Brian Hare Interview: Is Your Dog a Genius?
Image attributed to Gretchen Mathison
Dr. Brian Hare is an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University in North Carolina and a member of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, which is a division of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. His research has consistently received international media coverage over the last decade and has been featured in many prominent publications, radio and television programs and multiple documentaries.
Hare is frequently invited to give lectures about his research on dog intelligence. He is founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center that is dedicated to the study of dog psychology and co-founder of Dognition (dognition.com), which provides fun, cognitive science-based games that help you discover the unique way that your dog sees the world.
“It’s not that your dog is smarter or dumber than another dog; it’s the strategies that your dog uses. For instance, in the empathy domain, it could be your dog is very bonded toward you, or it could be that your dog is very individualistic. It could be that your dog isn’t really bothered by what you’re feeling and is more in tune with what it wants and needs.”
The “dog guy” and his wife, Vanessa Woods, authored The Genius of Dogs, which is a comprehensive review of the published scientific literature relevant to understanding dog cognition.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Brian, the book is a great read. Are you enjoying the promotional tour?
Brian Hare: It’s fun. The whole goal is to share with people, so I don’t mind.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m curious as to what led you into the field of animal psychology.
Brian Hare: It probably all started with a dog (laughs). I had dogs when I was a kid. Oreo and me were best friends and went everywhere together, so I was always an animal lover and wanted to know how they thought and what they were all about. I remember as a kid, people would say, “You love animals so much that you should be a veterinarian.” I thought, “I’m not interested in that part of their insides.”
I wanted to know how they think and why they behave the way they behave. Nobody could really tell me what that was. It wasn’t until I got to college that I found out it was called animal cognition. That’s more or less how it happened.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The bio on your official site describes you as scientist, author and dog guy. Do family and friends always bombard you with dog questions?
Brian Hare: Yes (laughs). But that’s okay. I’m totally fine with it. Now it’s nice because I can ask, “Have you read my book?” Now I can give them some homework (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What is one of the most “asked” questions?
Brian Hare: I get asked all sorts of things, but I think that an important one is asking how dogs think and how that information can help improve the life of the dog, better train the dog or just to understand the dog better. The book is really more about all dogs and why they are the way that they are.
Dognition is really about your dog, playing cognitive games with your dog, understanding what makes them individuals, learning how to compare to other dogs and basically finding out that your dog is just like every other dog.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The Border Collie breed tops the list of the smartest dogs. Do you agree?
Brian Hare: They’re at the top of those lists and Afghan Hounds are usually at the bottom. As a scientist, I want to be able to see the published scientific paper that list is based on, where somebody actually collected data to show that the Border Collie breed is somehow more intelligent than the other dog breeds, but that doesn’t exist. So that list is based on someone’s opinion. Sometimes opinions can be very powerful, and sometimes when we do a study, opinions are correct, but often what you think is true isn’t true once you go and actually carefully measure.
That’s the beauty of Dognition because we look at empathy, communication, cunning, memory and reasoning. It’s not that your dog is smarter or dumber than another dog; it’s the strategies that your dog uses. For instance, in the empathy domain, it could be your dog is very bonded toward you, or it could be that your dog is very individualistic. It could be that your dog isn’t really bothered by what you’re feeling and is more in tune with what it wants and needs.
Another example would be communication. You could have a dog that is super communicative, and then you could have another dog that just solves problems on their own. One dog could be really cunning, paying attention to what you conceal to use that information to take advantage of you or to disobey you. Another dog may not pay attention to what is hidden. It’s not that one strategy is better than the other one, but it’s really helpful to know where your dog falls.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Pit Bulls have the reputation of attacking and hurting people. Are there dogs that are inherently mean or is it all because of owner training?
Brian Hare: There is a biological basis of aggression, so there are genes and hormones that can vary between individuals that can lead to more or less aggression. If you’re asking me as a scientist to go to the specific literature, there’s no evidence that Pit Bulls are more aggressive than other breeds. There are individual dogs within any breed that have the potential to become aggressive if they are reared in a certain way. But I don’t think there is evidence that Pit Bulls, in particular, are more aggressive than other breeds.
It happens that people that have Pit Bulls tend to want to use them to display their own ability to be tough, and that’s why the dog has gotten the reputation it has. It has nothing to do with the dog. It has more to do with the people who own the dog. If it ended up that Cocker Spaniels became the dog that the owner demonstrated his toughness with, then that would be the breed everyone would be banning. Does that make sense?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Absolutely. It’s a shame the entire breed gets such a bad rap.
Brian Hare: Well, politically, it’s very easy. They say, “This is the kind of dog that bit the person and did the horrible thing.” There are cases where Pit Bulls have done horrible things. But politicians say, “That’s a horrific act. Let’s just ban the breed.” That seems really simple. If you’re a politician, it’s a very easy way to look like you’ve solved the problem. But later, it’s very hard for them to come back and say, “Well, that didn’t work.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Brian, let’s discuss how much a dog remembers.
Brian Hare: You can find out how much your dog remembers at dognition.com. We play a game called memory vs. smell. You hide food and show your dog where you’ve hidden it. While they’re not looking, you move it to another location. If they use their smell to find things, they’ll find the food, but if they rely on their memory, they won’t find the food in this case.
You can also hide it and show them where it is, but you will actually point to another location. If it’s really a communicative dog, it will go where you point and not find the food, but if you have a dog that relies on its memory, then it’s going to find the hidden food. Some dogs do one thing and others do another, so it helps you understand why your dog is the way it is.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What about memories of past events?
Brian Hare: I think in The Genius of Dogs, we review everything that is scientifically known about dog psychology. We have 70 pages where we go to the scientific literature, and you can see all the papers we cited. A quarter of the book is just notes. We have a whole section on memory.
The punchline is that relative to cats, dogs look like they have an amazing short term memory because if you hide something in one of four locations, dogs remember it for four or five minutes or longer. They don’t really forget where it’s hidden. Cats start showing a major decrease in their performance memory every thirty seconds after the object has been hidden.
That sounds like dogs have way better memory than cats and something you can make fun of with your cat friends, but the only problem there is when rats have been given the same problem, they’re much better at it than dogs. What sets a dog apart is how they learn, and it’s when they join forces with us that they become special.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do dogs recognize people who have abused them, or do they “know” when strangers like animals?
Brian Hare: Whenever I answer these types of questions, I try to answer them at two different levels. One is as a scientist, and the other is as a person. I had someone just ask me, “Do dogs love people?” I answered, “I can’t go to the scientific literature and say there is this study on love and dogs. But I can tell you, as a person, that they love you.”
I sort of have the same responses to your questions now. Yes. I believe that most dogs can certainly know if you’re a person who likes animals, and I’m sure they can discriminate between people who like animals and those who don’t like animals. The thing about who has abused them … I don’t know.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Has it been scientifically proven that being around dogs is healthy for humans?
Brian Hare: It’s a little bit complicated and not as easy as a “yes” or “no” answer. In some areas, I think it’s really clear, and then in other areas, there’s some evidence that says “no.” From a scientific perspective, I can tell you the short answer is “yes.”
When you say “scientifically proven,” that makes it sound like it is finished. Science is like a conversation. It just keeps going, so you keep building evidence, but then you could have a ton of evidence, and then the whole thing is falsified. But right now, I’d say the weight of the evidence suggests that dogs have a very positive impact on people.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is that why animal-assisted therapy is successful?
Brian Hare: Correct. But it’s complicated because it’s going to be more nuanced than just giving the person a dog for any problem they have. There will be some contact where dogs really have a big impact and others where actually they have non or maybe a negative impact.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Several Golden Retrievers, part of the Lutheran Church Charities K-9 Comfort Dogs program, were flown in from Chicago to provide emotional support in the aftermath of the Boston bombings. What type of help are they giving to the victims?
Brian Hare: I honestly don’t know. I’m not exactly sure what that program does. But usually what happens is that dogs are brought in for the kids who are having a hard time communicating. Maybe it’s a child of someone who was injured or killed. These dogs really help kids open up to therapists about their feelings. It is really a very powerful tool to help kids and adults open up and start dealing with their feelings.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There are tales of dogs traveling hundreds of miles to reunite with their owners. How is that possible?
Brian Hare: There are certain questions that are really easy to answer using a scientific approach and others that are really difficult. On that question, I have nothing to tell you. I have no idea. No one has been able to address that question using science, so I’m as baffled and puzzled as you are. But I will say that 99.9999% of dogs who get lost end up either in the pound or worse.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I suppose that’s just one more mystery of the universe. Brian, this next question does not require a scientific answer. What was the experience like writing the book with your wife?
Brian Hare: I can answer that, and I’m glad she’s not on the phone with me (laughs). No, it was wonderful. The book is truly a marriage because she’s a science writer, and I’m a scientist. If it weren’t for her, it wouldn’t be as fun to read because she was able to make sure I did not become boring (laughs). She’s a far greater communicator than I.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So it was a peaceful experience?
Brian Hare: It was not like every day was Valentine’s Day (laughs). I’m not saying there weren’t plenty of loud disagreements. There was certainly friction, especially in the beginning. As I said, she’s a science writer, and I’m a scientist. I’m like, “Hey, you can’t say it that way because that’s not even halfway true.” Her response would be, “Well, you can’t write it that way because one person is going to read the book … your mom.” So we had plenty of disagreements (laughs). But I have many positive feelings and memories, and so does she.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What can dogs teach us about ourselves?
Brian Hare: I think the most important thing is that science completely underestimated the intelligence of dogs. We’ve learned more in the last 10 years than we had in the previous 100. The reason was that scientists were looking at animals suspected to be super intelligent such as chimpanzees and dolphins.
Dogs were thought to be domesticated, and so they were really kind of “dumbed” down as a result. The punchline is you can find genius. Genius is hidden in lots of places that other people wouldn’t expect to find it. If you take a cognitive approach, you’re going to find genius in all sorts of places that you didn’t think you’d find it … including in your own dog.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What type of dog do you own now?
Brian Hare: His name is Tasmania, and we always say, “He’s a rare American black dog from a shelter.”
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