I came across an article on ‘Dognition’ yesterday on Scientific American, under the category ‘Mind & Brain’, and I was ready to dismiss it until I looked up the Duke University Canine Cognition Center (yes, it’s a real thing!), where I found a collection of fascinating papers on dog psychology and cognition (Tomasello even co-authored a few of them!). I will summarize a few of their findings, which I personally found pretty mind blowing.
In this paper by Brian Hare, it was suggested that dogs might be regarded in some respects as more intelligent than chimpanzees. Indeed, in a series of experiments conducted to test dogs and chimps’ ability to solve problems by relying on humans’ social cues, it emerged that dogs might be closer than primates in possessing a theory of mind. Hare defines T.o.M as the ability to think about the thoughts of others; it can be seen as providing the developmental basis for much of what is considered unique to human cognition.
The main experiment involved an ‘Object choice task’ in which the experimenter indicates to an animal subject the location of hidden food by using a social cue such as gaze direction or pointing. It was found that while dogs excelled at spontaneously using humans’ cooperative-communicative social cues (most dogs were successful from the very first trial and were able to adapt to arbitrary and novel cues throughout the experiment), chimps showed little spontaneous skill at using human social cues and even after a dozen trials were unable to generalize this skill when it was presented with a slightly modified social cue.
In Hare’s words, dogs should be viewed not only as humans’ best friends but also as ‘human tool users’. Can we conclude from this that dogs are using us as part of their extended mind?
Joking aside, the researchers suggest that dog’s unusual social cognition could be a result of domestication. This hypothesis is supported by several domestication studies. In one of them, a group of Russian researchers have been breeding two groups of foxes over the last 45 years. The ‘experimental’ foxes were selected for particular traits such as low levels of fear and aggression toward humans while the ‘control’ group was bread regardless of their behavior towards humans. They found that the experimental fox kits were as skilled at using human social cues as the dog puppies and performed significantly better than the control kits. This finding suggests that “domestic dogs, like Belyaev’s foxes, use cooperative-communicative social cues as a result of selection on levels of emotional reactivity during domestication (Hare et al., 2005). That is, dogs’ specialized social-problem-solving skills may have first appeared after systems mediating fear and aggression were altered.” (Hare, 2007).
These studies could have implications for our understanding of the processes responsible for human cognitive evolution. Indeed, research suggests that these specialized skills that dogs have evolved could represent a case of convergent evolution in dogs and humans. If so, could humans’ social and communicative abilities have evolved in a similar fashion as that observed in dogs, namely through the selection of certain traits and temperaments?
For more information about these studies, I refer you to Tomasello and Hare’s excellent paper, which can be found here.