Thursday, May 16, 2013

"The Genius of Dogs" Book Review

I had a birthday recently. One more year to Freedom 55. Not that realistic – it’ll be more like Freedom 65, or 75, but it doesn’t matter because I love what I do: Working with dogs, reading and writing about dogs. Hence, I was delighted to find Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods’ book “The Genius of Dogs” in the parcel our daughter sent me.

Brian Hare, Ph.D., is an Evolutionary Anthropologist and Associate Professor at the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences, and interested in apes – the human and hairier kind, but also dogs. You can check to find out more. Vanessa Woods is an Australian scientist and journalist, and Brian Hare’s wife.

I loved the book. Loved it for its conversational tone that makes the information accessible to everyone. No science degree needed to comprehend the material.
I love the subject matter. In a nutshell: How dogs are smart; How they compare cognitively and emotionally to infants and young children; How they rely so much on humans for information. How humans and dogs work, and more importantly how we work together – the psychological convergence between us.
Like many other books about dogs, this one has a chapter on domestication, and also like many others talks about Belyaev’s foxes. I almost skipped that section exactly because I had read about it several times before, but am glad I didn’t, because Brian Hare tells the story with fascinating history attached, for example that Stalin declared geneticists enemies of the state. Our present Canadian government labels our environmental scientists and activists enemies of the state. How is your evolution coming along? Eh?
Back to dogs, or more accurately foxes. There’s a photo of one of the domesticated ones in the book I've never seen in any other dog book, and I promise you'll fall in love with the cuteness.
In the context of domestication, Brian Hare elaborates on aggression and kennel club breeding practices that, for the last 150 years or so, select for appearance more than function and temperament. Breeders fail to breed against aggression in favour of a uniformed look, and that might need a mental shift if we want peaceful dogs in our midst in the future.
And the public needs to be educated what to look for, and where, when they dog shop. At the end of the book the authors make a statement I so agree with: Good breeders don’t sell to pet stores, brokers, or online.

Although "The Genius of Dogs" is not a training manual, it talks about methods including behaviorism. Much of what it says plays into Alfie Kohn’s “Punished by Rewards”, with the difference that Kohn’s book  refers to humans, and Hare/Woods of course include dogs.
One of the issues they have with the Skinnerian model to influence behavior is that it always relies on deprivation, which I believe can negatively affect the relationship. I have given this a lot of thought lately and am not at all done thinking yet.
About the clicker the authors say: “At least for the moment, there is no scientific evidence to support the theory that clicker training facilitates faster learning in dogs”. A controversial statement for sure, and they concede that a clicker might make layowners better trainers and could have value in that.
I don’t use a clicker, so that preliminary evidence vindicates what I was thinking all along: Dogs have a natural connection with humans, pay attention, watch for and are receptive to verbal and gestural information, and that was and is always my primary method in relating with and teaching a dog – with the clicker being an option for certain dogs/people, and particular things I want to accomplish.

Brian Hare is a scientist and the book is peppered with studies that back the statements he makes. Studies he and his associates conducted, but also studies done elsewhere, for example at the Eötvös Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary, and you can find out more about that at
Perhaps Adam Miklosi rings a bell, and Vilmos Csanyi who wrote the book “If Dogs Could Talk” a few years ago, which I also liked a lot.

I think that we will continue to see studies that reveal how special dogs are - amazing really in their abilities and relationships they form with humans. My hope is that with that people increasingly will steer away from trainers who use the outdated wolf model to justify their forceful and punitive ways. But perhaps also the purely mechanical, operant conditioning method might be adjusted to less of a cookie-cutter, and more of an individual approach.
The end of June, there'll be a conference outside of Seattle I was seriously thinking of attending, but I live on the other ocean, and in Canada at that, and although it is not completely out of my mind yet – alone the road trip from Abbotsford/BC to Redmond/Washington is tempting - for now I’ve signed up for the life stream. I will keep you in the loop.

Coincidentally, a friend and I discussed all that recently, and before I had read “The Genius of Dogs”, on the way to a trainers’ dinner. She wondered what dog training might look like in a decade from now, and I am wondering that too, but feel quite excited about the journey. 

The book came with a birthday card in which my daughter wrote that I already know everything about dogs. She is wrong there: I possibly will never know all there is to know about dogs. Learning never stops. New studies will reveal new insights, and I also believe that like us, dogs are still evolving – evolving with us.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent blog. Yes I can even understand the books which goes along. You say you don't know everything about dogs. Well you sure do know more then most who think they know everything. Thanks again...