Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Genius of Dogs

Brian Hare is interested in how dogs think.

He started researching dog cognition (He calls it dognition) while observing that his own dog could do things that chimps and bonobos could not--things that scientists thought were the province of humans alone.
Brian Hare
Prof. Hare believes that intelligence comes in many flavors and that each species has its own genius.

Clark's Nutcrackers, for instance, are industrious birds who hide as many as 10,000 seeds during the summer and  can remember where every seed is hidden months later. They take no notice of where another bird might hide something.

He has 10,000 hiding places, and know them all.
Scrub jays, on the other hand, are extremely good at remembering where other birds have hidden their seeds, which they later steal and then furtively hide somewhere else.

Once, on a camping trip in the Cuyamacas, we amused ourselves by watching the competition between the local squirrels, who would beg food from us and the jays who were lurking a few feet away. A squirrel would hide a cookie, and as soon as its back was turned a jay would swoop down, snatch the treat from its hiding place, and fly off with it. The squirrels couldn't win. The only cookies they got to keep were the ones they ate on the spot.
Stolen fruit is sweetest.
You'd think stealing other animals' food would take at least as much effort as finding your own--but I have the impression from watching jays, and from everything I've read about them, that  pulling a fast one on somebody is as pleasurable for them as having the food.

Which brings me to something I believe about intelligence: its exercise brings pleasure, not only to us, but probably to all intelligent animals. More about this in another post.

In all animals, Prof. Hare believes, real intelligence is defined by the ability to make inferences. He cites the well-known story of Chaser, a border collie who, not only had learned the names of over 1000 different objects, but was able to infer the names of objects she had never seen before. I watched on t.v. as the astronaut Neil deGrasse Tyson put Chaser through her paces. He put 9 toys behind the couch, one of which she had never seen before, and asked her to fetch them. Her score: 100%. Not only could she fetch the toys whose names she knew, when he asked her to find "Darwin," she quickly figured out that he must be referring to the one toy whose name she didn't know, and she promptly brought it to him.
VIDEO: Neil Degrasse Tyson introduces you to one amazing K-9.
Prof. Hare's research has led him to the conclusion that this inferential ability isn't limited to a single dog or a single breed. He thinks all dogs can do it.

He believes that, not only have dogs been our friends and helpers for millennia, but that they may have been crucial to our own evolution as human beings.

Dr. Hare is the director of the Canine Cognition Center at Duke University. His book is both well-researched and highly readable, with lots of clearly marked references at the end for the benefit of those who want to do further research.