ASU KEDtalk: Why are dogs special?

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Lots of people think dogs are unique in their intelligence. Clive Wynne, director of ASU’s Canine Science Collaboratory, says that’s not true. But he knows what makes dogs truly special.

April 12, 2017

Video transcript

Editor's note: Clive Wynne recently published the book, "Dog is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You," which has been featured in the New York Times and The Washington Post.

Clive Wynne: Hello, I’m Clive Wynne, director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University.

When I was a kid we had a dog: Benji was his name. There wasn’t really anything that remarkable about Benji. He was just an ordinary smallish, brownish-blackish shelter mutt. He stole any food we left out. Sometimes he disappeared for days on end. He was one naughty boy.

But there was one thing about Benji that kept us loyal to him. He loved us.

When my brother and I came home from school we would plonk ourselves down on the sofa and we would hear and then see Benji charging in from the back garden. About 10 feet back from us, he’d launch himself into the air and then land on our shoulders and heads. He would thwack us with his happy wagging tail and kiss us. All three of us would squeal in delight to be reunited.

That was the one special thing about Benji. He didn’t keep his love buttoned up – it shone out of every pore on his little body.

I grew up on the Isle of Wight: an island, about 25 miles long and 15 miles wide, off the south coast of England. I went to college in London and got my PhD at Edinburgh University in Scotland. I was thrilled to find that there was such a thing as a scientific study of animal minds. What kinds of intelligence do different species have? How are they like us and how are they different?

In any decent university the psychology department has at least a couple of people studying the intelligence of other species. Usually the animals they study are pretty small, they have to fit in the space available.  Animals like rats and pigeons. Early on I got bitten by a rat, so I mainly concentrated on pigeons.

But I found my interest in animal behavior bursting beyond the bounds of what I could study in the lab. I realized I wanted to not just understand animal behavior, but understand the relationship between people and other species. I couldn’t really do that with pigeons. I cast around for an animal that would let me realize the full range of what I wanted to understand about human-animal relationships.

I have to admit that in retrospect, it could have taken me so long to figure out that I needed to be studying dogs.

Dogs have tremendously rich behavior. There are dogs that sniff out cancer and contraband; there are dogs that know the meanings of hundreds of words; there are dogs that help blind people cross busy city streets. Dogs have amazing behavior.

But more than that: For anyone interested in people’s relationships with animals, there is no other animal with which humans have had as long or as rich a relationship as the dog. Dogs and people have been living together for well over 10,000 years.

Of course I wasn't the first psychologist to think of studying dogs. Does the name Pavlov ring a bell? After a long absence from science, in the early 2000s, dogs were making a comeback.

The new wave of dog psychological research wasn’t interested in why dogs might slobber when someone rings a bell – these new scientists have bigger fish to fry. Early in this new century, scientists started claiming that dogs, because of their domestication in close proximity to people, had evolved new forms of intelligence not seen anywhere else in the animal kingdom.

These scientists argue that dogs have evolved to understand human actions and intentions, much as how we understand each other. Furthermore, they argued that these abilities were apparent in the youngest puppies that could be tested, and that no other animal – not even the wolf, which is the ancestor of all our modern dog breeds; or chimpanzees, which is our human closest relative – none of these other animals could achieve what dogs could do.

Now at first, the studies my students and I carried out confirmed what these other scientists have found. We too found that, if you point at a container on the ground, your dog will go to the location you pointed to. We too found that, if you give a dog a choice of two people to beg from: one person who can clearly see the dog and another person whose back is turned, we also found that the dog will choose to go to the person who can see him.  In both these simple experiments – which you can easily try for yourself at home – we found that dogs’ successes were taken to mean that the dogs understood that people have minds, just as we understand and our children, even at a very early age, understand that different people have different contents in their minds and know and understand different things. These experiments were taken to show that dogs, uniquely among all species, share this human ability to understand what other individuals have in their minds.

Now this made dogs completely unique among all the animals that have been tested.

Our own view of the things dogs can do began to change when we branched out from just testing people’s pets.

First, we were invited to Wolf Park in Indiana to test hand-reared wolves. Testing wolf behavior is tremendously important in this project if we want to understand what domestication has done to dogs, because all dogs are descended from wolves. To our very considerable surprise, the wolves at Wolf Park were very bit as good in these tests as anybody’s dog that we have tested.

At first this was all very controversial, but gradually other groups confirmed that hand-reared wolves can be just as good at following human actions and intentions as are any dog. This showed that whatever dogs were doing, it was not something that had been bred into them during domestication, because their wild relatives could do it too.

Then people started studying more species, more diverse species, and there was quite considerable success with these other animals. We ourselves carried out a study on bats. Hand-reared bats were just as good at following human pointing gestures, as were dogs as were wolves. This and many other studies on many other species, showed that what matters for success on these kinds of tasks is how the animal is raised, not what species it belongs to.

One other surprising early result that we found was that dogs living in animal shelters performed very poorly on these kinds of tasks. Even though we chose dogs at the shelter that seemed happy to be playing with us, not a single one was inclined to follow a simple human pointing gesture. We were able to show that this wasn’t anything to do with some kind of a genetic defect in these dogs. It was just that dogs living in shelters lacked recent experience around people, where the moment of people’s limbs predict the things that are valuable to the dog are about to occur. 

All of this lead us to reassess what we were being by others told about dog intelligence. We realized that there was nothing special about dogs when it came to their intellect. Dogs were just doing what any animal would that has been raised around people, and is completely dependent on people for the fulfillment of all of its needs. Dogs pay close attention to everything people do that produces an outcome that matters to the dog. There’s no special intelligence involved in doing that.

Several years of research like this, debunking one claim after another for dogs’ uniquely human-like intelligence after another, gave me a bit of a reputation. One journalist called me, “the Debbie Downer of canine cognition research.”

I didn’t mind. I hadn’t got involved in this to win some kind of popularity contest. And yet there was something that nagged at me. Dogs might not possess special forms of intelligence, but I still thought there was something remarkable about dogs. But what was it?

Some of our studies began to give me an inkling.

In one experiment, we gave dogs a choice between two people. One person provided treats, the other just petting. Not surprisingly, if the person giving out treats handed out treats as quickly as she could, the dogs preferred to stay with the person giving out treats. But if the person handing out the treats slowed down even a little, the dogs started preferring to spend their time with the person giving out pets and praise.

Another study was one of the very simplest we ever attempted. We just had a person sit in a chair and we marked out a one-meter circle around that chair. Then we let a familiar dog come into the room for two minutes and we simply measured what portion of the two-minute interval, did the dog spent inside this one-meter circle as close to the person as they could. And we went back to Wolf Park in Indiana and repeated these test with hand-reared wolves and the person in the chair was a person who was very familiar to the wolves, a friend of the wolves. Now when we did the experiment with wolves out of the two minutes, which is 120 seconds, the wolves chose to spend about 25 seconds inside the circle with the familiar person. When we did the experiment with dogs, the dogs spent every second of the two minutes, a full 120 seconds inside the circle with this person, a person who wasn’t giving them anything tangible at all, nothing but praise and petting. But that is what they wanted, that is what mattered to them.    

And that’s when the penny dropped. In different ways, these studies all show the same thing. And actually, we all know what’s remarkable about dogs. Dogs have a tremendous capacity to form relationships with members of other species. I’d like to call it “hypersociability.” Now a biologist might call it “social promiscuity.” But the truth is, we might as well call it “love.” Dogs have an exaggerated, ebullient capacity for love. Over very latest research is even uncovering genes that underlie these exaggerated capacity for love.

Sometimes I find it slightly embarrassing, after all of these years trying to study animal intelligence in the most hard-nosed way I could think of, to have to admit that what actually makes dogs special is something as soppy as affection. But I can live with that because it is also tremendously emotionally satisfying to realize that what I experienced with Benji all those years ago was a real thing. It was the true essence of the dog-human relationship.

I’m not suggesting that there aren’t differences between dog love and human love. But what’s so wonderful is that there is enough overlap that dogs and people can live together in a very rich and rewarding way.

Dogs, for example, don’t really run and get help when children fall down wells. Trust me, a research group in Canada actually carried out that experiment. It was mildly moderated so that no children were harmed, but they did test whether dogs try and get help when an important person appeared to be in difficulty and they didn’t.  Dogs find it easier to form new bonds than people do. They are more readily able and willing to move on to new relationships. This is actually a very good thing. Abandoned dogs can be very happily rehomed. If the original story of Lassie, the book, which is the story of a dog that nearly died three times, struggling over hundreds of miles to get home to her original family, were really true, the millions of adoptions of dogs from shelters, dogs that have already lived in human family, would never work out as well as they certainly do.

Our current dog came to us after a year living with another family. Recently, just as an experiment, I said the name I know she had for that period of her life. I wasn’t sure how she’d react. “Thyra,” I said. “Thyra.” She didn’t even look at me. And then I said the name she enjoys with us; and she came running to me with the boundless love that characterizes her kind.


There you are sweetie.


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