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What dogs know about us

2 March 2013

9:00 AM

2 March 2013

9:00 AM

The Genius of Dogs: Discovering the Unique Intelligence of Man’s Best Friend Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods

Oneworld, pp.367, £20

In Aesop’s fable of the Dog and the Wolf, the latter declares that it is better to starve free than be a fat slave, but the fact is that, without man, there would be no dog at all. When people eventually began to form permanent settlements, a new food source appeared: waste. Wolf packs, less fearful of man than others, less aggressive too, took advantage, and turned themselves into dogs. Natural selection works in mysterious ways.

Years ago, before the gender police were on the prowl, this book’s top title would have been Man’s Best Friend, for the ‘genius’ that it describes is the dog’s talent for inter-
action with humans. Neither a teaching manual nor an anthology of heroic dog stories, this is a work of scholarship. It has 67 pages of notes. Yet you would be hard-pressed to find a more cheerful, optimistic and warm-hearted read. Difficult, too, to find another book about dogs touching not only on Darwin and Skinner, but also on Stalin. Even Justin Bieber gets a mention.

Brian Hare is Associate Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University, well-known enough to be identified by American Kennel Club types as ‘that dog guy’. It seems unlikely that anyone in the world knows more than Hare about the way dogs think.

The book is in three parts. The first is the most fascinating, telling the story of how Hare discovered the cognitive associations that dogs and humans share and how dogs became ‘the most successful mammal on the planet (besides us)’.

In doing so Hare scuppers notions that men adopted wolf puppies or that wolves and men hunted together. In almost every culture the wolf has been regarded as a menace. The last English wolf was killed in the reign of Henry VII. The Scots burned forests down in order to exterminate them. Hare points out that men were pretty good hunters, and that a hunting pack of wolves would have been hard to domesticate and would have required a deer a day to feed.

Under Professor Mike Tomasello at Emory University in Atlanta, Hare began to study what it is that distinguishes humans from other animals. Tomasello was comparing human infants with chimpanzees. Experiments showed that chimps, the animal closest to humans, were hopeless at reading what Hare calls ‘communicative intention’. In its most basic form, this comes down, literally, to pointing things out. It turns out that you cannot do this with a chimp (they’ll simply stare at your finger), but you can with a dog. Only with a dog. And what is more, with very young puppies. In other words dogs are born with the ability.

Hare’s journey takes him far afield, and finally to Siberia. After a few pages on the evil of Lysenko and Stalin (‘In 1948…  geneticists were officially declared enemies of the state’), we are introduced to a genuine hero. Dimitri Belyaev was born in 1917, saw his brother Nikolai, a prominent geneticist, executed by Stalin in 1937, won medals for bravery during the war, and was sacked from his job in 1948 but eventually managed to find his way to Novosibirsk, where he became director of the Institute of Cytology and Genetics. There he bred foxes, not for their physical characteristics but for behaviour (informing the authorities that he was improving the quality of fox fur).

The foxes that were most curious about and least aggressive towards humans were bred together. By the time Hare arrived in 2003 they had passed through 45 generations and were more or less domesticated. The odd thing was that not only had they ceased to behave like foxes, their looks had changed: their ears flopped, their skulls had grown smaller, their tails curled.

Dogs and wolves differ, as the Belyaev foxes differed. Most profoundly, dogs prefer human company to dog company. Wolves keep to themselves. A wolf would never dream of sniffing another wolf’s bottom. They are pack animals and know one another well enough. Dogs bark, wolves howl. Dogs come in all shapes and sizes (although their cognitive powers are all much of a muchness — despite plenty of anecdote to the contrary, science recognises no great difference in intelligence between breeds); wolves are wolfish the world over.

Belyaev’s foxes provided practical proof that natural selection could lead to domestication. One of the (many) interesting questions that Hare raises is whether we too domesticated ourselves.

Parts two and three of The Genius of Dogs go about qualifying and demonstrating the conclusions of the first, with descriptions of various experiments. This is all fascinating and contributes to a work that tells us, in jargon-free, even occasionally lilting prose, exactly what science knows about dogs. Remarkably, it also tells us what dogs know about us.

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