If Cali Were Brian Hare’s Dog …

photo 4If Cali were Brian Hare’s dog, or rather, if she had been his dog years ago when he first started studying human-animal communication and animal cognition, there would likely be no Duke Canine Cognition Center, no Dognition …
I am not saying that Cali is not intelligent (far from it!). Before I get into that, though, some background:
In Brian Hare’s (wonderful) book The Genius of Dogs, he tells the story of how his interest in canine cognition came to be. Hare, now a leading researcher and innovator in canine cognition, was studying primates. As a college student, Hare participated in a study that investigated whether bonobos and chimpanzees understand the intention behind gestural communication. The chimps flunked the test. But, while conducting this research, Hare commented to his professor that his dog could do that. And history was made.
Hare and his professor found that dogs, even very young puppies, understand the communication intended by gestures such as pointing. Chimps must be taught, and, even then, rarely generalize. Wolves don’t do as well as dogs, even if they’ve been raised by humans.
In the first test that Hare did with his dog, Oreo, Hare threw three balls into a pond. After Oreo had found the first one, Hare pointed to the second, then the third. Oreo effortlessly located the balls by following the pointing.
Simple, right? Your dog can do that, I bet. Most dogs can. Jana can. Alberta can. Cali? Not so much.
Cali loves to play ball. She gets very excited when we’re playing, and often starts running out in anticipation of my next throw. She gets so excited that she neglects to keep her eye on the ball … and often ends up with no idea where the ball landed.
So, comfortable in the knowledge that dogs can do this, I point. And she invariably runs off … in a completely different direction. We play the “hot, cold” game. I pretend to throw the ball again, waving the Chuckit in the correct direction. To her credit — and showing considerable intelligence — Cali is never fooled by this gesture. I point some more. I walk in the right direction. I do everything except point a neon arrow at the ball.
Meanwhile, Cali continues running huge loops in completely wrong directions. Eventually, she ends up in the right section of the field and, using her excellent nose, locates the ball. She hardly ever loses her ball. But she just doesn’t get the pointing thing.
According to the studies I’ve read, Cali performs about as well as an unsocialized wolf. So what does this mean?
Aside from the obvious — that if Hare’s dog had performed as dismally as Cali, the science of canine cognition would have never been born — it means that Cali lacks this particular type of social intelligence.
She brims over with other types of social intelligence, though: She is extremely empathetic and affectionate; she is overwhelmingly friendly and nonjudgmental; and she is playful and happy. She also has a great memory and can use her nose to find hidden items in seconds flat (unless the item is a tennis ball nestled in the grass, of course).
The point is that dogs, like people, have different types of intelligence. Each individual excels at some things while faring more poorly at other skills. And that’s just fine.