Using Web to study dogs' minds

Updated: 2013-05-05 07:37

By Carl Zimmer (The New York Times)

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 Using Web to study dogs' minds

Brian Hare, associate professor at Duke University, conducting a cognition exercise with Finley, an Australian Labradoodle. Dognition

In 1995, Brian Hare began to wonder what his dog Oreo was thinking.

At the time, he was studying animal psychology with Michael Tomasello at Emory University in Atlanta. Dr. Tomasello was comparing the social intelligence of humans and other animals. Humans, it was known at the time, are exquisitely sensitive to signals from other humans. We use that information to solve problems that we might struggle to figure out on our own.

Dr. Tomasello discovered that chimpanzees, our closest living relatives, typically fail to notice much of this social information. Pointing to the location of a hidden banana will usually not help a chimp find the banana, for example. Perhaps the pointing test revealed something important about how the human mind evolved.

But Mr. Hare had his doubts. "I think my dog can do that," he declared.

To persuade his mentor, he videotaped Oreo chasing after tennis balls. And indeed, when he pointed left or right, off the dog would run, in the indicated direction, to find a ball.

He then followed up with a full-blown experiment, using food hidden under cups in his garage; Oreo consistently picked out the right cup after Mr. Hare pointed to it, and other dogs (including some that had never seen Mr. Hare) did well, too. After he got his doctorate in biological anthropology from Harvard University, Dr. Hare and his colleagues finally published their results: Dogs could indeed pass the pointing test, while wolves, their wild relatives, could not.

Dr. Hare, now an associate professor at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, has continued to probe the canine mind, but his research has been constrained by the number of dogs he can study.

Now he hopes to expand his research geometrically - with the help of dog owners around the world. He is the chief scientific officer of a new company called Dognition, which produces a Web site where people can test their dog's cognition, learn about their pets and, Dr. Hare hopes, supply him and his colleagues with scientific data on tens of thousands of dogs.

"Because it's big data, we can ask questions that nobody could have a chance to look at," he said.

Using Web to study dogs' minds

From his previous research, Dr. Hare has argued that dogs evolved their extraordinary social intelligence once their ancestors began lingering around early human settlements. As he and his wife, Vanessa Woods, explain in their new book, "The Genius of Dogs," natural selection favored the dogs that did a better job of figuring out the intentions of humans.

But while this evolution gave dogs one cognitive gift, it didn't make them more intelligent in general. "If you compare them to wolves as individuals, they look like idiots," Dr. Hare said. "But if you then show them having a human solve the problem, they're geniuses."

To explore dog cognition further, he set up the Duke Canine Cognition Center in 2009. He and his colleagues built a network of 1,000 dog owners willing to bring in their pets for tests.

Dr. Hare began to investigate new questions about dogs with this willing pack of animals. With a grant from the United States Office of Naval Research, for example, he is looking at ways to identify dogs for jobs like bomb detection.

"They spend two years trying to get these dogs ready to go, and then most programs lose 7 out of 10," he said. "Maybe they can't take the commands, or maybe they can't take the perspective of the humans."

He is trying to find the "cognitive style" of the successful service dogs. To do so, he and his colleagues have developed a battery of 30 tests that altogether take four hours to administer. They have tested 200 dogs and are searching for hallmarks that set the service dogs apart.

He helped form Dognition, he said, partly because of interest from dog trainers who asked him if they could test their own dogs' cognitive style.

The tests are now available online: For a fee, dog owners get video instructions for how to carry them out.

Dr. Hare says his main goal is to build a database that will shed light on longstanding questions about behavior, breeding and genetics - for example, whether the cognitive styles of various breeds can be linked to their genes. (Dr. Miklosi cautions, however, that the data that comes from people playing games with their dogs in their living room won't be as carefully controlled as the experiments scientists run in their labs.)

Dr. Hare hopes that scientists can use Dognition to deliver their insights to dog trainers.

One hypothesis has already emerged from Dognition's users, Dr. Hare said. A surprising link turned up between empathy in dogs and deception.

The dogs that are most bonded to their owners turn out to be most likely to observe their owner in order to steal food. Dr. Hare said: "I would not have thought to test for that relationship at Duke, but with Dognition we can see it."

The New York Times

(China Daily 05/05/2013 page11)