Canine Intelligence: Going into the Mind of Your Dog

February 20, 2013 · Posted in Assistance Dogs, Service Dogs, Training · Comment 
Dr. Brian HareDr. Brian Hare, canine cognition researcher

Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Brian Hare on the Working Like Dogs radio show at www.petliferadio.com. Dr. Hare, the Director of the Canine Cognition Center at Duke University, is the author of The Genius of Dogs. Also, he is the co-founder of the innovative website www.dognition.com. This website contains instructional games on assessing your canine’s cognition.

Dr. Hare and his Duke University research team have revolutionized the way we think about canine intelligence. Through their research, they made the following three important discoveries:

  • Animals use many types of cognition to survive (for example, learning skills from others, remembering the location of food, inferring the solution to a new problem or deceiving others during competition).
  • Different animals rely on different cognitive strategies. Asking if a crow is more intelligent than a dolphin is like asking whether a hammer is a better tool than a saw. Each animal has strategies to solve a unique set of problems.
  • Animals rely on a toolbox of strategies that depend on a variety of factors. Just because an animal tends to use a certain strategy to solve specific problems doesn’t mean he or she will always apply that strategy to all types of problems.

After reading The Genius of Dogs and chatting with Dr. Hare, I decided to log on to www.dognition.com and sign Whistle up to complete his Dognition Profile. I wanted a better understanding of Whistle’s thought process and thought Dr. Hare’s inventive series of games would help me to discover Whistle’s particular genius.

The Dognition website was easy to navigate. For a $59 fee, Whistle and I easily began the process of assessing his canine cognition. After paying the fee, I began completing the questionnaire. It took about 15-20 minutes to answer a series of questions about Whistle’s behavior in different situations and scenarios. I was reminded that there were no right or wrong answers, and most importantly, this was not a test. It is a tool to identify how Whistle’s mind works.

After completing the survey, a series of games appeared on the screen. The games were divided into cognitive dimensions such as: Empathy, Communication, Cunning, Memory and Reasoning. Whistle and I needed a human partner to complete the games. Also, we needed some simple household items such as: sticky notes, plastic cups, paper and dog treats.

I asked my husband, Franz, if he would like to participate in the games. He is a scientist so, it was easy to pique his interest and engage him in the process. We realized that the games were going to be somewhat time consuming. So, we scheduled some time during the weekend to begin the exercises.

It took time for Franz and me to become comfortable with the exercises. It helped to read the instructions and then, watch the accompanying videos. Whistle, on the other hand, jumped right in and loved every second of it. Each category had different tasks and instructions. Once trained, we performed the tasks and recorded the results.

As a wheelchair user with minimal abdominal strength and balance, I found some of the exercises physically challenging. However, Franz and I would interchange the roles and responsibilities for each game. As a result, I still felt like the lead research scientist on the project, even though Franz and Whistle performed most of the physical activities.

We began the exercises utilizing my desktop computer. However, we quickly realized that using a mobile iPad would be a lot easier and more efficient way to record our results. We used the iPad for the remainder of the exercises and it made the process much easier to accomplish.

It took us about three hours over a day and a half to perform all the games and record the results. The software was user-friendly and saved the results automatically. We paced ourselves and tried not to overexert Whistle. Whistle had 3-4 outdoor breaks during the time. Although to be honest, we were more exhausted than Whistle. Whistle loved every second of it. I think he was having flashbacks to all of his assistance dog training.

Once the exercises were completed and our information was logged into the www.dognition.com site, we received a simple report that explained Whistle’s cognition style and the strategies he relies on to solve a variety of problems.

It was no surprise that Whistle was identified as a “Charmer”. The report stated Whistle is, “a smooth operator, the Charmer relies on his secret weapon – you!” It went on to explain that Whistle has excellent social skills which means he can easily read my body language. The report described how he has a keen understanding of his physical world, but he prefers to depend on me as his ally and partner. Based on the results of Whistle’s actions during the exercises, it was determined that he will rely on me for help before he tries to figure out a problem on his own. We are extremely bonded.

It was interesting to read all the information the report provided regarding Whistle’s cognitive dimensions of Empathy, Communication, Cunning, Memory and Reasoning. The results validated many of my perceptions of Whistle’s behavior. It also enhanced my confidence in Whistle and the bond we have developed. I knew he and I were bonded, but it was nice to see it documented in the results of these interactive exercises.

We had so much fun participating in the profile exercises, and wanted to continue working with Whistle.

As I came to the end of the written report, I was excited to see a section called Next Steps. It wasn’t the end after all. I was delighted to learn that Dognition offers an ongoing membership where we could continue receiving tips and activities prepared especially for Whistle from Dr. Hare’s canine training experts. We could also receive new findings about how all dogs think and how Whistle’s strategies compared. Based on the valuable information we’ve already gained, we are definitely considering purchasing the annual Dognition membership.

Although I have been partnered with an assistance dog for over 20 years now, I am still amazed every day by the intelligence and devotion these animals exhibit. Dognition.com is another way that we can continue exploring and expanding this incredible relationship.

Whistle and I are up for the challenge. Are you? Please let us know if you and your dog have completed the Dognition Profile. Whistle and I would love to hear about your experiences!