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The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think Paperback – October 29, 2013
"Neverworld Wake" by Marisha Pessl
Read the absorbing new psychological suspense thriller from acclaimed New York Times bestselling author Marisha Pessl. Learn more
“Many authors have tried to anecdotally capture the emotional bond between humans and dogs. Here at last is a book that digs deep into cognitive science to unravel the mysteries of the canine brain. Thoroughly researched and written in the likable voice of a brainy scientist sitting at your kitchen table, The Genius of Dogs is a fascinating look at what goes on between the ears of the animals we share our lives with. I found it entertaining, fast-moving, and filled with gee-whiz insights that gave me a new appreciation for the complex social intelligence of man’s best friend.”
—John Grogan, author of Marley & Me and The Longest Trip Home
“The Genius of Dogs is a fantastic book. It makes it very clear that there are different kinds of intelligence. All dog lovers should read this book.”
—Temple Grandin, author of Animals Make Us Human and Animals in Translation
“The definitive dog book of our time by the researcher who started a revolution.”
—Daniel J. Levitin, author of This is Your Brain on Music and The World in Six Songs
“A masterful account of the way science is revealing just how smart dogs can be. Fascinating and highly readable.”
—John Bradshaw, University of Bristol, author of Dog Sense
“With the help of some wolves, Russian foxes, New Guinea singing dogs and a Labrador Retriever named Oreo, Brian Hare tells us about his fascinating search for an understanding of how dogs think and communicate.”
—Stanley Coren, author of Do Dogs Dream and Born to Bark
“Based on Brian Hare’s game-changing research, The Genius of Dogs brilliantly explains the canine mind and in doing so illuminates the natural history of all intelligence. This book will captivate anyone interested in dog, ape or human mentality.”
—Richard Wrangham, Harvard University, author of Catching Fire
“This is the best book in existence, by far, for learning about the recent revolution in our understanding of the minds of dogs. And its fun, too.”
—Mike Tomasello, Co-Director, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
“The Genius of Dogs is not just about dogs, and not just about genius. It’s an exciting detective story by two comparative biologists with amazing discoveries to report.”
—Bernd Heinrich, author of Mind of the Raven
“A fascinating, riveting, utterly engaging romp through the mind of man's best friend. I promise: You will never look at your dog the same way again.”
—Maria Goodavage, author of Soldier Dogs
About the Author
Brian Hare is an associate professor in the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University, where he founded the Duke Canine Cognition Center. Vanessa Woods is a research scientist at the Center as well as an award-winning journalist and the author of Bonobo Handshake. Hare and Woods are married and live in North Carolina.
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Brian Hare explains the major shortcomings of both of the two leading models of dog training: "leader-of-the-pack" (dominance training), and "operant conditioning" (mislabeled as clicker training). He points out that dominance training is based on scientifically inaccurate assumptions about how dogs relate to humans; while operant conditioning intentionally ignores dog's unique cognitive processes (ways of thinking).
Dogs evolved from wolves by refocusing their social skills and affection towards humans, Hare explains. For example, they can learn hundreds of human words using many of the same mental processes that a human infant does. And can learn by copying humans and inferring communication signals from human gestures such as pointing. Operant conditioning does not accommodate these capacities, so it misses a major opportunity to train from dog's strengths.
A major take-home training lesson for me from this book was Hare's point that, as social animals, dogs are not very good at trial-and-error learning. They do much better when shown a technique through social interaction. This runs counter to a major tenet of operant conditioning: let the animal flounder around until, by chance, it discovers the desired behavior. This is called 'shaping' in the operant conditioning lingo, and Hare convincingly explodes this tenet. Gurus of operant conditioning advise that you wait around until your dog hits on the right behavior, then 'shape' that with a reward through stepwise trials-and-errors towards the desired behavior. It is a tedious procedure, frustrating for both dog and owner. And lacks any scientific foundation. It appears to have been co-opted from rat (BF Skinner) and dolphin (Karen Pryor) training, where it is not practical to actually show the animal the desired behavior, so trial-and-error is the only option. Trial-and-error may be fine and the only alternative for rats and dolphins, but why design a dog training program around one of dog's weaknesses? Much better to train to their strengths - their ability to learn from others, especially their humans. Social learning: dogs are brilliant at it, Hare explains, with solid science behind him.
And what about dog's inherent cognitive weaknesses? Rather than pound your head against a wall and drive yourself and your dog into chronic anxiety, Hare asks that we recognize that such weaknesses actually do exist and are inherent, and when training doesn't work it actually may not be your fault, contrary to what many operant trainers insist. Thank you Brian Hare from freeing us from the guilt-tripping that has unfortunately become inscribed into operant conditioning as evangelized by leading dog trainers.
The book is well worth the purchase price just for this single, valuable insight. Train to your dog's strengths, find other ways to manage their untrainable weaknesses. Hare gives the example of incessant barking - training may not solve hormonally-based behaviors like this. Better look to medical alternatives such as castration. Similarly for many dog 'problems', training may not be able to overcome biology. Aggression, leash-pulling, hunting... don't just assume you're a bad trainer. Instead, understand your dog's cognitive profile (Hare offers an online test for that). Will the future bring gene and hormone therapy for dogs? It could save their lives.
There are also some shortcomings in the book that limited it to four rather than five stars for me:
In explaining dog evolution, Hare asserts that only dogs and bears survived the expansion of humans into Europe. All other large predators were killed off. He fails to mention house cats. Maybe they weren't large enough? Seems a trivial reason to leave them out. So much could be learned. I find the absence of any discussion of domesticated cats in a book about predator domestication and the ecological evolution of the human-pet relationship, to be utterly baffling. What better species to compare dog domestication to, both for the convergent-evolution similarities, and for the contrasting differences?
Hare's cognitive profiles of dogs leave out the single most important cognitive trait from a trainer's perspective: what the English call 'biddability', or Americans call 'will-to-please.' Why do some dogs inherently have a laser-like focus on their owners, while others pay only passing, occasional, unpredictable attention to their owners? Presumably, there is a genetic aspect to this. A discussion of will-to-please would have been extremely valuable.
Hare downplays genetic differences between dog breeds based on the argument that their DNA is 99% identical. Thats not a convincing argument when anyone can readily observe the huge behavioral differences that exist between a Border Collie vs a Labrador vs a Beagle. Genes differ in their importance; oversimplified DNA arithmetic is not a sufficient explanation of these differences, let alone a reason to pretend they don't exist.
Hare could have done a better job at explaining dog operant conditioning than by labeling it as 'clicker training.' That's like labeling the practice of fishing, as 'rod holding.' The clicker, like the fishing rod, is just a tool. He also presents dog cognitive training as an alternative to operant conditioning, whereas it appears more logically as an extension of it. Operant conditioning is still a powerful and effective training method when it is in synch with a dog's cognitive abilities. It is when we want to train something that is not a match for a particular dog's cognitive abilities, that operant conditioning runs into trouble.
Hare says nothing about the formation of habits. Operant conditioning acts to build almost addictive performance in dogs. One can hypothesize that it triggers some releases of hormones in a dog's brain that motivate habitual performance of the desired behavior. In fact, this presumption is emphasized by most trainers who utilize operant conditioning. Susan Garrett calls it 'building value' for the behavior. After awhile the dog sees the behavior as a motivating reward in and of itself. I wish Brian Hare had given his take on this. Is habit-formation a strength of dogs that trainers can utilize?
Bottom line: The Genius of Dogs highlights a whole new dimension to understanding dog behavior, while also being a fascinating account of how dogs evolved to become our best friends, viewed from the lens of science - a lens that is all too often missing in the dog training literature.