture of a toy, dogs could retrieve the correct toy. Hare says, “There is also evience that dogs are able to learn the names for new objects by simply hearing a conversation between two people.”
Hare becomes evasive when talking about breed personalities. A Hungarian study found that the calmest group of dogs, those from ancient breeds like chow chows, huskies and Basenjis, were also the least trainable and the shyest. Herding dogs and sight hounds like Border collies and greyhounds were the most social and the most trainable.
Hare discusses the myth that pit bulls are responsible for most dog bites. He first explains that identification of a pit bull is a serious issue — even those who work in shelters cannot reliably identify which dog is a pit bull and which is not. Dogs who are a mix of other breeds can resemble breeds which are not part of their heritage.
However, he says, “70% of dog bites happen to children under the age of ten. More than 60% of the children bitten are boys. Children are most frequently bitten (61% of the time) when they come in contact with the dog’s food or possessions.” What this should tell any parent is that you never leave a child unattended with a dog. Or you make sure that the child knows the rules — you don’t bother the dog when it’s eating or playing with a toy.
In this book, Hare discusses the benefit he experienced when he neutered his male dog. He also argues against puppy mills, stating, “The bottom line is that no responsible breeder will sell puppies to a pet story or through in Internet site, because they want to meet potential owners in person and make sure they are a good fit.” No matter what pet stores may claim to the contrary.
And what book about dogs would be complete without a chapter on how they help humans in our day-to-day lives? One study found that “a group of women actually performed better at a cognitive task in the company of their dog rather than their best friend.” And, when a group of stockbrokers with high blood pressure took medication for their condition, the drug only lowered their blood pressure when they were resting, not when they were stressed. However, when some of them adopted a pet, either a cat or a dog, their blood pressure was lower at all times, even when stressed.
The last paragraph in the books sums up why so many people love their dogs. When dogs are stroked, chemicals are released in their brain that makes them calm and affectionate. They prefer our company rather than that of other dogs. “In return for a lifetime of loyalty, they depend on us for food, the warmth of a loving family, and a good home. It is up to us to uphold our end of the bargain. Dogs deserve it — they are geniuses, after all!”
It is to be hoped that, after reading this magnificent book, you will want to go out and adopt a dog (or a second dog). Unless, like this reviewer, you already have four!
Please note: This review is based on the paperback book provided by the publisher, Plume, for review purposes.