We all know our dogs are clever. You just have to look at the tricks they get up to sneak an extra treat, or the guilty look they give you when they know they’ve done wrong. We know instinctively that there is a great deal of emotional intelligence in our dogs, and also the ability to learn and remember. But now, scientist Brian Hare has provided the scientific proof that will back up our instincts, and demonstrate that dogs really are ‘geniuses’.

Ella the Snow Dog

Ella the Snow Dog—jpctalbot (Flickr.com)

Brian Hare

Hare is an associate professor in the Department of Evolutionary Anthropology and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University. Along with author Vanessa Wood, a fellow Research Scientist at Dukes, Hare has produced a book called The Genius of Dogs, which lays out his theories about dog intelligence, and provided ample evidence to support them. He asserts that we have learned more about dog intelligence in the past decade than in the last century. Research into dog behavior has never been higher on the agenda, and that can only be a good thing for dogs. The more owners understand their pets’ needs, the happier all parties will be. So what are the ways in which Hare suggests that dogs show a high level of cognitive ability?


Hare proposes that 40,000 years ago, when dogs became domesticated in order to survive more successfully, they developed a very particular kind of social intelligence, and became ostensibly more cognitively aligned with human infants than wild wolf puppies. They became able to pick up signals in the way no other animals can, not even chimpanzees who are the most genetically similar animals to humans on the planet. He stresses that a dog’s ability to understand when we are pointing to something, and to act on it – finding a hidden treat, or showing them where a stick has landed – is akin to human preverbal infant behavior more than we realize. In the same way that babies understand that adults are gesturing for a specific reason, dogs understand that this is a form of communication too. We take this kind of activity for granted, as we see it every day. But Hare points out that it is a highly specialized form of cognitive ability, indicating an understanding of cooperation between animal and man.

Understanding Emotions

Hare uses a study undertaken by Alexandra Horowitz, a dog behavior specialist at Banard College, to demonstrate just how clever and intuitive our dogs are when decoding our emotions. In the study, dog owners were told that their dogs had done something wrong, such as stealing a treat or barking, even though they had not. When the owner returned to the room the dog displayed that familiar ‘guilty face’ we know and love so well, even if they were innocent of any crime. They understand the emotion responses required of them when receiving an emotional message from human beings. The voice of disapproval is a powerful weapon.


When we feel low or unhappy it is very common that our dogs appear to understand our mood, and will seem to be trying to comfort us. These emotional connections point to empathy in dogs. One simple test of empathy is yawning, and Hare cites this as another example of how our dogs are in tune with us. He correctly states that yawning is contagious, and we are likely to have an urge to yawn when we see someone else do so, or even think about it. The higher our susceptibility to contagious yawning the higher we score with empathy. Dogs behave similarly, and Hare cites a study in which over 70% of dogs yawned when they saw someone else yawning. You can try it with your own dog.

Understanding Conditions

Hare also tells us that dogs can judge the specific conditions around them before acting, particularly if it benefits them. Christine Schwab from the University of Vienna demonstrated that dogs choose how naughty they can be depending on whether their owners are watching, or reading a book. Another study, carried out at the University of Portsmouth showed that dogs are four times more likely to take forbidden food in a dark room than in a light room. Are our canine companions more cunning than we think, or do they simply not grasp that they only need to be obedient when we are present?

How Can We Help Our Dogs?

We can use the information gleaned from Hare’s scientific research roundup to help us understand our dogs far better than we do now. It would be useful to spend time thinking about how we can attempt to communicate better with them on a non-verbal level. One example is when our dogs are unwell. As dog owners we have a horror of our dogs falling ill, and every responsible dog owner will ensure that they have full and extensive animal health insurance to cover any eventuality, whether it be for a pre-existing health concern, a hereditary condition or a later injury or illness. But even the most comprehensive medical cover and veterinary care cannot be a substitute for our instinctive ability to communicate emotionally with our dogs. We can look after our dog’s physical medical needs, but what about their emotional needs? How well can we tune in to the feelings they are experiencing when they feel ill? How can we, like they do, show our support for them when they are suffering? A recent New York Times article reported that military dogs suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome after returning from war. The depth of emotional suffering our dogs are capable of is astounding. But perhaps sitting quietly with our dogs and trying to communicate our sympathy and support will do more than we think to comfort our dogs. Our tone of voice, the way we look and behave around a sick dog may have a far more of an impact on their recovery than we imagine.

Filed under: Dog News

Like this post? Subscribe to my RSS feed and get loads more!