Just about every dog owner is convinced their dog is a genius. For a long time, scientists did not take their pronouncements particularly seriously, but new research suggests that canines are indeed quite bright, and in some ways unique. Brian Hare, an associate professor in the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University, is one of the leading figures in the quest to understand what dogs know. The founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, Hare has now written a book, “The Genius of Dogs,” with his wife, the journalist Vanessa Woods. Hare answered questions from Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook.

Cook: What is the biggest misconception people have about the dog mind?
Hare: That there are “smart” dogs and “dumb” dogs. There’s still this throwback to a uni-dimensional version of intelligence, as though there is only one type of intelligence that you either have more or less of.

In reality there are different types of intelligence. Different dogs are good at different things. Unfortunately, the very clever strategies some dogs are using are not apparent without playing a cognitive game. This means people can often underestimate the intelligence of their best friend. The pug drooling on your shoe may not look like the brightest bulb in the box, but she comes from a long line of successful dogs and is a member of the most successful mammal species on the planet besides us. Rest assured – she is a genius.

Cook: What are the “different things” that dogs are good at? What are the areas of dog intelligence you have studied?
Hare: We know that as a species, dogs are remarkable in certain areas, like taking someone else’s visual perspective, or learning from someone else’s actions. In particular, I’ve been interested in how dogs recruit help and how they take someone else’s visual perspective. However, most of my research with dogs has been about the cooperative way they use human communicative gestures. Or put more simply, how they can interpret our gestures to understand us or get what they want. 

Cook: But other animals are intelligent, right? What makes dogs unique?
Hare: Absolutely. Other animals have their own unique genius that was shaped by nature. In the case of dogs it happens to be their ability to read our communicative gestures. We take it for granted that dogs can effortlessly use our pointing gestures to find a hidden toy or morsel of food, but no other species can spontaneously read our communicative gestures as flexibly as dogs can. It allows them to be incredible social partners with us, whether it’s hunting, or agility, or just navigating every day life.  Their ability to interpret our gestures also helps them solves problems they can’t solve on their own.

Cook: I see you have created a new website, Dognition. Can you tell me about it? 
Hare: Dognition is about helping people find the genius in their dog. The only way to find their genius is to compare them to other dogs who all play the same cognitive games. As I said, different dogs use different strategies to solve problems. Does your dog rely on you to solve problems, or are they more independent? Do they pay attention to where you are looking before they decide to sneak food off the coffee table, or are they unaware when you are watching —  making it hard for them to be sneaky?

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.

The puzzle is how the big bad wolf was tolerated around humans long enough to evolve into the mutt that now sleeps on the sofa. It took my childhood dog Oreo, a Russian genius, Siberian foxes, New Guinea Singing dogs, Hungarian scientists, bonobos in Congo, and a decade of research to figure out the answer. 

And the answer is… you’ll have to read the book to find out. But to give you a hint –it’s not always survival of the fittest. Sometimes it’s the friendliest that have an evolutionary edge.

Are you a scientist who specializes in neuroscience, cognitive science, or psychology? And have you read a recent peer-reviewed paper that you would like to write about? Please send suggestions to Mind Matters editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe. He can be reached at garethideas AT gmail.com or Twitter @garethideas.