How Do Dogs Understand Humans?
When it comes to reading human cues, dogs win, hands down.
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As humans, we are part of a long chain of evolution connecting back to a shared branch with so many other primates on this planet. And yet, dogs understand us better than any chimpanzee. Really. It’s science.
The theory is that dogs are capable of communicating with their people, not because we train them, but because they evolved alongside us, and the ones who did the best with tricks survived on our generous treats. Read on to find out how researchers figured it out.
Do dogs understand humans?
Back in the late aughts, there wasn’t a huge wealth of scientific knowledge on the cognitive capabilities of domestic animals, especially dogs. Many scientists were more interested in studying exotic animals or interested only in animal understanding as it relates to human cognition. “Physically, domesticated animals have smaller brains than wild specimens of the species,” says Brian Hare, a New York Times bestselling author and professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University. “People think that domesticated animals are dumb.”
When Hare was getting started as an anthropology student at Harvard, he began studying the cognitive capabilities of chimpanzees. While working with our closest living relatives, he thought about playing fetch with his dog in the backyard as a kid.
While chimps generally failed to read his basic physical communications, Hare recalled how his dog would follow his pointed finger to a hidden stick or ball. “I was studying how chimp cognition compared to human cognition, and the chimps were doing poorly,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘My dog can do this. This is ridiculous.’”
Hare abandoned the nation’s premier science facilities and their chimps and traveled to his parent’s garage in Atlanta, where his subjects became Daisy and Oreo — two Labrador Retrievers. He gave them some simple tests, which boosted his plan to understand canine cognition.
Hare was in new territory. Ray Coppinger, professor of biology at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, and author of Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior, and Evolution, supported Hare’s quest. “Hare [was] trying to get at the deeper message — the suggestion that dogs have minds,” Coppinger says.
How did scientists measure dog cognition?
In order to better learn why dogs understand us like they do, Hare assembled a team to perform a study at the Boston Wolf Sanctuary, in a German laboratory, and stateside at Harvard. The group’s main test worked like this: An experimenter hid a piece of food in one of two containers, and the subject (either a dog, wolf, or chimp), who did not see where the food was hidden, was allowed to choose one. But, before giving them a choice, the experimenter gave a clue indicating the food’s location, for example, by looking at, pointing to, tapping on, or placing a marker on the correct container.
How did dogs compare?
“The idea was to compare our closest relative, chimps, to dogs and wolves and see who is more expert at reading humans,” says Hare. “We thought we’d use chimps as the yardstick; it turned out that dogs are the experts,” says Hare.
Just as Hare suspected, dogs were better than chimps and wolves at understanding human social cues to find food. They were also more skilled as puppies, regardless of age or rearing history. “What was fascinating was discovering that dogs don’t require exposure to humans to use these social cues,” says Hare. “The big surprise for me was the puppies.” Regardless of how puppies are raised, they’re still tuned into our cues.
How do dogs understand humans?
So, it turns out that dogs didn’t inherit their human-reading skills from wolves or because they experienced intense exposure to humans throughout their lives. Instead, these results provide the strongest support that dogs’ social-communicative skills with humans were acquired during the process of domestication.
“We sought to discover the origin of this ability,” says Hare. “We showed that there has been cognitive evolution; there has been a change in the cognitive abilities of dogs as a result of evolution. Dogs who could read human cues were more likely to survive, more likely to reproduce and pass their genes on to the next generation.”
Why it matters.
One immediate benefit of the study is how it could influence dog trainers professionally.
“The message for trainers is that they may not need to train dogs so heavily,” Hare says. “Dogs are so good at flexibly using social cues; over-training can be worse than not training at all. Over-training may make a dog less flexible.”
Coppinger agrees. “From a training point of view, if the average dog owner thought their dog had a mind, it could affect how humanely they treat the animal,” he says.
Hare adds, “It seems as though dogs, potentially through evolution, have been molded to be sensitive to human needs. I don’t think dog owners were surprised by my findings. This is something that all dog owners intuitively know is true.” But now they have the data to prove it.
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Your dog’s origin story.
A PSA to pay better attention to our best friends’ body language.
Chris McNamara is an El Capitan addicted Big Wall Climber, Ex-Wingsuit BASE jumper, and author.