Dognition is all about playing fun games that will give you a window into your dog’s mind, and that will in turn enrich the relationship you have with your dog. On top of that, the data that you enter will contribute to a huge citizen science project that will help us help all dogs, from shelter dogs, to service dogs. Everyone who signs into Dognition will not only get an extensive cognitive profile of their own dog, but the data will be entered into a huge database that scientists can use to answer all these burning questions that we’ve never had the resources to answer, like breed differences. The largest single dog study published tested around 15,000 dogs. With Dognition and people’s help, we have the potential to test hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dogs. It’s an incredibly exciting project and I can’t wait to see what we find out!
Cook: .... Like the "yawn test"?
Hare: Even as young children, we laugh when we see someone laughing, and we cry when we someone in distress. Our ability to “catch” the emotions of others is called emotional contagion. A common form of emotional contagion is yawning. If you see, hear, or even think about someone yawning, you will probably feel an irresistible urge to yawn yourself. Contagious yawning is related to empathy scores in adults.
It looks like some dogs also contagiously yawn. The yawn test is just the owner yawning and seeing if their dog yawns back! It’s a really simple test but it can tell you a lot about your dog.
Cook: How empathetic are dogs, truly, when it comes to their human partners, and how much is just our imagination, or our need to believe that they understand us?
Hare: As a scientist, it is hard to design tests that assess whether an animal is empathetic, because most research on empathy in humans relies on people reporting how they feel, and dogs can’t talk (or at least not yet in a way we can understand them).
But there is definitely something special about the bond we have with dogs. Their ability to read our communicative gestures makes them seem “in tune” with us. And their attentiveness to our every move can’t help but make us feel special. There is one study that shows that dogs would prefer to spend time with humans than their own species, which is unusual for an animal. Every dog owner is familiar with that rise in spirits as a thumping tail greets you at the door, and from the enthusiasm dogs have for us, it’s hard to believe the feeling isn’t mutual.
There are several measures, like contagious yawning, that show that dogs probably at least have a basic form of empathy (human infants who do not contagiously yawn typically have low empathy scores). And there are studies showing that dogs and humans experience a rise in oxytocin, the “hug hormone” when we hug and pet them (although it seems dogs get a higher boost in oxytocin when they are petted by women, as opposed to men!).
Cook: What is the "wolf event," as you call it, and what is its significance?
Hare: The “wolf event” was a curious episode in evolutionary history where wolves basically took over Europe. Between 1.7 and 1.9 million years ago, during one of the Ice Ages, a relatively small wolf called the Etruscan wolf spread throughout Europe. It was also around this time that humans were immigrating out of Africa.
But the wolf’s reign didn’t last long. As modern humans became the dominant carnivore, we have persecuted other large carnivores to extinction — which is why dogs are such an interesting puzzle. Some have proposed that modern humans adopted wolf puppies and raised them, but this doesn’t really make sense. Humans have never had a particularly amicable relationship with wolves — we tend to have a low tolerance for fanged predators, and the annihilation of wolves in the last thousand years almost lead to their extinction. Some say humans discovered that tame wolves were excellent hunting partners, but wolves eat a lot of meat – a pack of ten wolves would need a deer a day. And humans were successful hunters without wolves.