Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition

Oxford University Press, 274 pp., 2008; $110
By Ádám Miklósi
Reviewed by Karen B. London PhD, October 2010, Updated June 2021

In Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition, Ádám Miklósi has done what nobody else has even dared to try, and he does it brilliantly. This book is the first to compile and analyze the research that delves into the mysteries of the domestic dog. It provides an excellent and thought-provoking review of the scientific literature in a variety of areas: evolution, domestication, study methodologies, senses, communication, personality and development.

This book will be the reference on these subjects, and more, for years to come, probably until the happy day when the new research it inspires warrants a second edition. The book presents a unification of information and ideas from the diverse fields of ethology, genetics, zoology, psychology, archeozoology and anthrozoology. A great strength of the book is its constant focus on what we actually know as a result of rigorous scientific inquiry as opposed to what we think we know, based on the unsubstantiated beliefs and anecdotes that are prevalent in the world of dogs. The author points out many cases in which current research has revealed information at odds with the common wisdom. In a similar vein, he reports on the paucity of knowledge about agonistic behavior and aggression and calls for more research, which will be surprising, as many people believe that more is known about these subjects than is actually the case.

It is rare to enjoy reading such an information-packed book cover to cover, but that was my experience with this one. English is not the first language of this Hungarian author, but there is no need for concern—quite the contrary, it would be wonderful if all who wrote in our language were so eloquent and clear. Coming from the European tradition of excellence in ethology and ethological writing,Miklósi’s research and perspective emphasize the value of studying dogs in their natural environment.He makes the case that dogs are a wonderful subject for scientific study outside of the laboratory, and encourages both a comparative and an interdisciplinary approach. Scientists and non-scientists alike will take pleasure in perusing not only what is known about the dog, but also, how we came to know what we know from scientific study. The stories of the observations and experiments that have shaped our knowledge make compelling reading and also allow readers to understand the most likely directions for fruitful future research.

The nature of the relationship between people and dogs is a topic that will no doubt continue to lend itself to productive study. The scientific perspective on the roles dogs have in the lives of people —Do they act as friends? As children? As pack members?—is truly fascinating. Similarly, anyone who has ever loved a dog will be riveted by the sections covering attachment issues between our two species, the complex and variable nature of the human-dog relationship throughout history, cooperative behavior by dogs in relation to people, communication between the two species, behavioral differences by dogs in response to perceived attention or inattention from a person, canine social competence, and how humans and dogs interact socially.


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Another especially interesting area concerns domestication as an evolutionary process, including the idea that changing views on human evolution inform our understanding of the domestication of dogs. Related to the mutual evolution of our two species is our ability to communicate with one another without specific training. For example, the ability of untrained humans to decode the meaning of dog barks, with or without experience of the individual dogs and breeds in the study. A further subject of great interest was Miklósi’s emphasis on the behavioral flexibility of the members of the genus Canis, both genetically and phenotypically, and the implications of this flexibility for evolutionary processes, including domestication. Using the comparative method —considering the domestic dog as one species within an intriguing group of animals—allows for greater insights into canine evolution.

The one criticism I have is that the index could be more complete. It does not include all of the scientists who are mentioned in the text, nor all of the terms. I hope that this can be improved in future editions, as a more complete index would make the book even more valuable as a reference.

In summary, scholars and anyone else who is serious about understanding dogs will want to read this book. If you haven’t, you’re not up to date on one of our favorite subjects: the behavior, evolution and cognition of the domestic dog.

Image courtesy of the publisher

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 51: Nov/Dec 2008

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life