Canine cognition research will tell you about your BFF’s personality.
The animal kingdom is endlessly fascinating and complex. If only all those animals could speak our language, life would be much simpler. Understanding the pets we live with could greatly improve our relationship with them. As with humans, there are many dog personality types. Dogs were domesticated almost 40,000 years ago. Domestication is a genetic process and over time dogs have developed social skills that scientists thought were unique to humans.
There are animal psychologists that many pet owners look to for help with troubled pet relationships, or unhappy or misbehaving pets. Understanding the behavior of dogs has created the relatively new academic field of canine cognition, with research centers springing up at universities and medical schools around the U.S. and in England, Hungary and Japan. Brian Hare is an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University. He founded the Duke Canine Cognition Center and recently co-authored The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter Than You Think ($11.04). He also recently launched a website called Dognition.com which is how I learned about him.
The website has a standardized set of tests that anyone can use with their dog to understand their pet better. It teaches dog owners the strategies their canine uses to solve a variety of problems. For a fee, the company will analyze the cognitive strengths and weaknesses of your BFF. Animal behavior scientists know for certain that dogs have emotions, and dogs have a strong positive emotional response to people. For example, a dog’s gaze seems to be a bonding mechanism. Dr. Hare tells us that dogs are “astoundingly good at reading our gestures and learning words”.
Through Dognition, owners test their dogs in the areas of empathy, cunning, memory, reasoning and communication. One interesting area where current research contradicts a popular belief is the alpha dog theory that dogs have a hierarchy. Researchers have discovered that the leaders of dog packs are the dogs who treat every dog fairly and lead with popularity and calmness.
Fees start at $19.00 for Web-based cognition tests, more like games, that dog owners play with their pets. The owners are then sent a report explaining how their pet rates in the various traits, and a personality profile. The company will use the tests to generate new data for researchers which will help them improve on the questions for the tests. A small percentage of the profits will fund research on animal behavior.
This type of research is very complicated, the science is not always clear and there are some critics, but canine cognition research is making great strides. Yale has just opened a Canine Cognition Center and research into dog personalities is a hot topic. Many labs are testing dog DNA to understand personality. The University of Massachusetts Medical School has a study called Darwin’s Dogs that tests participants’ DNA and asks pet owners to answer a 120 question survey about their dog’s behavior and personality.
See an earlier ASE article on Canine DNA Testing.