Thursday, June 13, 2013

This 'n That Thursdays: Is Your Dog a Genius?

From Dognition

Have you ever wondered just how smart your dog really is?  I'm sure all dog owners have stories about the incredibly brilliant
/amusing/silly/dumb things their dog has done, but are you curious as to just why your dog does what he/she does?  Then you may want to check out the recently released book The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You Think by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods.  Dr. Hare founded the Canine Cognition Center at Duke University.  He has done extensive work on the cognitive abilities of animal species, but became particularly interested in dogs when he realized that they were unusually adept at cueing in on human gestures and signals that other species, including chimpanzees, failed to notice.

Dr. Hare believes that the unique bond forged between dogs and humans so long ago is a major reason that the former are so adept at reading and interpreting our signals.  Intentionally or not, we have selected for dogs that direct their focus on us.  As a result, more than any other species, dogs have an ability to understand us in ways that we often do not understand ourselves, mostly because they can pick up and act on cues we don't even know we are giving.  And, in a shift from recently held ideas about animal behavior, it is now thought that dogs can use this information to make decisions about their own subsequent actions.  Moreover, each dog is unique and will process information differently.  Hare and other scientists have developed a canine assessment test which allows dog owners to determine just how their dogs do this (see a sample test in the video below, and keep in mind that each test will be repeated multiple times for a more accurate assessment of each dog's performance):

If you are interested in testing your own dog, visit the Dognition website for more information.  There is a fee to access the test (from $39.99 to $147 depending upon which package and payment option you choose).  Once you have tested your dog, you can enter the data into the site's database.  You will receive a Profile Report of your dog's performance to help you better understand how your dog learns, and all of the data collected will be used by the researchers to further their "Citizen Science" studies which are conducted to gain even more insights into dog cognition (you can receive updates on this research as well).  The games are designed to be simple, fun, and nonjudgmental.  According to Dr. Hare, this is not an IQ test for dogs so much as it is a way to demonstrate that different dogs process and act upon the same information in different ways.  Each dog's reaction can be thought of as more of a survival strategy than an indication of intelligence, and each strategy has its own advantages and disadvantages.

I received a doctoral degree in the study of animal behavior myself, and this was during the period when it was widely believed that animals had limited cognitive abilities.  Studies on domestic animals were deemed less important than those of species living in natural conditions, as it was thought that the less contact a species had with humans the more relevant the collected data were to the study of animal behavior.  This is a fine concept, but it meant that the whole other aspect of how animals adapt and react to human interactions was neglected.  Since we tend to perceive the world in relation to how it affects us, this information is equally valuable, and in my opinion focus on this sort of research is long overdue.  I have not yet tested my dogs, but I have every intention of doing so, and when I do I will share their results.  Based on the Dognition Profiles, my prediction is that our Dalmatian will test out as a Maverick, while the terrier mix will be either an Ace or a Charmer, so we shall see!  These profiles remind me of the Parelli Horsenality Chart which my riding buddy has found so useful when training her horses, so they could potentially become an important tool for dog training.

It was almost impossible to get this photograph of both dogs
focusing on me, and notice the impudent Dalmatian's tongue
sticking out -- this does not bode well for testing
(don't worry, girls, I'm just kidding -- I think!).

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