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Exploring Dogs’ Cognitive Abilities

How Dogs Love Us
By Gregory Berns
New Harvest

Chaser
By John W. Pilley
Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt

What The Dog Knows
By Cat Warren
Simon & Schuster

Spurred on by the marketplace, publishers are quickly getting up to speed in bringing out meaningful “dog books,” those that go well beyond memoirs of canine misbehavior. We credit Alexandra Horowitz and her bestselling Inside of a Dog for much of this turn toward “smart dog” reads. John Bradshaw, author of Dog Sense, also deserves mention; so far, he’s the only canine scientist to go one-on-one with Stephen Colbert. Here are three new books that deserve a place on both bestseller and every dog lover’s reading lists.

Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist at Emory University who uses functional MRIs to measure activity in the human brain, had long been a dog-lover, so when his family adopted Callie, a hyperactive Terrier mix, he naturally started to wonder what she might be thinking. This led him to consider how he might apply techniques used in his studies of the human brain to dogs. In the fascinating book How Dogs Love Us, he recounts the methods his team employed, and how their pet dogs made these groundbreaking studies possible.

Training the dogs to maintain a sharp and steady focus as well as enjoy themselves while undergoing this testing was key. An MRI machine requires the subject to remain perfectly still in a tightly enclosed space while being subjected to loud thumping sounds. Luckily, Berns found the perfect training partner in Mark Spivak, who was confident that positive reinforcement and clicker training could shape the dogs’ behavior so that they would freely and voluntarily maintain the required position. As it turned out, Spivak was right.

Initial findings showed evidence that dogs empathize with humans and have a theory of mind, and, by extension, that the idea that you must be your dog’s pack leader is a mistake. As Berns notes, “Callie was a sentient being who understood, at some level, what I was thinking and reciprocated by communicating her thoughts within her behavioral repertoire.” There’s much to learn in this engrossing, must-read book.

Chaser, by John Pilley, is the story of how a man and a very smart, committed Border Collie won what amounts to the canine world’s grand “spelling bee.” Chaser learned to differentiate at least 1,022 words—more than any other animal—most of which were related to toys. Throw in some basic grammar, her ability to categorize her toys by function and shape, and the start of imitative behavior and you have an engrossing and remarkable tale.

The man behind this canine phenom, John Pilley (a professor emeritus of psychology whom Chaser knows as “Pop-Pop”), is himself rather amazing. Pushing 80 when he began Chaser’s lessons, Pilley spent four to five hours a day enriching his new dog’s social and learning experiences. He and co-researcher Dr. Alliston Reid later published their findings in the journal Behavioural Processes and garnered lots of media coverage, so you may be familiar with the narrative's broad strokes. To fill in the details, read this book, which will also give you tips on how to tap into your own dog’s genius.

In What the Dog Knows, Cat Warren explores the science and wonder of working dogs, guided by Solo, her German Shepherd. A “singleton” puppy (the only one in a litter), Solo was a challenge to train, even for someone as experienced as Warren. To harness his energies, she decided to try him at scent work—specifically, cadaver scenting. Her own training for this field was also a challenge, one that at times was more than she thought she could handle.

Initially, Warren interpreted Solo’s high drive and almost complete uncontrollability as “bad dog” behavior. However, she came to learn that he was demonstrating characteristics working-dog trainers value: intense drive and resourcefulness. In her words, “Solo was brutally rebooting my canine worldview.” This is a story of how she discovered what that worldview really is, and how she and Solo not only learned to navigate it but also, to excel at it. Warren teaches science journalism at North Carolina State University and has strong investigative and storytelling skills, which makes the book all that more enthralling and engaging.

All three books offer readers new avenues to learn about the cognitive and emotional lives of their own dogs, and are highly recommended by this reviewer.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 75: Fall 2013
Claudia Kawczynska is The Bark's co-founder and editor in chief. thebark.com
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