Husband-and-wife research team Brian Hare and Vanessa Wood discuss their new book, The Genius of Dogs, and explain how dogs helped domesticate humans—not the other way around.
Zola: What is it that makes dogs smarter than most other mammals?
Brian Hare & Vanessa Wood: Their ability to read human social cues. We take it for granted that dogs can effortlessly use our point to find a hidden toy or morsel of food, but this ability is unique in the animal kingdom. No other species can read our communicative gestures as well as dogs can. It allows them to be incredible social partners with us, whether it’s hunting, or agility, or just navigating every day life. Their ability to interpret our gestures also helps them solve problems they can’t solve on their own.
Zola: You have a lot of evidence demonstrating that there is no real difference between breeds of dogs when it comes to intelligence, but that anyone who wanted to make a case that their own dog’s breed is the smartest could do so using the same material. How does that work?
BH & VW: The problem with trying to figure out differences between breeds is that most breeds have only been around for 150 years—that’s a microsecond in evolutionary time. Genetically, breeds are so similar to each other, that it’s almost impossible to tell them apart. Also, no one can really agree what a breed is. The American Kennel Club recognizes 170 breeds, the Kennel Club (UK) recognizes 210 breeds, while the Australian National Kennel Council lists 201—and they are just the English speaking countries.
To figure out true differences in the intelligence between breeds, you would need to compare at least 30 dogs from each breed. If you took the AKC breeds or all breeds worldwide, you would need between 6,000 -12,000 puppies, decades of work, millions of dollars, and about a thousand graduate students. It is no wonder no one has done it.
So if you want to say your breed is the smartest, there’s no scientific evidence to back you up, but the good news is, there’s no scientific evidence to contradict you, either.
Zola: You write that not only did dogs domesticate themselves, but there is also evidence that they helped domesticate humans. Can you explain?
BH & VW: The ability of dogs to read human gestures is remarkable. Even our closest relatives—chimpanzees and bonobos—can’t read our gestures as readily as dogs can. Dogs are remarkably similar to human infants in the way they pay attention to our gestures. This ability accounts for the extraordinary communication we have with our dogs. Some dogs are so attuned to their owners that they can even read a gesture as subtle as a change in eye direction.
With this new ability, our ancestors who were tolerant of wolves who were becoming dogs would have had an advantage. People with dogs during a hunt would likely have had an advantage over those who didn’t. Even today, tribes in Nicaragua depend on dogs to detect prey. Moose hunters in alpine regions bring home 56 percent more prey when they are accompanied by dogs. In the Congo, hunters believe they would starve without their dogs.
Dogs would also have served as a warning system, barking at hostile strangers from neighboring tribes. They could have defended their humans from predators.
And finally, though this is not a pleasant thought, when times were tough, dogs could have served as an emergency food supply. Thousands of years before refrigeration and with no crops to store, hunter-gatherers had no food reserves until the domestication of dogs. In tough times, dogs that were the least efficient hunters might have been sacrificed to save the group or the best hunting dogs. Once humans realized the usefulness of keeping dogs as an emergency food supply, it was not a huge jump to realize plants could be used in a similar way.
Far from a benign human adopting a wolf puppy, it is more likely that a population of wolves adopted us. As the advantages of dog ownership became clear, we were as strongly affected by our relationship with them as they have been by their relationship with us. Dogs may even have been the catalyst for our civilization.
Zola: This book suggests that breeds like pit bulls and rottweilers have been unfairly maligned as “vicious” and “dangerous.” How so? And what would be a more effective way to lower incidents of dog bites instead of banning entire breeds?
BH & VW: The problem is that it is unclear if the pit bulls and rottweilers involved in attacks against humans are actually pit bulls and rottweilers. In a 2009 study, researchers looked at how 17 different adoption agencies classified breeds. A dog turning up at a shelter is a much less stressful situation than someone turning up at an emergency room, and you could argue that people who work with dogs are more experienced at identifying breeds than the average person.
Adoption agency workers were asked to identify the dominant breed in several dogs. Blood samples from the dogs were then sent off for DNA analysis. Two thirds of the time, the adoption agency said the dog was predominantly a breed that was nowhere in the dog’s ancestry. When the dominant breed was a dalmatian, they called it a terrier. When the dog was mostly Alaskan malamute they called it an Australian shepherd dog. If even experienced people who work with dogs full time only get breeds right a third of the time, it is probable that the rest of us would get the breed wrong with an even higher frequency.
When a hospital records that the dog that bit someone was a pit bull, they rely on the report of the victim, parents, or a witness. No one does a DNA test to make sure. Any dog with short hair, medium build and a broad face might be called a pit bull. Looks can be deceiving. A dog that looks nothing like a pit bull may have pit bull genes, while a dog that looks like a pit bull is nothing of the sort.
Zola: What’s the most unusual thing about dogs that even most dog lovers don’t know?
BH & VW: While we are occasionally advised to be the “top dog” and dominate our dogs in order to win respect and obedience, it seems that dogs don’t follow a leader who acts like the big bad wolf. While some feral dog groups (dogs who live without human interference) have a dominance hierarchy that predicts priority to resources such as food and mating partners, this hierarchy is not as strict as in wolves. In feral dogs, the pack does not follow the most dominant dog, instead they follow the dog with the most friends.
This article originally appeared on Zola Books.