EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA


March 31, 2013

There's a lot to learn from your dog

Your dog is the smartest pooch on the planet, of course. He can sit, beg, roll over and shake a paw. He also has a rudimentary grasp of physics, math and language.

That’s because dogs are “arguably the most successful mammal on the planet, besides us.” They evolved from wolves to canine lupus familiaris and quickly, firmly glommed onto humans. Researchers have only recently determined how that bedrock-to-bedroom voyage happened.

For canine cognition expert Brian Hare, learning how was a world-wide journey.

As a graduate student trying to determine what makes us human, Hare began with chimps and bonobos, but soon noticed that his dog was better at many tasks than were our closest evolutionary relatives. His research took him to Russia (with foxes) and to a German laboratory where he tested dogs to see what happens inside their furry little heads.

Dogs have lousy GPSs, he learned. There are exceptions, but most lost pups who find their way home are “lucky.” Pooches have problem-solving skills, but most have a hard time figuring out new methods for old habits.

Conversely, as any astute puppy parent knows, dogs are masters of body language and have the basic skills of a human infant, socially and cognitively. They make decisions based on inference and grasp language in the same way babies do. Their owner-attachment is similar to that of babies to their mothers. Dogs know how to recruit help, communicate needs, and offer comfort. What we got out of the deal, Hare says, is love and a domesticated animal that may have domesticated us.

I’m a really big science fan and I completely geeked-out on “The Genius of Dogs,” but there was one curious thing I noticed: The authors present some highly fascinating research results, but they don’t acknowledge that dog owners have probably already seen it all.

Overall, I loved what I learned and knowing that even the most mixed-up mutt can be a master at something. The book also contains several enjoyable tests that you can do with your pup, so grab a handful of treats and get going.

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