Brian Hare, assistant professor of evolutionary anthropology, is opening the Duke Canine Cognition Center within the next two weeks. Hare and his team will test hundreds of dogs brought in by eager owners. Time magazine featured the team this week. The Chronicle's Emily Stern sat down with him 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 - and he could get three balls in his mouth, and so what that meant was that he would put all his balls on the ground - his slobbery balls on the ground, he would want you to throw all the balls, but sometimes you would throw them in different directions and they would get lost. I had seen that when his balls got lost when you 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 human's 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: What's neat about dogs is that they're all the same species and they're very closely related genetically, but then they're very, very different - each breed is very, very different. And so, that's really fun and interesting because you can compare different breeds and try to understand why they're different and why they're similar than other breeds. And if by doing breed comparisons you can try and get an idea of why it is that some dogs can solve problems that other dogs can't.
Ultimately, what I'm trying to study, as an evolutionary anthropologist, is human evolution, but there are not that many good models, there's not that many good ways to study animals and understand how evolution changes cognition. So you can study an animal - I studied Chimpanzees and I studied Bonobos, and we study Great Apes, and Great Apes are really interesting and good because they can teach you how were similar and different from them and you can figure out how we changed, meaning what changed. 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 and they basically try to read what you want by using your behavior and they're very sensitive to that. When I tell people that they're like, "Well, yeah, we already knew that." And that's true, they did know that, and the truth is that is was really the scientists that were playing catch-up because no one really thought that dogs were that interesting.
It ends up that primates aren't really that good at reading human cues, and what makes dogs really special is that they're really good at reading humans. That allows us to ask a bunch of questions that we can't ask to primates. So, it's really kind of exciting because when you go to the Lemur Center, for instance, the lemurs like you and they'll pay attention to you some, but they're not like a dog that's obsessed with you - and because dogs are obsessed with you, you can get them to do stuff and see what's going on inside their head in a way that you can't do in other animals. So really, the misconception was that on the scientists' part because most scientists thought that dogs were totally uninteresting and artificial.
TC: What about misconceptions, such as that when a dog kisses you it 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. One level is dogs kissing another dog, well it may actually feel really wonderful to the two dogs, and they may feel very close to each other. But from an ultimate perspective, meaning why is it that that behavior exists, it actually may be that that behavior exists to manipulate the other animal into giving the individual more resources, like food. So, it's complicated because it depends on what level of explanation you're talking about.
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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. Also, thinking about the function of a behavior - the dog kissing example - but it is true that at the same time, that when a dog is kissing its owner that she doesn't have the feeling we have at all, it may not be motivated by some feeling of being socially connected, rather than just manipulating in order to get something. But that's why we do experiments.
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.
One of the ways that animals are taught to prevent cheating is that they form reputations about other individuals. And they track individual's reputations, so you don't work with someone who has a bad reputation, and you may have had a personal experience that teaches you not to work with that individual. What we're going to do with dogs is a study called "Does your dog trust you more than a stranger?" The thinking, of course, is that of course dogs will trust you more than a stranger, but nobody's ever tested that.
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 is that they hid. The question is, "Who does the dog listen to?" We already piloted this with my dog and with one of my graduate student's dogs. It ends up that [my dog] was very sensitive to the people that he had been around the most. And we're going to do a follow-up study if the first study works, and we're going to take two experimenters that the dogs don't know and one of them is going to take the dog off and have a fun, positive interaction with them. Then there will be a stranger and this stranger that they've just had this positive interaction with, and the question is, do they trust that individual more. Now the reason we're interested in trust is because there is data that there is a physiological mechanism that helps generate trust in social animals.
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.