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The Domestication and Social Cognition in Dogs

When it comes to reading human cues, dogs win, hands down.
By Chris McNamara, November 2008, Updated June 2021

As an anthropology student at Harvard, Brian Hare had a hunch. Although he was studying the cognitive capabilities of chimpanzees, his mind wandered to his youth, to playing fetch with his dog in the backyard. While the chimps he was analyzing 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.’”

So he left the resources of one of the nation's premier science facilities and traveled to his parents’ garage in Atlanta, where his subjects included Daisy and Oreo—two Labrador Retrievers. After a few rudimentary tests, his hunch was confirmed, his interest was piqued and the theories on canine cognition were about to change.

There is a dearth of scientific knowledge of the cognitive capabilities of domestic animals, especially dogs. Many scientists are lured by the glamour of studying exotic animals, or interested only in animal cognition as it relates to human cognition, Hare believes. “Physically, domesticated animals have smaller brains than wild specimens of the species,” he says. “People think that domesticated animals are dumb.” So when Hare shifted his cognitive focus from primates to pups, he was exploring territory that had not been scoured as heavily.

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 (Scribner), lauds Hare’s quest. “As an initial experiment it’s rather interesting,” he says. “Hare is trying to get at the deeper message—the suggestion that dogs have minds.”


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Beginning in 1999, Hare led a research team made up of Michelle Brown, Christina Williamson and Michael Tomasello. They performed tests at the Boston Wolf Sanctuary, in a German laboratory and stateside at Harvard, the results of which, “The Domestication of Social Cognition in Dogs,” were published in the November 2002 issue of Science.

The group’s main test was labeled the object choice paradigm, in which “An experimenter hides a piece of food in one of two opaque containers, and the subject, who did not see where the food was hidden, is allowed to choose only one. Before presenting the subject with the choice, the experimenter gives a communicative cue indicating the food’s location, for example, by looking at, pointing to, tapping on, or placing a marker on the correct container.”

The team posed three hypotheses:

Canid Generalization HypothesisMany canids (especially wolves) should perform at least as well as dogs on social tasks, as has been found previously with non-social tasks.

“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.”

Human Exposure HypothesisVariation in individual dogs’ experience with humans will be associated with variation in task performance; and, as a corollary, young dogs should have relatively poor skills.

“What was fascinating was discovering that dogs don’t require exposure to humans to use these social cues,” says Hare.

Domestication HypothesisDogs should be more skillful than wolves, and variations in experience with humans should not affect the performance of either species (and past a certain age, dog puppies should be as skillful as older dogs).

“The big surprise for me was the puppies,” says Hare. “They were litter-reared, and even at a young age they did well.”

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.”

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.

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.”