Sunday, May 19, 2013

Dog cognition

Dogs are intelligent creatures, and they appear to be able to perform certain cognitive tasks that are beyond the capacity of wolves and chimpanzees. A typical case in which certain dogs reveal their innate intelligence is the ability to understand the human gesture of pointing. We humans are so accustomed to using this gesture with our fellow humans that it's natural for dog owners to attempt to communicate with their animals by pointing in one or another direction. I have the impression that Fitzroy often reacts positively to this gesture, but I must admit that the message gets through most efficiently when I use my outstretched foot to point, say, at a piece of food that I've thrown on the ground for him. But it's not as if I carry out this kind of experiment in such a rigorous fashion that I can vouch for my conclusions.

Brian Hare, a researcher in biological anthropology at Duke University, was keen to study this question of the effectiveness of pointing in a canine context.

Realizing that his university department simply couldn't get together a significantly large enough contingent of dogs for such experiments, he decided to exploit the methods of so-called citizen science. That's to say, he founded a company called Dognition [click here to visit their website] which invites dog owners to enroll their pet dogs in trials that can be conducted with the help of the Internet. That's to say, the company provides you with all the information needed to conduct certain precise experiments, and you then send back the results for analysis by company specialists. I intend to see if they'll accept Fitzroy as a candidate, because I think it would be nice if my dog were to collaborate with a US technology company, and maybe get enrolled in an American university. And that reminds me of my Eskimo joke:
A retired couple of Californian tourists are visiting an Eskimo settlement in Greenland. They strike up a conversation with a woman alongside her igloo.

ESKIMO: My son works in a Californian university.

CALIFORNIAN: Really! What's he studying?

ESKIMO: No, he's being studied.
The excellent science writer Carl Zimmer—author of the fascinating little book about viruses that I mentioned in a blog post in June 2011 [display]—has written an article in The New York Times [here] on the subject of canine cognition.

A couple of days ago, Zimmer wrote another short article [here] on the fascinating questions of why and when certain wolves branched away from their wild ancestors and evolved into dogs. Apparently this split started in East Asia, through genetic mutations, 32,000 years ago. One of the new genes that evolved on the canine branch brought about a flow of the serotonin neurotransmitter into the nervous system, which had the effect of making the primordial dogs less aggressive than pure wolves. Hordes of mellowed-down animals got into the habit of scavenging in the vicinity of groups of early human hunter-gatherers, and that is how we ended up being accompanied by domestic dogs. It's interesting to realize that this process is quite different to the previously-held idea that humans might have stolen wolf pups from their parents and tamed them. It was the evolution of the serotonin-oriented gene that got the "taming" process into action, in a totally autonomous fashion. The only human intervention would have consisted, no doubt, of destroying or chasing away dangerously aggressive scavengers that were not sufficiently "serotoninized". And this would have contributed to the emergence of a pack of increasingly friendly animals.

Let me relate a trivial anecdote concerning Fitzroy and his apparent intelligence.

Over the last fortnight, I've been strolling up to my neighbor's place every day to feed their poultry while Jackie and his wife were away on vacation. Needless to say, Fitzroy always accompanies me. And he never seems to accept the idea that he's not allowed to follow me into the hen house. Sometimes, while I'm stepping in through a wire mesh entrance, Fitzroy has succeeded in sliding into this interesting place, where his presence creates turmoil among the hens, rooster and geese. So, I decided to bring along a dog lead, and tie up Fitzroy before I open the hen house. He wasn't happy to find himself suddenly attached in Jackie's yard, a short distance away from the hen house, and he let me know by a new variety of short squeals, unlike any of Fitzroy's everyday sounds. Less than a minute later, Fitzroy was free, having severed neatly the fabric part of the lead with his molars.

I was amazed. I have the impression (though I may be wrong) that it takes a good dose of cognitive cleverness for a dog to conclude rapidly that the only obstacle that prevented him from approaching the hen house was a band of canvas cloth, which could be cut rapidly by means of his teeth. As you can see from the photo, Fitzroy had already attacked the cord part of this old lead on a couple of previous excursions, but I had imagined those early acts as a mere game, resulting from the presence of the cord near his jaws. As for biting through the canvas strap, in a matter of seconds, that seemed to be the outcome of a deliberate reasoned strategy aimed at freeing himself. In the style of the proverbial prisoner manipulating a fragment of metal fashioned into a rudimentary saw blade to cut through the bars of his cell, Fitzroy was using his teeth as a tool to attain liberty.


  1. Perhaps this pooch is one of Fitzroy's relatives.

  2. Click here to see the amazing dog video indicated by Narelle.