Book Review: The Genius of Dogs

The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods
The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods

It’s no secret to those close to me that I’m completely crazy-for-coco-puffs in love with my 3 year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Sgt. Pepper.

Every now and then my cuddlebug does something goofy and I’m reminded of his tangerine-sized brain. Just the other day he began barking ferociously out the window at a neighbors golden retriever. Considering his pint-sized stature, these tough-guy antics seem ridiculous, but he honestly thinks he’s the biggest, toughest dude around.

Other times Sarge proves be a furry little genius in his own right. He knows the names of all his toys, can recognize animals on a muted television screen, and seems to know when he is doing something naughty.

So along with other dog owners, I have wondered whether my fur child is the Albert Einstein of dogs or am I wearing the rose-colored glasses of parenthood? How does Sarge’s canine mind work?

New York Times Bestseller, The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You Think, is a fantastic read that tackles many of the grand mysteries behind canine intelligence. Brian Hare, Ph.D. – head of the Center for Dog Cognition at Duke University – and award-winning journalist Vanessa Woods offer remarkable insight into not only the minds of man’s most beloved companions but perspective on our own human intelligence.

Sgt. Pepper
Sgt. Pepper

A wonderful intersection between my interests in cognitive neuroscience and my profound love of all things canine, the book cites over 600 research papers providing a comprehensive rundown on dog cognition (“dognition”) research while also addressing several questions dog enthusiasts may ponder regularly about their furry side-kicks.

Does your dog understand what you’re saying? Can he feel guilty, empathetic, or cheated? Are dogs able to count or talk?

From humble beginnings playing catch with his childhood Labrador Oreo, to studying domesticated Russian foxes and wild singing dogs in New Guinea, Hare answers these and other questions by taking you along on his fascinating journey through the field of dogniton.

Broken into three major parts, the The Genius of Dogs explores: (1) the evolution and domestication of dogs, (2) the unique strengths and weaknesses of dog intellect, and (3) breeds, training, and health benefits of dog ownership.

The experiments in this book are fun. I read through imagining how Sarge might perform on certain tests.

One of my favorites was an experimental paradigm looking at the capacity of dog communication. In the experiment, a dog named Sofia was trained to press keys on a keyboard representing water, food, a walk, a toy, play, and her crate. Scientists showed that Sofia became very skilled at pressing the correct key for a given situation – like hitting the toy button when she was presented with a new toy. Interestingly, when Sofia was shown a Guinea Pig (she had never met one before), she ran over and excitedly pressed, not the toy button, but rather the food button! Dognition experiments like these help us as humans peak into the minds of dogs.

An illustration of an experimental set-up.

By no means do you need to have a science degree to enjoy this book. I found The Genius of Dogs to be a quick, engaging read with flowing narrative and little scientific jargon. It’s jam-packed with real research experiments conducted by Hare and other dognition researchers – but don’t be put-off by a lot of science. The experiments are clearly described with helpful illustrations to clarify the more abstract experimental set-ups. Humor and historical anecdotes are peppered throughout the pages making this a particular joy to read.

Be aware that this book only discusses topics that scientists have been able to address through experiments thus far – so if you happen to be looking for answers to certain kinds of questions like “Does my dog love me?” you may be left wanting simply because the research just isn’t there yet. That being said, I was surprised and delighted to learn exactly how much we have already uncovered about the canine mind.

After reading The Genius of Dogs I have a better understanding of how we as people can learn about ourselves from studying a dog’s cognitive abilities and a greater appreciation for Sgt. Pepper’s own doggy genius.  If you’re interested in what makes dogs tick, I highly recommend this book. It’s truly a read for a variety of audiences including dog lovers and science enthusiasts alike.


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