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The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think

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Brian Hare, dog researcher, evolutionary anthropologist, and founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, and Vanessa Woods offer revolutionary new insights into dog intelligence and the interior lives of our smartest pets.
In the past decade, we have learned more about how dogs think than in the last century. Breakthroughs in cognitive science, pioneered by Brian Hare have proven dogs have a kind of genius for getting along with people that is unique in the animal kingdom.
Brian Hare's stunning discovery is that when dogs domesticated themselves as early as 40,000 years ago they became far more like human infants than their wolf ancestors. Domestication gave dogs a whole new kind of social intelligence. This finding will change the way we think about dogs and dog training--indeed, the revolution has already begun.
Hare's seminal research has led him to work with every kind of dog from the tiniest shelter puppy to the exotic New Guinea singing dog, from his own childhood dog, Oreo, to the most fashionable schnoodle. "The Genius of Dogs" is nothing less than the definitive dog book of our time by the researcher who started a revolution.

384 pages, ebook

First published February 5, 2013

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About the author

Brian Hare

8 books102 followers
Brian Hare is Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University, where he founded the Duke Canine Cognition Center. His research on 'dognition' has been published in the leading journals. With his wife Vanessa Woods, he cofounded the new dog intelligence testing and training company Canines Inc. To find out more, visit the Dognition website.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 340 reviews
Profile Image for Chrissie.
2,780 reviews1,458 followers
December 9, 2015
It is difficult for me to find good dog books. I have been reading them for years and years, both fiction and non-fiction. Non-fiction has to give me something new. Fiction has to capture the immense love I feel for my dogs, and that is pretty darn hard to do.

This book of non-fiction gave me food for thought. It taught me things I had not known before. It has already helped me rethink how I communicate with my dog. What has been learned about dogs in the last decade is more than all that learned in the previous century. This book, published in 2013, has spanking new information. It is a book about the latest scientific studies on dogs’ cognitive abilities.

Dog training is a work in process. Your dog’s needs and behavior as a puppy, as a healthy adult and finally as he grows old are all very different. What worked with one of your dogs may not work with another. Each dog is an individual, even those of the same breed. All of this means that a dog owner has to keep learning. This book is filled with scientific studies that illustrate the latest theories. Some studies contradict others; divergent theories are expressed. I appreciate this. Exactly how the tests are preformed are carefully detailed. The results too.

There is fascinating information on how dogs became domesticated. Dogs are superbly equipped at reading human gestures. Which do they react to most readily - sound or movement, smell or touch or eye contact? I had no idea that eye contact was so important!

This is not a book to be used as a guide for how to train your new puppy - how to choose your pup, toilet train them, walk with them, teach them to come, sit and lie down. If you are looking for that then read The Art of Raising a Puppy. This is instead a book that helps you understand dog behavior. Knowledge of new scientific theories can help you alter your training methods to achieve better results.

At the end the book quickly discusses topics as varied as the role of dogs in Japan and in China both today and in the past, the cruel blood sport dog fighting, puppy mills, hormonal effects on canines and humans, gender specific behavior variations and the benefits of animal assisted medical therapy.

The audiobook narration by Fred Sanders is way too fast! Slow down, buddy! While dog owners read this book they have to have time to think. We dog owners are always being told the right way to train our dogs, and of course everyone says something different! Each must in the end decide for themselves which theories and which training methods make the most sense.

If you love your dog you want to understand all you can about them. With this understanding you can more easily train your dog. The better behavior your dog has the more you can do with them and the deeper you relationship grows.

Profile Image for Abby.
1,451 reviews177 followers
April 11, 2013
I sympathize with Brian Hare. When you love dogs this much (as much as I do), it's hard to know when to shut up about them. He seemed to suffer from this problem in his book. I was looking forward to reading it, because I've been enamored with his research, but I'd say it's mostly a pass. The book regurgitates a lot of canine cognition studies that are old news by now (particularly to those of us in the know, regarding canine research) and cannot stay focused at all. The wildly divergent topics (bonobos, personality tests, dog cruelty in China, personal memoir) crippled this book. Hare and Woods would have been better off just writing about what they know: their studies at the Duke Canine Cognition Center. Wouldn't recommend. Instead: Read Alexandra Horowitz or Dog Sense by John Bradshaw. Or anything by Patricia McConnell.
Profile Image for Martha☀.
708 reviews36 followers
June 16, 2020
For years, anthropologists have studied primates, expecting there to be a strong link in our ability to mutually communicate. But, over and over again, chimpanzees and bonobos have done poorly in various body language communication tests - such as following eye contact or understanding a pointing finger. Brian Hare had an a-ha moment when he realized that his own dog could master the pointing finger test since they did it daily while playing fetch. He began to run the same sorts of test on dogs and found that they far surpassed the primates on their ability to understand human body language. These studies looked at trained dogs, untrained puppies, feral dogs, and even wolves and foxes.
For that point on, Hare changed the scope of his studies to pursue the dog-human relationship from 9000 years ago until today. It turns out that dogs are smart when it comes to understanding us. And specifically YOUR dog is a genius - but you already knew that and were simply looking for affirmation.
Although there are some heavily scientific sections, this is written in layman's terms and easily accessible to all. The stories range from cute to perplexing and it kind of makes me want a dog - although I have a hen who also could pass the pointing test with flying colours. I'm awaiting the sequel - The Genius of Chickens.
Profile Image for Elaine.
312 reviews58 followers
September 18, 2013
Brian Hare is, hands down, (what does that mean?) the best science writer I have ever read. Since I have read a great number of science books and journals over the past 60 or so years, and I'm a stickler about writing, that is high praise.

It's not that he writes about simple things. Everything he discusses is based upon careful experimental design. He explains, in detail, in vivid, flowing narrative without ever dumbing it down. Moreover, he brilliantly theorizes from the data he presents.

Although many dog researchers, including me, have claimed that dogs domesticated themselves (see my blog: http://dogsandwolves-smartoldlady.blo...) , Hare goes further, presenting a theory of the evolution of wolves into dogs without presenting all sorts of fictions and myths about dog domestication like Meg Olmert's story of stone age women suckling wolf cubs at their breasts. Ouch! Hare's theory is based upon careful analyses of Belyaev's fox taming methods, and also by comparing chimpanzees and bonobos, their far gentler relatives. Hare found that the more tractable species could read humans as well as dogs do. This is an extremely important finding. Brian Hare is an extremely important researcher, who, by a miracle, is also an extremely readable author.
Profile Image for Tanja Berg.
1,909 reviews438 followers
February 26, 2022
An enthusiastic book about dog behavior. It’s on how dogs likely domesticated themselves and how good they are, compared to other species, to read out intentions. Loved it!

Tested whether my own dogs would understand pointing to a cup as the treat being under that and not the other one. My deaf dog completely failed - and I thought he would be better at hand signals, but no. My other dog got it straight away.
Profile Image for Amirography.
198 reviews113 followers
February 5, 2018
I loved this book. And I rather enjoyed it as both a textbook and also a page-turner.
The book was written in non-fiction classical style. Which was done beautifully by the talent of Dr Hare's writing skills. He simplified complicated cognitive science's concepts, without losing much of the accuracy in the way.

Also, he used many ways to narrate his point: by using fully abstract reasoning, personal anecdotes and analysis of scientific literature and mixing all that in a beautiful way that made the reading experience much more interesting and the tone of the book, far from a boring professor.

I understand many people object to his style of citation, but one should understand that this book is not written with a common textbook style in mind. So naturally, the style of the citation must be suited to the utility.

Fluency: 5/5
Style: 4/5
Content: 4/5

Dogs have such a natural affinity to humans that the gentle stroking of a human hand can release chemicals inside their brains that make them feel calm and affectionate. They even prefer to be with humans than with their own species. In return for a lifetime of loyalty, they depend on us for food, the warmth of a loving family, and a good home. It is up to us to uphold our end of the bargain. Dogs deserve it—they are geniuses, after all!
—Dr. Brian Hare

To all the people out there hoping to find that special someone, I have one piece of advice for you—get a dog.
—Dr. Brian Hare
Profile Image for Stephen Wallace.
609 reviews73 followers
August 5, 2022
I think it is good for anyone who owns a dog to read one or more books on psychology. This book was published in 2013 with information from the latest studies, including their own. It has a lot going for it but I don't remember enough from other books I have read on dog psychology to know how it compares with other similar books. So I will just be speaking to how I felt about the book and how much I enjoyed reading it.

The style felt pretty straightforward and not repetitive. The details of studies were given and the conclusion the study indicated provided. What is impressive is that they often did their study with real animals of different types; dogs, wolves, bonobos, New Guinea singing dogs, Micaragua hunting dogs, and even Dmitri Belyaev's silver foxes in Russia. I have heard of experiment on domesticating Russia silver foxes have by selectively choosing to bread the friendliest one in other books, but to have the author actually go and do some experiments with them and even provide a picture impressed me.

I learned some things from the book, like that dogs don't have a good sense of physics that human infants develop, but maybe it was the way things were written, or that I have read other books in the past, there was nothing that sticks with me to make me go, 'wow'. It is nice they test things to confirm for sure how much what we think is true actually tests out the same way, but if you have a dog and pay it at least some attention, a lot of us, as a dog owner we know. Like if your dog can catch your gaze they are more likely not to sneak over to get the food, than if they are behind your back. (That is a simplified version of the experiment.) I found the book interesting enough, just not wow to me on the information although wow for the types of dogs and animals she tested.

There was some information on dogs in history or in other cultures, but a lot of the information was not pleasant information. The way dogs are treated in China with periodic mass killings from fear of rabies and of course dogs to be eaten was not pleasant. Nor was the information on how horrible puppy mills can be in our country or how many dogs in shelters get euthanized, but I guess that is needed information to help discourage bad things. I did find one little item funny:
- During the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, doctors recommended lapdogs as a cure for various ladies’ illnesses. For example, holding a dog to the bosom was supposedly a good cure for a weak stomach.

The authors makes some statements in the book regarding training but I found nothing concrete that I felt would greatly help with my training. I found their thoughts regarding clicker training interesting:
- Clickers do help, but we need to determine exactly when they help and why. I suspect that rather than helping dogs learn faster, clickers make people better trainers. Using a clicker might help owners reward their dogs more consistently or even make owners fell like they have more control during training. We need more research to know for sure.

Lastly I don't want to believe at least one conclusion which from all the stories I don't agree with:
- For hundreds of years, there have been stories of heroic Lassie-type dogs (and at least one kangaroo) running to fetch help when their owners are in trouble. To fetch help, Lassie needs to understand that she needs to inform other people of the emergency because only she saw it. This may not come as a surprise, but based on the first generation of experiments, it is unlikely your dog, no matter how much of a dog genius they are, has the cognitive abilities to do this.

Overall, a good book and not too long - pages 287 to 367 in my paperback copy were notes/references.
Profile Image for Meghan.
243 reviews34 followers
June 3, 2013
If you only read one dog book this year, let this book be the one.

I read a lot of dog books. I'm always on the hunt for a book that will increase my knowledge of dogs. Almost always, I am disappointed. Usually, books are too anthropomorphic, or dogs are underestimated. Some books are so far into feel-good attitudes that they completely ignore the truth about dogs. At their very worst, these book are written about the author's own (sometimes first) dog, with sweeping generalizations about the rest of the dog population (I'm looking at you, "A Wolf In the Parlor"!).

This book does none of these things. The authors do talk about their dogs, a little, but all of the offered theories are based on scientific experiments with other dogs. They explain what dogs can, and cannot do. They backs up what they are saying with real science, but it is written in a tone accessible to lay-people.

There is a particularly spectacular chapter on current training methods that really explains the truth about clicker-methods and Skinner, explained dominance theory; and why neither one of these methods is appropriate for our furry friends. I won't give away the game, but I will say I can see what I'm doing right, and what I'm doing wrong, when I train my own dog.. and this isn't even a dog training book!

I also loved what they said we DON'T know because it hasn't been scientifically proven: basic characteristics of each breed are so divergent that we can't use a broad brush to define behavior in any of them. Dog owners would say we can, but the truth is there isn't any science to back that up. So when you read behavior blurbs, just remember: these aren't scientifically verified.

Ultimately, this book is fantastic because it points out why our canine friends are so remarkable: they can read us in ways that are comparable to how other people read us (my words here, not the authors'). They have an incredible social intelligence that allows them to interact with us in ways that other animals can't.

Some of the science experiments I had seen in a plethora of dog specials on Nova and the like, but there were lots of new ones, as well. And even with the ones I was familiar with, reading Mr. Hare's and Ms. Woods conclusions about the experiments was interesting.

It isn't that I agreed with everything said. But that disagreement in no way diminished how I felt about this work. This authors don't come across as arrogant about the ideas, and the tone encourages us to use our own minds as we read.

I love this one so much, I'm going to buy a hard copy for my bookshelf!

Update: in a curious side note, my mother, her chi, and I and my bc tried the pointing experiment. My bc easily knows that one... when *I* do it with him. If my mother did, he ignored the treat altogether and chose to climb in her lap. Her chi failed the test, no matter who was pointing, and she said her chi CANNOT follow pointing gestures at all. Although this was a tiny experiment, it did make me wonder how much of this is based on trust and training (my dog naturally follows my cues, because we have that relationship) rather than a natural ability. Her chi tends to push her around, anyway, and rarely follows commands. No conclusion can be drawn from such a small sample size, but it again implied (to analytical me) that some dog behavior (i.e. smart dog/dumb dog) could be based on social relationships rather than actual intelligence.
Profile Image for Derek.
550 reviews94 followers
August 4, 2016
For all that I love dogs and intend to always have at least one (and preferably more) dogs, I don't actually read many books about dogs and their behaviour. I think it comes down to The Intelligence of Dogs, Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution, Inside of a Dog, and now this.

Not terribly surprisingly, Hare references the latter two (quite frequently) and Coren gives this book a glowing review on the cover (I'm a little surprised that he didn't get referenced in the text - though he might be in the bibliography, but The Intelligence of Dogs is pretty much a pop-science book, short on the real science.

I was a bit dismissive of this book when I first heard of it, because it sounded like he was covering a lot of the stuff from Coppinger, but I got over it because, first, he clearly respects Coppinger, and second because he doesn't come across as a know-it-all scientist at all. One of the things I really loved was that after first telling his faculty advisor (talking about the amazing things that infant humans could do) "I think my dog can do that", and going ahead to show that his dog could do that, he proceeded to give us all the dead-end research he did: "so we hypothesized that it was this, and that was wrong..."

The only down side is that, despite the title ... my current dog is not smarter than I think. She's unfortunately been damaged beyond repair by a previous owner. On the positive side, I'm pretty sure the cat isn't as smart as he thinks!
Profile Image for Diane Law.
385 reviews3 followers
January 15, 2022
Really informative and well researched. I felt the book delved more into the history of dogs and their relationship with people than cleverness. However, according to the book, that is a big part of the genius of dogs - their ability to understand human communication and their motivation to cooperate with us.
Profile Image for Peggy Tibbetts.
Author 7 books8 followers
March 27, 2013
Anyone who has ever shared true companionship with a dog has wondered: Does my dog think? “The Genius of Dogs” not only asks, but answers the question. Co-written by husband and wife research team Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, this book focuses primarily on Hare’s lifetime evolution into anthropology and his research into animal cognition. In order to distinguish how dogs think, Hare researched how other animals think including humans, bonobos, chimpanzees, wolves, foxes and cats. Then he compared domesticated dogs to wild dogs, dingoes, and New Guinea Singing Dogs. In some cases the outcomes were surprising. In others, the results were what I would have expected based on my own interactions with dogs, as well as other animals. No matter what, the accounts of Hare’s travels to animal research centers all over the world and his discoveries along the way are certainly fascinating as well as entertaining. Hare’s scientific analysis is based on decades of research into animal cognition and reveals the unique “genius” of dogs that sets them apart from all other species. But this is no dull treatise. Woods’ engaging narrative is peppered with amusing anecdotes, plus glimpses into Hare’s childhood and personal life which bring to light his deep affection and devotion not only to dogs, but the entire animal kingdom.

“The Genius of Dogs” presents ample evidence to support the subtitle, “How Dogs are Smarter than You Think.” Some readers will never look at their dogs the same way. Others will look at their dogs and say, “I knew it,” with the assurance their dogs understand exactly what they mean. All dog lovers should read this book. If you understand your dogs better, you can help them live longer, happier lives.

Profile Image for N D.
18 reviews2 followers
September 6, 2019
A friend recommended this book when he heard we were dog-sitting our daughter's 5 month-old puppy for 2 weeks. I enjoyed the book and, as a previous dog owner myself, found a lot of the factual content fascinating. The author is a behavioural anthropologist and, as such, is good at relating the experiments in behaviour carried out by his own group and others. This occupies much of the first half of the book but I found the second half, when he deals with the broader facts about dogs and our relationship with them even more interesting.
The writer is a scientist and does not quite have the populist touch to put the science into language that grabs, but he makes a decent fist of it and I'd recommend the book to any dog owner.
Profile Image for Lynn Cornwell .
301 reviews1 follower
March 23, 2013
This is a very good book from authors who know a ton about dogs. However, it was too academic for me and I couldn't finish it. I was fine with the long history lesson, but then I wanted the authors to tell me how dogs think and how to interact better with my new puppy. I ran out of patience when they continued to discuss so much research. If you love text books, this is for you. If you were hoping for fun stories about how smart dogs are, skip this!
Profile Image for Martha.
87 reviews3 followers
May 14, 2013
I'd give it 3 1/2 stars if he had mentioned how your librarian could help you track down all the (oddly referenced) literature he cited. Instead he just tells you to try Google Scholar or sending a note to the author. Another academic who doesn't use his library, I'm guessing.

Oops, I got distracted there. I did enjoy learning more about dog behavior.
Profile Image for Linda.
238 reviews93 followers
September 5, 2015

The review you might expect to see next to my star-rating here might well be something along the lines of, "If you love dogs, you'll love this book!" But that would be oversimplifying things, as well as underselling. You might not love this book if all you're looking for is a compilation of amazing smart dog stories. What Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods actually do in The Genius of Dogs is provide a surprising wealth of information about cognitive science, both among dogs and primates, in a breezily accessible, conversational way. The book does start, of course, from the conceit that we all think our dogs are geniuses (genii?), but it then goes on to prove it, scientifically. Along the way, the authors achieve an admirable feat of science writing: presenting a science text for a lay audience in such an entertaining and engaging manner that you could forget it's a science text, but at the same time, they present the scientific, investigative process so clearly and understandably, you suddenly feel a lot smarter, because, hey, look at me, I'm reading a science text -- and totally keeping up!

The science is presented in a nicely-paced, cumulative series of anecdotes about experiments that the authors and others in the field have conducted: one question about dog cognition leads to one particular experiment, which answers some questions, but leads to other experiments, which lead to others, demonstrating how research findings have built on one another to get to the knowledge we have today. In the process, the authors make a clear point about scientific reasoning, so that even the casual reader understands why a certain test, by itself, is not enough to lead to a definitive conclusion. Or rather, the authors demonstrates the limits of the conclusions that can legitimately be drawn from a certain experiment, and the kinds of further experiments that would need to be done to narrow down broad conclusions. The descriptions of experiments are often accompanied with helpful and informative -- not to mention amusing -- illustrations. And at the same time, the authors don't shy away from providing appropriate attribution for all the research they cite. In the narrative itself, scientists are referenced casually by name, and background on their work is given in the conversational tone in keeping with the rest of the text, while in the copious endnotes, the works referenced are cited in detail. The mix of these two styles -- the conversational and the academic -- result in a book that is as fun to read as it is steeped in research.

It's not a long book, but covers a lot of ground, from the politics of the study of genetics in the Soviet Union, to old and new theories of domestication in dogs and other animals, to behaviorism versus pack-dynamics-type training approaches, and will have you considering interesting questions about what this all means for human history and development as well.
Profile Image for bup.
646 reviews65 followers
November 5, 2014
Although it goes a teensy bit off-topic at the end, talking about what different cultures think of dogs (why? someone tell you to make the book longer?), it's still a great, readable book that covers in depth a lot of the work that came into media focus a couple of years ago.

Hare is the guy who showed that dogs do what chimpanzees, bonobos and wolves don't, but human babies (and puppies) do - understand what a human pointing means.

He talks, too, about a wonderful fox-domesticating experiment in Russia, that gives us another data point that breeding for friendliness brings cute ears, tails, and splotchy coloring in fur, and intelligence, and he makes a pretty good argument that dogs probably domesticated themselves by being the wolves that were willing to overcome fear, and be friendly to humans, and get their garbage.

Really fun, but educational, read.
Profile Image for Simone.
1,476 reviews46 followers
June 26, 2013

This was well written and a fast read. I've read about this author's work in some of the other dog books I've read, and I enjoy his findings, especially his experiments on pointing. Especially that dog friendliness is not some horrible characteristic, but part of their brand of intelligence. According to studies dogs prefer to be in the company of humans if given the choice between humans and other dogs. I just love dogs. This book celebrates some of their unique treats while acknowledging their limitations.
Profile Image for Leigh Matthews.
Author 5 books90 followers
February 6, 2017
I finished the Dognition course on Coursera last month and found this book useful as additional reading material. Some really interesting research and fun games to play with your pup, all of which translates into a good beginning for appreciating the way most dogs approach problems and see the world. Great for nerds who love dogs, and probably pretty good for dogs who love nerds.
70 reviews
January 5, 2019
Far better than I thought it would be. Not sentimental tripe but well cited popular science and evolutionary biology.
Profile Image for Cheryl.
9,813 reviews418 followers
July 22, 2017
Why reading: Brian Hare contributed to the brilliant children's book Fox Talk: How Some Very Special Animals Helped Scientists Understand Communication and this is all that I can find by him for lay adults.
So far so good; preface and first chapter convince me of the rigor of the science, plus it's engaging.

But now I'm at an interesting chapter break. Claimed is that early humans (like almost all humans throughout history and prehistory around the world) are afraid of wolves, and that wolves competed w/ us for meat, and that therefore the traditional theories that we intentionally domesticated wolf puppies as helpers is wrong. Well, I'm not reading on until I set down what had always been my theory. I think children adopted those cubs that were of lower status, perhaps even expelled from the pack, as companions. That is to say, certainly the son of the alpha wolf wouldn't have appealed to human nurturing instincts, but a cub in need of rescue would.

But then, I may be overly influenced by the powerful metaphors of literature like All the Mowgli Stories and The First Dog.

Hare's cliffhanger chapter end indicates that he's confident of what he figured out (discovered?) and so we'll see.
Ok done. Lots of book-darts, so much to type, procrastinated. Really should be letting you know, asap, that if you have even the slightest interest in the topic you want to read this. Gracefully, intelligently written, effectively argued, fascinating.

"Dogs had independently evolved to be cognitively more similar to us than we were to our closest relatives [primates]."

The answer to the cliff-hanger? In a word, very oversimplified, 'self-domestication.'

"Humans did not create dogs; we only fine-tuned them later down the road."

Ok for friendly descendents of wolves... now look at the Russian domestic foxes, and at bonobos. Bonobos have smaller teeth and the females are more closely bonded, etc... "All this goes to show that often, it's survival of the friendliest."

Wolves v. dogs, wild foxes v. Belyaev's foxes, chimps v. bonobos... -> humans v. apes...? Hare hypotheses... it seems a stretch to me but his argument merits consideration.

"The mostly peaceful high-density living we enjoy may be the result of self-domestication facilitating today's urban populations, which are so innovative."

So, I expected "Part Three, Your Dog," to be more casual and also (duh) directed at dog owners. And of less interest to me, as I've never actually known a dog personally. And also I knew, going in, that Hare is recruiting 'citizen scientists' in order to get more data to enrich his research.

Well, I was still fascinated, and I do feel enlightened. Iow, don't skip Pt 3.

"Historically, dogs were divided into breeds ... by function, so any dog who chased hare was a harrier, and lapdog was a spaniel, and large, intimidating dog was a mastiff."

"As you can see, there is not a lot of research out there, and not a whole lot of agreement within the research, but that is the fun of a scientific revolution. It is supposed to be a messy, opinionated, data-based conversation. The more data you collect, the louder you get to holler, and that is how progress happens."

"Milo's temperament changed [mellowed] when his testes were removed, which reduced the androgen levels in his body. As a result, cognitive skills that were there all the time finally had a chance to influence his behavior."

[I can think of a few men who should be castrated, y'know....]
Well anyway, read this book if you have any interest in dogs, animal cognition in general, or even general evolutionary communication and psychology. Easy to read, entertaining, and provocative.
Profile Image for Stephanie.
561 reviews21 followers
May 23, 2013
Format: Hardback
Original Publication Date: 2013
Genre(s): Nonfiction, Science
Series: NA

Brian Hare is a professor at Duke University’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. He lists his primary research topics as Domestication, Human Cognitive Evolution, and Social Cognition. His research subjects are primarily the great apes and dogs. In The Genius of Dogs, Hare and his wife Vanessa Woods focus on the uniqueness of the domestic dog’s cognition.

The book is divided into three parts: Brian’s Dog, Dog Smarts and Your Dog. Part one is the most substantial section and focuses on the elements in dog’s cognition that are most amazing and how their abilities evolved. In a nutshell, dogs are head and shoulders above other animals in being able to communicate with humans. They innately from puppyhood understand human gestures much like a human infant can. The current thought is that this ability evolved along with domestication and that it may also shed light on the evolution of human cognition. Is our ability to cooperate and live relatively peacefully in high densities a result of our own self domestication? There is lots of interesting discussion about how dogs and humans evolved in comparison to other animals particularly using evidence of present day cognitive skills.

Part two touches on some other signposts of intelligence that dogs are actually not that great at; things like navigation and basic physics. He uses an example that I know all too well – that dogs on leash are seemingly flabbergasted that the leash cannot pass through solid objects like telephone poles or people’s legs and they rarely seem to figure it out no matter how many times it happens and how many frustrated sighs they must endure from their human companion. The concept is beyond them. Dogs’ counterparts in the wild do much better at these cognitive exercises though they failed the tests for reading human signals.

Part three focuses on the perceived differences between breeds, the correct method for training, and some educated musings on the true nature of the dog-human relationship. The trust that dog’s put in their human companions is similar to an infant with their mother. But they do look for opportunities where they can ignore/disobey disliked commands (i.e. lie quietly and don't eat the food just out of reach).

Overall this was an interesting and quick read. The first section is the most substantial and for me the most interesting. The other two sections are a somewhat loosely grouped grab bag of topics related to dog cognition. These sections still had some interesting tidbits like the fact that besides appearance, the difference between breeds of dogs is minimal. Section three is especially weak and grab-baggy and comes across as more anecdotal and musing rather then based on Hare’s own research. I was especially disappointed that he seems to discount the current behaviorist methods of training, but doesn’t really provide much in replacement but a few disparate ideas currently being researched.

Still if you’re a dog lover you will likely enjoy every bit of it. It’s written engagingly with plenty of examples and interesting descriptions of the behavioral trials that are used to test dogs and other animals. If you are like me and are also interested in the evolution of humans and human culture than you will especially enjoy the book, particularly section one. And if you’re like me you’ll be trying (in vain) to teach your dogs to do some of the amazing things Hare and Woods illustrate they can do. Good Luck to you!
Profile Image for Carol.
184 reviews3 followers
March 15, 2013
An engaging and most enjoyable book by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods of the Canine Cognition Center at Duke University, who have studied dog behavior at leading research centersworldwide . They argue that dogs are "geniuses" (superior to similar animals) in understanding visual gestures of humans and in learning human words. Some of this material was already familiar from nature shows on educational T.V.; some was not.

The author believes that dogs "self-domesticated" rather than being intentionally domesticated by humans, and that their behaviors which are strikingly different from wolves were a by-product of this process. He draws parallels to bonobos, humans, and the well-known series of experiments in which Belyaev "domesticated" foxes in Siberia. The resulting animals are friendlier, less aggressive, less territorial, more tolerant of close proximity with those outside their group; also, they retain many juvenile characteristics as adults.

The author describes many experiments in evolutionary anthropology at Duke, demonstrating the limits of what dogs do and do not know (for example, they are excellent at understanding human gestures but only fair at comprehending the laws of basic physics). The common dog behavior of repeatedly winding a leash aroung a tree is based in the fact that the dog brain does not have a good understanding of the idea of objects being connected; dogs should not be left alone while tied to a tree for this reason. Likewise, dogs are believed to be unable to experience remorse and guilt in the same way that humans do, although they react strongly to visible human displays of displeasure when their favorite human returns home to find furniture destroyed and puddles left on the carpet.

The author disagrees with some widely-held beliefs about dogs, such as the notion that the dog trainer must act like an alpha pack leader in order to be respected. Unlike wolf packs, dog packs tend to be made up of unrelated dogs who are not dominated by the most aggressive dog. He believes that dog training should reflect experimental evidence about dog cognition (termed "dognition.") Also, he finds that there are limits to the success of treats and reinforcements such as clickers; such techniques work only in certain situations and may even be counterproductive if overused or misused.

The book wanders a little bit at the very end and gets into the subject of animal welfare and responsible breeding, which are worthy subjects but seem only tangentially rekated to the main theme.

All in all, though, this book is a most fascinating survey of the wide variety of dogs found worldwide and what experimental science has shown about their cognitive abilities, the most remarkable of which relate to their close bonds and interactions with their favorite humans.
Profile Image for Steve Woods.
618 reviews61 followers
October 29, 2014
For anyone who has a dog they think might be smarter than they are or for anyone who thinks they have a dog that is smarter than everyone else's dog this book is a great read. It blows all those misconceptions out of the water and opens up a greater understanding of what dogs are all about. Tjhe book is really well written to present the results of research in a form that the average dork can relate to, I needed that; at 65 anything beyond an advertising jingle tests my remaining functional brain cells to the max. In the interests of full disclosure the fact that my daughter and son in law wrote the book did not prejudice me one whit. It did after all hit the NY Times Best Seller list, though that may say more about obssessive dog owners than the book itself. One thing that did survive was my acquired belief that dogs adopt certain character traits of their owners, that still explains "the King's" (the King is my dog and significant other) very odd seemingly undog like behaviour. He is very unsocial, has no doggy friends, growls at anyone he doesn't know who invades his space or even looks like they might want to and ignores everyone else; he will indulge in no play disdaining to fetch anything and, any other action that might be perceived as a requirement to get food or any treat will see him stick his nose in the air and turn his back in disdain. His primary preoccupations are surveying his rice field and riding in the car. He does converse with looks and vocalisations and has a vocabulary of several hundred words (in both English and Lao) he seems to know. All in all he is, like his owner a recluse and decidedly on the grumpy side.
Profile Image for Victoria.
2,512 reviews55 followers
April 25, 2014
This audiobook was both a fascinating and fun listen! It was definitely the highlight of my commute - and brightened some household chores as well! I first encountered Hare’s studies in a magazine article and later in a documentary special (on PBS, I think). And though there was more context into the studies, there wasn’t quite as much detail and new information as I had hoped for. Despite some of this overlap, though, this was still a very interesting listen. The authors offered more of a historical perspective and also studies that showed conflicting results. Though the author’s obvious affection for dogs might seem like it would obviously skew the results, their devotion to the scientific method and maintaining genuine objectivity was still quite evident.

Amongst the clear descriptions of experiments, the authors offered anecdotes and examples of dog genius outside of the lab. I especially enjoyed the section of speculation on the true history of the domestication of the wolf and development of the dog. The conversational style worked well in the audio format, and I sincerely hope that the authors continue to publish their findings in this mainstream medium. While the narrator was not the most dynamic, his voice worked well for this non-fiction topic. A physical format, though, would lend itself better as a stepping stone for further independent research, so I will be keeping an eye out for the physical format as well. All in all, though, this was a great listen and I will continue to follow their research into dog-nition.
Profile Image for Conor Warren.
40 reviews2 followers
January 2, 2017
Excellent book! I've owned dogs all my life but have never understood the how or whys to what they know nor the extent (and limitations!) of their knowledge and understanding.

The critique of Skinner was a nice little touch and the writing was personable, informative, and a fun read. Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods did some really great research in putting together this highly accessible and engaging work.

Also, keep in mind that while it does utilize academic research and has an academic tint to it, ultimately I don't think it is intended to be an academic work. There are a lot of personal anecdotes and side stories that build on narratives within chapters. The bits about domestication in silver foxes and concerning bonobos were especially interesting!

Highly recommended if you are at all interested in understanding dogs (and people!) a little bit better!
Profile Image for Richard.
Author 18 books65 followers
February 21, 2014
I can appreciate that this book is offered on the level of primary research, as this is someone who actually does studies and experiments in dog cognition, and I also appreciate the scientific patterns of thought, how behavior influences evolution and not vice versa, but I must admit that this became a somewhat lackadaisical read after very long. There do seem to be sections that are really simply trying to make this a long enough book to sell, as it gets into more travelogue sequences of times and just strings stuff out for way too long. Ultimately, this is interesting stuff, but I might've best liked it as a long article as opposed to a full book.
Profile Image for Anna.
398 reviews16 followers
May 16, 2014
I can't help comparing this to the much, much better book on dogs by Alexandra Horowitz that I read last year. Maybe it's because this book seemed geared toward almost... Kids? Like middle school? (He defines the term "canard" for example) The entire tone of the book is really unattractive to me.... He keeps repeating how smart dogs are if you define smartness in a really particular way. It was almost condescending. Towards dogs. Which is a weird thing to say! Anyway, there is some interesting information in here but if you are just going to read one dog book, the Horowitz one is infinitely better in my opinion.
532 reviews6 followers
May 6, 2015
I'm going to say really liked it because I am a dog person and I really like dogs. :) I also really like scinece and experiments. There are some things that felt a little repetitive or a little drawn out, but overallit was just really interesting -- all the things you assume about dog behaviour and the anecdotal things we believe about dogs come to light in some ways. A lot of dog behaviour is still very unclear and the book seems to indicate that research can say what you want it to say (which is secretly my belief anyway...rather counter-intuitive considering I am in a science field). Anywho. I liked it.
Profile Image for Jenn.
1 review4 followers
January 31, 2013
The Genius of Dogs is fascinating, fun, and filled with remarkable history and research from around the world in the growing field of "dognition." Understanding a dog's cognitive learning styles can help us understand their behavior, train them more kindly and effectively and give them better lives. As a professional dog trainer, I have been waiting for this book for over 10 years. It bridges the gap between Pavlov, Skinner, and the most recent revolutionary discoveries in canine cognition. A must read!!
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