The Genius of Dogs Summary and Review

by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods

Has The Genius of Dogs by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary.

Each year, proud owners travel the world with their furry friends, competing in dog shows to present their full range of agility and tricks. It’s hard to deny that dogs have a remarkable ability to learn things. Research has shown that only a few other types of animals can learn as well as dogs can. How did dogs get so smart? Domestication and training certainly played a part, but as this book summary will explain, their story is a little more complicated than that. How did wild, independent wolves become man’s best friend, developing a special bond that makes them more suited to packs of people? Continue reading to discover the genius of dogs.

In this summary of The Genius of Dogs by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, you’ll learn

  • why dogs chose to domesticate;
  • how dogs and toddlers have similar cognitive abilities; and
  • why a bulldog’s nose is so flat and its jaws so strong.

The Genius of Dogs Key Idea #1: A Dog’s Intelligence is Grounded in its Survivalist Skills.

If you’ve ever watched a dog perform a series of complicated tricks, you know that these four-legged creatures are quite bright. But just how clever are they, and how can we measure the intellect of a dog? Animal intelligence is different than that of human’s and is best measured in how well an animal manages to survive and reproduce over time. Interestingly enough, many mammals are in decline right now, either endangered or teetering on the edge of extinction – but not dogs. How do we evaluate a dog’s genius? A genius can excel in one domain of cognition, but still, be considered average or lacking in another. While dogs may not be all-round geniuses, we can perceive them as “specialized” geniuses when comparing them to closely related species. Another sign of genius is the ability to make spontaneous inferences, something humans often do. For instance, if you’re driving toward an intersection and can’t see the traffic light, but notice a car coming on the crossing from another direction, you can infer your light is currently red. Dogs also can assume information based on their surroundings; there are few allowances for trial and error in nature. The lasting relationship between humans and dogs through history is based on our shared intelligence. Initially, people believed that early humans raised wolf cubs as companions, and they are the animals that evolved into what we recognize today as dogs. Why would our ancestors take the cubs from wolves, being that they’re feared wild animals? Humans didn’t need wolves’ help for hunting. Having wolves as a part of a human “pack” would mean we’d have to hunt more because a wolf needs up to five kgs of meat per day to survive. Furthermore, wolves are incredibly possessive of their food, so a hungry wolf is a dangerous wolf. Thus, the wolf cub-to-dog theory didn’t make enough sense. But how can we explain why ancient human graves, from approximately 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, also held buried puppies?

The Genius of Dogs Key Idea #2: Domestication, Better Diets, and Stronger Bonds

How did a wolf become a domesticated dog? Rather than it being humans looking to bond with wolves, it was the wolves that chose to bond with humans. Early human settlements gave way to new sources of food, like discarded bones and rotting meat. Only the boldest wolves could use this to their advantage, and slowly, these wolves became more skilled at responding to human behavioral cues. Even after the wolves got chased away, the draw of food outweighed the threat of danger. Within a few generations, variations could be discerned between wilder wolves and the proto-dogs. The latter exhibited a preference for being around humans rather than sticking with their pack. In this remarkable manner, dogs essentially domesticated themselves. Experiments conducted using foxes in Siberia support this argument. Foxes were picked based on how friendly they were toward people, and only those foxes were allowed to breed. For example, the chosen foxes preferred toys that humans had handled while other foxes favored toys untouched by humans. The breeding selection gradually resulted in foxes that alternatively to being afraid of humans, sought to interact with them. We also know that giving dogs the option to be with other dogs or with a person, they'll take the person. The presence of a human being causes a dog’s stress levels to drop dramatically. A dog demonstrates an alliance with people unlike any other animal, and even behaves like a human infant toward its owner. Nineteenth-century writer Josh Billings once said, “A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.” Even the dogs that are closely related to the original proto-dogs, Australian dingoes and New Guinea singing dogs, can read and understand human gestures. However – to what extent do dogs understand us?

The Genius of Dogs Key Idea #3: Dogs Watch and Learn From Us

Humans aren’t born with fully formed cognitive abilities. It takes some time for children to develop the skills necessary to survive. Dogs, however, learn much more quickly. At about nine months, human babies start to focus on what others are looking at and how people react to the environment. The ability to interpret intentions is the cognitive basis for culture and communication. Impressively, dogs have this ability, as well. Most animals only can learn specific gestures. You can train an animal to understand a pointed finger, but if you were to point with your foot, the message would be lost to them. Interestingly, studies have shown that dogs can comprehend human gestures even without having been trained to do so, unlike trained wolves. Experiments have also revealed that dogs can read human gestures similarly to how a human infant would. They can also do it selectively. For example, if you direct your gaze above a cup that has food in it, a dog will not recognize it as a signal. But they will understand the message if you look directly at the cup instead. In this manner, dogs pay attention to what we do! Dogs also make comparable errors to human infants. If you hide a toy behind something and then in full view, move the toy behind another object, both infants and dogs will search the original hiding place first. However, a trained wolf wouldn’t make this mistake. Unlike infants that take months to develop their cognitive abilities, puppies and street dogs manifest these abilities early on. That shows that these skills are a product of evolution and not rearing. While dogs have a lot common with human infants, what role does this play in their survival?

The Genius of Dogs Key Idea #4: Survival of the Fittest Means Survival of the Friendliest for Dogs

You’re likely familiar with the concept of “survival of the fittest,” but what does it truly mean to be fit? Let’s look at two of Homo sapiens’ closest relatives, the chimpanzee, and the bonobo. This way, you’ll be able to observe two distinct types of “fitness” at work. Chimpanzees are antagonistic toward strangers, hunt other groups of their kind and kill their males and infants. Inter-group aggression is one of the leading causes of mortality for animals in the wild. The leader of a group of chimpanzees is the alpha male, who asserts his sexual dominance over all of the females. For chimpanzees, being fit is being strong because it’s the best chance for a male to reproduce. Bonobos are quite different. While they’re almost genetically identical to chimpanzees, they greet other groups and don’t kill each other. Also, the group leader is always a female, and all the females are bonded. If a male attempt to harass a female, then the females will defend her. Furthermore, bonobos are selective over mates, often opting for more peaceful and gentle males. Among bonobos, being fit is to be friendly. But how does this all connect to the dogs’ fitness? Similarly to humans and bonobos, dogs exhibit natural cooperation skills and seek to help others early on in their lives. For that, tolerance is essential. From an evolutionary standpoint, being tolerant and approachable was advantageous for humans; it enabled us to form larger groups and share food. The same concept applies to dogs. The ones that bonded with humans were overall more cooperative and communicative. So, for dogs, developed social skills – in particular friendliness – means being fit. Both bonobos and dogs have craniums 15 percent smaller than chimpanzees or wolves. Bonobos have a higher level of intelligence compared to chimpanzees, which shown in their superior ability to cooperate. Also, dogs are more intelligent than wolves. Therefore, brain size is not the best indicator of intelligence. We now understand that dogs are naturally social animals, but what else are they skilled at doing?

The Genius of Dogs Key Idea #5: Dogs Do Have Some Limitations to Their “Language”

Many dog owners claim to have some mutual understanding with their pet. Is that an overstatement? Well, there’s more truth to it than you may have thought. What exactly do dogs understand? Is it only a word? Or maybe a concept? When we’re young, and learn a word like “shoe,” we can understand that “shoe” refers to an entire category. And it’s the same way for our canine companions. Experiments have confirmed that dogs can comprehend the symbols behind words. In one test, dogs were taught the words for objects, such as “frisbee” or “toy,” and trained to fetch those objects from a room. Later, when the dogs were instead shown a picture of the objects, they were still able to fetch the correct thing.   Dogs also understand if their owner can hear their actions. It’s like when your pet takes something they shouldn’t have into another room to enjoy it where they can’t get caught. As smart as dogs can be, there are some limitations to what they can do. In tests where the direct route to an end goal is obstructed, a wolf will search for and find an alternative path. In contrast, a dog will sit in front of the obstacle. It is a likely outcome because humans have solved many dilemmas of "survival" for domesticated animals for them. Understanding basic physical principles is another limitation that dogs have. For example, early on in life, human children figure out that a toy can’t pass through a solid object. Dogs have a difficult time understanding this. When tied to a tree, a dog will keep trying to move around, unaware that it’s the tree that’s restricting its movement. Dogs also don’t show much of a sense of self. Like humans, apes can use a mirror to see the parts of their body they wouldn’t be able to without it. Dogs, on the other hand, tend to get bored after failing to find the “other dog” they see behind the mirror. Still, dogs are undeniably remarkable.

The Genius of Dogs Key Idea #6: Dogs Learn and Act Best with Others

Dogs are pack animals: street dogs work together, and pets will stick with their human “pack.” This very social way of living and learning allows dogs to have an advantage. When they’re alone, dogs can get stuck with a problem, but when observing others solving the problem, they can figure it out more quickly. Dogs are incredibly skilled in learning by observation. That does not mean that they actually comprehend the reasoning behind a solution or the problem, but they learn quickly from successes, even if it’s by chance. The value behind this social learning and living is best understood when studying feral dogs. Feral dogs are animals that have been domesticated but not deliberately bred by humans, sometimes for generations, and have thus returned to a wilder life. Feral dog packs are similar to wolf packs in their size and how they tend to reconcile after conflicts. However, wolf packs are usually closely related, having only one “privileged” pair that breeds while the rest cares for the pups. It is not like that in feral dog packs; they’re mostly unrelated and bear more puppies, so more offspring die due to a lack of help. Wolf packs protect themselves by killing other wolves, whereas dog packs defend themselves from other dogs by barking. Another way that dogs present their sociability is how they seek out and grow attached to one or more cooperative partners.  Dogs can remember an owner they’ve had years later. Charles Darwin, for instance, reported that upon his return from a three-year trip abroad, his dog Czar greeted him like he always did, as if he had only been gone for a moment. Dogs can live in groups, learn from others and are skilled cooperators. They demonstrate that they know when they need to cooperate and that they can identify potential common allies.

The Genius of Dogs Key Idea #7: There Is No “Best” Dog Breed

Even if you don’t have a dog of your own, you’ve probably heard mixed opinions about which breed is best. Dog breeds are not as different as you may believe. There isn’t even an international consensus on the number of dog breeds, because different countries recognize different kinds of dogs. Until a few hundred years ago, dogs were classified according to their function. Any chasing dog was considered a harrier, and any lapdog a spaniel. It was much later that appearance became a signifier of breeds. Bulldogs illustrate part of this transition from function to form. In nineteenth-century England, dogs were used to kill bulls because it was believed to make the meat more tender compared to traditional slaughter. The dogs needed to have strong jaws so they wouldn’t get thrown, broad noses so they could still breathe while biting, and a small build to avoid getting hit. To accommodate all of this, the “bulldog” came to be. While there are numerous dog breeds, genetically there are only two groups: those closer to wolves, like Afghans, and the ones classified as dogs of “European origin.” The latter group has only approximately 150 years of genetic distance and are overall closely related, aside from appearances. Surprisingly, a tiny Chihuahua and a massive St. Bernard are genetically very similar! Personality tests can also characterize dogs. There are two primary groups: dogs that are friendly and bold, and dogs that are shy. All of those qualities can be found in every dog breed. Although, aggressiveness is an independent trait and distinguishes the two groups. Due to this, most research centers around dog aggression – crucially, as there are around 4.7 million dog bites reported in the United States every year! Even if you do have a dog with an aggressive personality, you can still train it. But how do you go about it?

The Genius of Dogs Key Idea #8: Dog Training and Cognitive Encounters

Established by Burrhus Frederic Skinner, behaviorism was a preeminent learning concept in the second half of the twentieth century. Behaviorists believe that the cognitive mechanism behind behaviors is irrelevant and that it’s the ingraining of the “right” behavior that is important. This approach does have some constraints. In behaviorism, the focus of learning is on how deprivation makes reward possible. In his studies, Skinner deliberately underfed rats. To get food, the rats had to perform specific activities. It was through this method that Skinner formed the rats’ “correct” behavior. Though criticized for being unethical, these techniques formed a foundation for many learning programs for animals and humans, seen in weight loss and quit-smoking programs. Behaviorism has its shortcomings, as not all animals or humans are uniformly created. We can’t always predict behaviors. Focusing on cognitive processes instead of behavior allows room for various concepts of intelligence. We now know that a dog’s intelligence lies in their ability to understand human communication and their desire to cooperate with us. Many dog training programs are based on the idea of a human as the “alpha” giving directives. However, in dog packs, there is no firm and fast hierarchy like this. Therefore, to develop better training programs, both cognitive abilities and the limitations of dogs should be considered. It would give us an overall more realistic view about what dogs can do and how they can learn to do it.

The Genius of Dogs Key Idea #9: In Review

The key message in this book summary: What makes dogs intelligent is centered on their ability to understand human communication and their willingness to cooperate with us. However, there are some limitations to this, but by taking it all into account, we can treat dogs better and train them more effectively. Actionable advice: You won’t always get the dog you expected to have! You’ve probably heard of the “aggressiveness” of a bulldog or the “intelligence” of border collies. But genetically, all dogs are close to identical, so even if your dog seems picture perfect on the outside, it may have a nasty temperament. Breed only tells us a little about behavior so let your interactions with a dog be your guide when you’re choosing a new companion. Suggested further reading: Zoobiquity by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz and Kathryn Bowers Zoobiquity explores the close similarities between humans and other animals by examining topics like sexuality, health, and psychological development. It illustrates how as humans, we have much to gain by increasing our understanding of the animals we share the planet with.