BOOKS / The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter Than You Think

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  April 2013:

The Genius of Dogs:  How Dogs are Smarter Than You Think  by Brian Hare & Vanessa Woods Dutton (c/o Penguin USA,  375 Hudson St.,  New York, NY 10014), 2013.  367 pages.  $37.95/hardcover or $14.95 paperback.

Publicity for The Genius of Dogs alleges that co-author Brian Hare has done more than anyone else to change human appreciation of the intelligence of dogs.  This overlooks the influence of more than 150 years of highly popular fictional Lassie stories,  originating with The Half-brothers,  by Elizabeth Gaskell in 1859, and countless real-life feats of resourceful intelligence performed by Lassies named after the fictional dogs,  including the rescue and revival of a “drowned” British sailor in 1915 and the rescue of a drowning boy from Lake Ontario in 1936.   The Lassie rescues are only some of the best-known of thousands of legends and historical accounts of intelligent dogs.  Among the earliest documented is the story of Argos,  whose intelligence aided Odysseus on April 16,  1178 BCE,  according to astronomical calculations done by two Rockefeller University scientists, based on Homer’s description of an eclipse that coincided with Odysseus’ return home after ten years at war and at sea. Hare and his co-author and wife Vanessa Wood have indeed made some contributions to the study of canine behavior,  as founders of the 10-year-old Canine Cognition Center at Duke University.  Hare is an associate professor of cognitive neuroscience and evolutionary anthropology.  Woods is an evolutionary anthropology researcher.  Their accomplishments as canine behavior experts,  however,  are slim compared to those of other established professionals in the field,  of whom they seem to know remarkably little. Hare and Wood assert on page 236,  for example,  that “There is very little published research on different training techniques.”  Even if Hare and Wood mean only research published in peer-reviewed academic journals,  the claim is questionable.  Published research on dog training techniques includes more than 3,900 items offered for sale at Amazon.com.  Each of these publications is based on observations of repetitively predictable dog behavior,  made by more than a thousand different authors,  who have derived their theories by training hundreds of thousands of dogs. Hare and Woods mention the therapeutic abilities of dogs.  Dogs do have incredible healing powers. For seven years,  I worked with my now deceased adopted therapy dog Luke to share kindness and compassion with homeless children.  But Hare and Woods overlook much of the evolution of animal assisted therapy.  They start with mention of a single 1980 study by Erika Friedmann of Brooklyn College,  who reported that heart attack victims are more likely to survive if they keep pets.  However,  child psychiatrist Dr. Boris Levinson coined the term “pet therapy” in 1964,  after noticing amazing results with troubled youth when his dog Jingles was present during therapy sessions.  Michael J. McCulloch,  a psychiatrist in Portland,  Oregon,  formed the Delta Society in 1976 to advance animal-assisted therapy. This organization is now known as Pet Partners. Inasmuch as there are now more pet dogs in China than in the U.S. and Europe combined,  both Chinese pet keepers and U.S. animal advocates,  including shelter workers, might be offended when Hare and Woods argue that,  “America’s treatment of dogs may not be much more humane than the Chinese.” The statement,  on the whole,  might be correct:  dogs are often eaten in parts of China,  and the U.S. kills more impounded dogs,  has more dogfighting,  and chains more dogs than any other nation.  But dogs are worse treated,  overall,  in many other nations. Much is made of Hare’s purportedly path-blazing discovery that dogs can read human gestures. Odysseus knew that.  Tens of thousands of working dogs and millions of pet dogs read and respond promptly to human gestures in any given minute of the day,  as well as understanding even some relatively complex verbal commands.  Lexicographer Wilfred J. Funk (1883-1965),  founder of the Funk & Wagnalls dictionary, had by 1938 compiled a list of 204 words that most dogs could learn,  and found that the average dog recognizes about the same 60-word vocabulary as an 18-month-old human child. Of course dogs are intelligent creatures––often geniuses,  compared to humans at interpreting information that their ears and noses discern,  yet which eludes us.  Much of the routine work of guide dogs,  seizure dogs,  police dogs,  et al is possible only because the dogs are able to think on their feet, recognizing and responding to a crisis before their humans are even aware of it. ––Debra J. White

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