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Q+A with Brian Hare

Brian Hare, assistant professor of evolutionary anthropology, is opening the Duke Canine Cognition Center within the next two weeks. Hare and his team will conduct tests on hundreds of dogs brought in by their owners. The Chronicle’s Emily Stern sat down with Hare to discuss his inspiration for the project.

The Chronicle: How did you get involved studying dogs?

Brian Hare: The short version is that I had dogs as a kid. When I was growing up, my dog’s name was Oreo, and Oreo used to love to play fetch.

I had seen that when his balls got lost when we were playing fetch with him, that you could tell him where they were and he could go find them. Later, when I was studying as an undergraduate, I realized together with my adviser that studying dogs would be really interesting because it ends up that they were doing some stuff that primates aren’t doing in terms of using humans’ social cues. For instance, paying attention to pointing gestures that I’d seen my dog as a kid doing.

TC: What can canine behavior tell us about human behavior and evolution?

BH: Ultimately, what I’m trying to study, as an evolutionary anthropologist, is human evolution. But there are not that many good models. There are not that many good ways to study animals and understand how evolution changes cognition.

But dogs are really useful because they can tell you how cognition changed, like what’s the process because you can compare lots of different breeds and figure out why it is that they became the way they were because there are so many of them, but they’re all so closely related. So, it’s a really nice model for studying behavioral evolution, cognitive evolution, and they’re very unique that way. So it’s very useful, actually.

TC: What misconceptions do most people have about their pets’ behaviors?

BH: Actually, what’s happened so far is that dogs, at least in my experience, have taught the scientists that they have many misconceptions about dogs. And that usually when I tell people the main finding is that we’ve learned that dogs are able to read gestural communication or other social cues—like they pay attention to the direction that you look or where you’re standing—they’re like, “Well, yeah, we already knew that.” And that’s true, they did know that, and the truth is that it was really the scientists that were playing catch-up.

TC: What about misconceptions, such as that when a dog kisses you they may not actually love you, they might just want food?

BH: It’s true, but that goes for human behavior too. That’s not specific to dogs, so from an evolutionary perspective, whenever you see any type of behavior, you can explain it at different levels. The misconception would be a more general one that you can explain behavior at just one level. But you need to look at many levels, you need to look at how behavior develops, look at how it evolved, meaning looking at different species that are closely related to each other, why is it that some species that are closely related are similar, but then others that are closely related aren’t.

TC: What experiments and tests do you plan on running at the center, and what do you hope to learn from these tests?

BH: The test we’re going to run this Fall is a funny one because there’s a serious thing we’re interested in, which is when you’re cooperating, how do you prevent cheating? Because if you get cheated, it doesn’t make sense to cooperate. What we’re going to do with dogs is a study called “Does your dog trust you more than a stranger?” You have two people, and we’re going to hide food in various places, and then at the same time, a stranger and the owner of the dog are going to give a visual cue—a pointing cue—to the location of the food that they hid. The question is, “Who does the dog listen to?”

TC: How are people reacting to this idea of their pets being a part of your study?

BH: We’ve had tons of people write us, and let’s put it this way, we have the cheapest tuition and the best acceptance rate at Duke. It doesn’t cost anything and we have a 99 percent acceptance rate. So, people are excited.

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