The Genius of Dogs: Heralds New Era in Dog Cognition Research

The Genius of Dogs: Heralds New Era in Dog Cognition Research

I just finished reading Brian Hare’s and Vanessa Woods’ book, The Genius of Dogs. I was anxious to get my hands on this book and was looking forward to learning about the latest studies on dog cognition. I had also come across comments from trainers who were not appreciative of the authors’ criticism of behaviorism and clicker training and I wanted to understand their perspective on the subject.

Having worked in research on dog cognition over 10-15 years ago, I was already very familiar with most of the experiments described in the book, but the authors gave a very good overview of the current state of knowledge in the area. The book is well written and reads very smoothly. As we progress along the pages, we learn about the dogs’ ability to respond to human signals, such as pointing or the direction of a gaze, and that working breeds hold a true advantage over others. Dogs will also use their own set of gestures to communicate with their human and intentionally show the location of food left out of their reach. In their attempts to interact with us, they will take into consideration whether or not we can see what they’re doing. For example, most dogs will drop a tennis ball in front of us, or at least in our sight. If we are not watching them, they may bark to draw our attention to it. This seemingly simple behavior implies their capacity to infer what we’re paying attention to. They also know that their chances to communicate are best when they can see our face and eyes. Page after page, Hare and Woods unroll in front of us fascinating studies into the dog’s mind and push open further the doors to better understanding and relating to this incredible animal.

B.F. Skinner at Harvard
B.F. Skinner at the Harvard Psychology Department, circa 1950

I finally came to the chapter on behaviorism. Hare spares no details on his astonishment at learning that most positive-based trainers apply principles from B.F.Skinner that have long been considered outdated. Hare gives a very accurate picture of today’s look on some of the principles pushed by the scientific community back in the first half of the last century. There is no question that you can train animals to perform all sorts of behaviors, like pigeons playing ping-pong or the piano, through the use of rewards and good timing. Operant conditioning was the way to go, but so much so, that Skinner showed no interest in the animal’s state of mind. Since you couldn’t scientifically prove what was going on in the animal’s mind, the only thing that counted was his behavior. This over-simplification and total disregard for the way animals may problem-solve or feel emotions, is what finally led the scientific community to turn their back on behaviorism.

While he criticizes both traditional training and clicker training, Hare’s point is really to emphasize the importance of taking into consideration the abilities of dogs to make inferences, to problem solve. Different dogs, different breeds are also going to learn and react in different ways and we can’t ignore the fact that there are different types of intelligences, of drives and, as we’ve seen, differences in how well the dogs can read our signals depending on whether or not they’re a working breed. We’re in an ever evolving field of work and our success in interacting with these animals, is influenced by our ability to integrate new scientific findings, as they come out, in our methods.

Let’s remember that Hare is an anthropologist, not a dog trainer.  As he describes some of the challenges he’s had with his dogs, it’s quite obvious that, although he understands the mechanics behind clicker training, he doesn’t fully grasp some of the concepts such as setting the dog up for success and generalization of behaviors to different areas, that as trainers, we’re familiar with. You cannot expect a dog to sit perfectly in the kitchen and outside, with all the distractions of the outdoors, without intermediate steps. The discussion between cognitive scientists, trainers and dog behaviorists also sheds light on confusions in vocabulary as the word ‘behaviorist’ is used today in a wider perspective than in Skinner’s day. When scientists use the word ‘behaviorist’, they refer to the application of Skinnerian hard-core behaviorism. When dog trainers use the word ‘behaviorist’, they refer to those who specialize in behavior issues, such as barking, separation anxiety, and aggression. Today’s behavior modification specialists do rely on operant conditioning, but also include a broader vision and take into consideration breeds, emotions and sensitivities.

So until we learn more about the dog’s mind and develop better ways to train our pooches, I will still support wholeheartedly the use of clicker training that at its best promotes better communication, engages the dog’s ability to problem solve, and is the most efficient and positive way to train new behaviors. Hare’s book is yet one more reminder of the complexity of these loving and amazing creatures that cannot be reduced to thoughtless machines. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about what happens between those dog ears. Let’s be ‘dogwise’ and 'dogsmart', not dogmatic!  

Jennifer Cattet, Ph.D.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published