Genius of Dogs: Discovering The Unique Intelligence of Man's Best Friend

genius dogs

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The Genius of Dogs is a very useful account of research on canine cognition up to the time the book was published in 2013. It is now a little out of date, but still worth reading for people interested in how dogs think and understand the world. Hare focuses on stories of his initial research with his own dog, and of his later work with domesticated foxes, primitive dogs, and bonobos. He explains how his ideas on domestication and cognition developed. It’s an easy read, and covers a lot of ground, including how domestication changed dogs, and links between breed differences and behaviour. The book doesn’t offer a ‘scientifically proven’ failsafe method for training dogs, what it does do is explain both the exceptional abilities of dogs, and the limits to their understanding, an explanation which is helpful for devising any training plan.

Brian Hare sees the genius of dogs as their special ability to use information from humans, and to co-operate with us. Even puppies have a talent for understanding human gestures, and can learn from observing us. Dogs evolved alongside humans and this continual contact allowed them to develop their ability to understand us, and to persuade us to solve problems for them.  Part One of the book focuses on the evolution of dogs, and how domestication improved their ability to understand our communicative gestures. Hare draws parallels between wolves and dogs on the one hand, and chimps and bonobos on the other. He sees dogs and bonobos as better able to co-operate, and less aggressive, and the ability to co-operate as a strength which has helped dogs to survive better than wolves.

Part Two looks at different aspects of canine intelligence, including weaknesses, for example, dogs are not especially good at independent problem solving, or understanding basic physics, compared to some other species. Dogs’ special talents tend to be more evident when they are with humans, or other dogs, because dogs are social animals. Dogs are very intelligent in some ways, and lack understanding in others. ‘Intelligence’ is not a simple, one-dimensional quality, but has many facets, including social intelligence. It is easier to understand dogs (and indeed humans) if we break down the idea of ‘intelligence’ into what we are good at, and what we can’t do so well.

There is a feel-good element to this book. Hare is an entertaining story-teller, and you can read this book in bed and go to sleep with a warm feeling. He tells us that dogs have managed to outperform wolves in terms of survival and increasing their numbers, despite wolves being smarter than dogs in many ways, because dogs have good social skills with humans, in other words, they are friendly. Yet, despite Hare’s skills at telling feel-good stories, and despite the great appeal of this message, many professional trainers are a little peeved with ‘The Genius of Dogs’ mainly because of a flawed chapter in Part Three which discusses training techniques.

How The Genius of Dogs describes training: the ‘top dog’ approach

Hare perceives two main approaches to training, what he calls the ‘top dog school’, and the ‘more is better school’. Hare is quite happy to accept that dogs are pack animals, and that domestic dogs can form hierarchies, however, he sets up a confusing account of what he calls the ‘top dog’ school of training, which he then criticises. He describes this approach as establishing our ‘dominance’ over our dogs by behaving like an alpha wolf, in order to ensure their obedience. He gives ‘using choke collars, alpha rolls, and never letting your dog walk first through a doorway’ as examples of behaving like an alpha wolf. He then argues that this approach is based on a false belief that dogs have a strict hierarchy, like wolves. He sees feral dogs as having a more relaxed hierarchy.

Obviously wolves don’t use choke chains, and Hare fails to explain how their usage fits a notion of being the alpha. Alpha rolls are rarely used by trainers, even those who see ‘dominance’ as a helpful concept in training. Sometimes young wolves will run on ahead. More seriously, Hare fails to point out that many wolf packs are family groups, where the ‘boss wolves’ are the parents. His treatment of ‘top dog training’ is a short, almost throw-away account, and given how controversial the topic of ‘dominance’ is, a little more nuance would be helpful.

Hare´s account implies that the concept of dominance is not relevant for training. Yet many trainers see an understanding of dominance as very useful, and they don’t see this as involving using choke chains, physically subduing dogs, or worrying about doorways all the time. Firstly, humans are in control of resources that dogs want, like food, and access to the outdoors. In this sense, we are in a dominant position. We don’t need to ‘establish dominance’, so much as use our dominant position wisely. We are also acting in the place of parents when we take on pups. If we make pups or kids wait rather than let them rush out of the front door ahead of us, it’s to keep them safe, and to tell them ‘do what I say, and you’ll be OK’. So the relationship between human and dog includes elements of parenting, especially when we are raising pups. We are also in a dominant position because we control resources that dogs want. For dogs kept indoors, these resources include access to the outdoors, and social interactions. Our control of access to resources gives us bargaining power.

The concept of dominance can also be helpful for people with more than one dog. Not all dogs living together show a clear hierarchy, but when they do, owners often comment that subordinate dogs in a household tend to take their cue from the dominant dog as well as from humans. This ‘teaching role’ has been borne out by research, which also shows that subordinate dogs tend to learn better from other dogs than do dominant dogs (1). As the ‘top dog’ tends to be the older, more established dog, it makes sense to put a lot of effort into that dog, who can become a helper with later additions to the canine household.

Behaviourism and the ‘more is better’ approach

Most of Hare’s criticisms of what he calls ‘the two main current schools of training’ are focused on the ‘more is better’ school, which he sees as linked to behaviourism. His discussion of ‘current methods’ follows a tirade against ‘the tyranny of behaviourism’, which may shock people who have studied classical and operant conditioning for exams. ‘Is Hare saying that all my studies have been a waste of energy?’ He criticises simplistic behaviourist notions of focusing on a stimulus, such as a reward or a punishment, to achieve a response, while ignoring what is going on inside dogs’ heads. He also criticises a behaviourist view that the better the treat, or the longer the training session, the more the dog learns. More is not necessarily better.

Hare notes that there is evidence to show that giving better treats may be counterproductive, because performance may drop when the trainer goes back to regular treats. There is also evidence that dogs can learn some tasks better with fewer training sessions. However, Hare’s criticism of behaviourism is not a total rejection of what he calls ‘current training methods’, which he says do work, just there is no scientific evidence to show which methods work best. Hare is not ruling out usage of classical and operant conditioning, rather he is arguing for a more flexible approach to training.

Hare points out that a one-size-fits-all programme that works on whales, humans, dogs and bees is not as effective as a programme that takes into account the characteristics of a species, and harnesses knowledge of those characteristics. Dogs don’t just learn by association, they can make inferences. Their motivation to understand us, their special ability to interpret us, how they perceive the world, and the limitations of their understanding are all important when designing a training programme. Hare goes on to offer some pointers to help people communicate effectively with their dogs, such as making eye contact with a dog and calling her name, before making a gesture to communicate something to her.

What do trainers actually do?

Dog trainers do a wide variety of work, including training dogs for specialist work, or particular sports, or obedience, helping pet owners to teach their dogs to behave well, and simply training their own pet dogs. Observant trainers will already be aware of much of what The Genius of Dogs says about a ‘cognitive approach’, such as the importance of communication.  Trainers may also be aware that communication is as important as offering rewards when teaching a dog to do something new. People who train dogs to work livestock are well aware of ability of dogs to learn some quite complex tasks through observation, and often comment on the ability of younger dogs to learn from older, more experienced dogs. So there are already trainers who recognise that there is more than one way for dogs to learn.

Working-dog people are aware that some dogs have an inbuilt ability and desire to do particular types of work, while other dogs don’t. The training of working dogs is not an area that Hare explores in depth. A look through the history of dog training would, however, tell us a lot about working-dog trainers’ observations through the ages. Working-dog people have long criticised the behaviourist assumption behind giving rewards, which is that dogs do not ‘perform a behaviour’ unless the reward button is pressed. They point out that some tasks that we want dogs to do are rewarding in themselves for the right sort of dog, so there is no point offering a food reward. They also emphasise that dogs often aren’t just ‘learning a behaviour’, but are grasping the point of a task as a whole.

Working-dog people are also aware that some skills can be taught, for example, training affects the ability of dogs to understand what a human can and cannot perceive and to inform a human about something that the dog knows about, and the human doesn’t.

When Hare discusses ‘training’, he seems to be taking a narrow view of training as simple behaviours learnt in formal training sessions, rather than channelling a potential into a skill, such as controlling livestock. He also excludes what dogs are learning in everyday life from his discussion of training, though it has a major impact on their behaviour. If you see training as simply ‘teaching a behaviour’, then behaviourism can tell you how to do it. However, a broader view of training includes teaching dogs to get on with humans and other dogs, and behave in such a way that we can share our homes with them. We do this through teaching them house rules, and helping them to learn social norms with dogs and humans, Again, teaching dogs to fit into their social world isn’t an area that Hare explores, though there is plenty of research on dogs as social animals. Hare’s dismissive treatment of ‘dominance’ as a useful concept in training also means that he misses out on some of the dynamics of how dogs can learn social skills. Older, more experienced ‘top dogs’ can help youngsters learn to be polite, though this depends partly on the temperaments of the dogs in the household.

Experienced, competent pet dog trainers aren’t just teaching ‘behaviours’. They have to go beyond that, partly because pet dog owners want to teach their dogs to behave appropriately. In order to help, trainers have to draw on their practical understanding of canine cognition. Teaching behaviours, like coming when called, or getting off furniture when asked to do so, is of course useful, but trainers are also helping owners to change their dog’s mind-set, helping the dog to learn coping skills, and social rules. Trainers aim to improve communication so that owners can tell dogs ‘don’t do the first thing that comes into your head, check it out with me. This allows dogs to take a cue from their humans and feel safer, rather than, for example, mindlessly barking at other dogs passing by.

Because Hare defines training in a narrow sense, he has missed an opportunity to connect recent research more strongly with training. A very basic puppy training book, Zulch and Mills’ ‘Life Skills for Puppies’, does a much better job of linking the two, allowing owners to teach life skills that help pups to cope with the world they live in, as they grow up.

 Developments since The Genius of Dogs was published

There has been more research on training since The Genius of Dogs was published, and a notable development is Claudia Fugazza’s ‘Do As I Do’ dog training book. This describes a training method which involves teaching a dog to copy anything a handler does, when the handler says ‘Do it’.  The method harnesses the desire of dogs to imitate what humans do. In our everyday interactions with dogs it’s perhaps a useful reminder that we set an example, and they are studying us all the time. She has also continued her research into social learning (2).

Meanwhile, there has been some interesting research by Bonnani on the social structure of feral dogs, which is affected by the environment they live in. He looked at dogs in places with a stable population, and found that the older, and more experienced dogs, rather than the bigger and stronger dogs tended to take on the dominant role in packs. He argues that age-graded hierarchies in dogs are more common than previously thought, and that subordinates value the knowledge of older dogs, which do not have to fight to acquire their status (3). Bonnani looked at dogs in a situation where food is plentiful, as happens in most pet dog homes. When food is scarce, and animals have to fight to eat, all else being equal, rank would depend more on fighting ability.  Among pet dogs, there is a wide variation of temperament, with some dogs being more easy-going than others, so whether or not well-fed dogs in a pet home have a stable ranking order also depends on the temperaments of the dogs concerned.

Is The Genius of Dogs worth reading?

Hare’s chapter on training takes up only a very small part of the book. He does provide a useful antidote to some of the more behaviourist tracts on dog training, though with more knowledge of the subject, he could have gone further. The Genius of Dogs is a book about canine cognition, rather than training. If you have kept up to date on developments in research, there is probably little that is new for you here, apart from Hare’s entertaining accounts of his own work. If you are simply interested in what goes on in dogs’ heads, this is a well-written, introduction by a key researcher on how dogs think and understand the world, and what makes them so intelligent in some ways, despite their not being especially smart in others.

Alison Lever; December 2018

Further reading

Links to reviews:

Review of Zulch and Mills ‘Life Skills for Puppies

Review of Fugazza’s Do As I Do

Articles referred to in the text

  1. Pongrácz, P., Vida, V., Bánhegyi, P., Miklósi A. How does dominance rank status affect individual and social learning performance in the dog (Canis familiaris)? Anim Cogn (2008) 11: 75.
  2. Fugazza C, Moesta A, Pogány Á, Miklósi Á. Social learning from conspecifics and humans in dog puppies. Sci Rep. 2018;8(1):9257. Published 2018 Jul 5. doi:10.1038/s41598-018-27654-0
  3. Bonanni, R; Cafazzo, S; Abis, A; Barillari, E; Valsecchi, P; Natoli, E (2017): Age-graded dominance hierarchies and social tolerance in packs of free-ranging dogs. Behav Ecol. 2017; 28(4): 1004-1020.