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The Domestication and Social Cognition in Dogs
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Results
The results confirmed that dogs are more skillful than chimps and wolves at using human social cues to find food, and that puppies are skilled at using human cues, regardless of age or rearing history. The paper reads “[the results] do not support the predictions of either the Canid Generalization Hypothesis (dogs have inherited their skills from wolves) or the Human Exposure Hypothesis (dogs are skillful because they experience intense exposure to humans through their lives). Instead, these results provide the strongest support for the Domestication Hypothesis: that dogs’ social-communicative skills with humans were acquired during the process of domestication.”

In simpler terms: “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.”

Applications
In addition to providing new insight into man’s best friend, this study, Hare believes, can benefit dog trainers professionally. “The message for trainers is that they may not need to train dogs so heavily,” he 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.” Ray 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.

Future
Hare’s scientific journey will take an exciting turn in summer 2003. As a member of Harvard’s Department of Anthropology, he will travel to Siberia to study a group of foxes that has been experimentally domesticated. The foxes will be given the same tests as the dogs, and results will be compared. “We want to discover if humans selected dogs that were good at this or if this was an accidental byproduct of domestication,” says Hare.

From humble beginnings in his parents’ garage to the discoveries that await him in Siberia, Hare examines the warm bond between man and dog in the cold realm of science, and sheds new light on a phenomenon that dog lovers have always recognized.

“It seems as though dogs, potentially through evolution, have been molded to be sensitive to human needs,” he says. “I don’t think dog owners were surprised by my findings. This is something that all dog owners intuitively know is true.”

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 22: Spring 2003

Illustration by Graham Roumieu

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