Duke University Study Examines How Dogs Communicate

2:50 PM, Feb 7, 2013   |    comments
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Durham, NC -- New research shows dogs are not only intelligent, but able to adapt like few other animals around the world.

A new book goes inside the mind of man's best friend. It's called "The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think."

Dr. Brian Hare at Duke University has been running tests on dogs like Sisu, a 3-year-old black lab, to find out how their brains process information.

By placing two cups in front of Sisu, one with food and one without, Hare can observe how this canine reacts to human gestures.

"So what we're going to do is first look to see if Sisu is using her memory to find food or if she's more um, using your communication, your gesture?"

Through games like these, Hare has been observing how dogs make decisions in order to be successful in life, in this case finding food.  

"We just played a bunch of games we'd played with human infants with dogs and discovered that they're as good as kids basically."

Hare says that they can understand human gestures much like a young child who is just learning how to speak. 

"Most people think chimpanzees, monkeys - they're the ones that are most similar to humans.  Are they?"

"Great apes like chimpanzees and bonobos are our closet genetic relative. And in many ways the way their psychology operates, it's very, very similar to us.  But in some ways they're really different. They're not very good at reading, in a flexible way, gestural communication from humans."

Hare has tested thousands of dogs but in an effort to widen his research, he and his team have created a website called, "Dognition," which will allow dog owners to log on, test their own dog and add their findings to his studies. 

The Dognition website breaks the categories down in to nine different cognitive styles.  They range from an "ace," the problem solver, to a "maverick," known for being fiercely independent.

Dog owner and trainer Jen Merritt put her Australian Shepherd through the tests and was astounded by the results. 

"I knew she was smart, no doubt.  What I didn't know was how she was smart.  How does she problem solve?  How does she have success?  And what the Dognition experience gave me was information about how she solves problems."

Merrit says knowing how her dog thinks has helped to train her.

"I can take the information from the Dognition profile and it allows me to be able to do things faster."

As for Dr. Hare, he hopes that his studies will eventually lead to pairing particular dog personalities with specific jobs, including everything from K9 police units and seeing eye dogs to military and service dogs.

"What makes dogs so indispensable is the fact that they're amazing at working together with us."

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