Canine Mind Readers

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Credit: Evan MacLean

Napoleon is a doggy genius. The 3-year-old, 7-pound Yorkshire Terrier can do something even our closest relative, the chimpanzee, can’t. He can read our thoughts. And he isn’t alone. All dogs, it turns out, are human mind readers.

I met Napoleon during a recent visit to the Duke Canine Cognition Center in Durham, North Carolina. I was doing some research for a chapter in my book on how new scientific discoveries are blurring the line between pet and human, and the head of the center, biological anthropologist Brian Hare agreed to let me come down and observe some of his work. Hare is at the forefront of a canine revolution that began about 15 years ago; in a series of high-profile studies, researchers around the world have shown that dogs are capable of far more than we ever imagined.

Dogs weren’t always popular research subjects, however, at least when it came to probing the secrets of the mind. Though Charles Darwin was a dog lover—and a big believer in the powers of the canine intellect—dogs were canis non grata in the cognition laboratory for much of the 20th century. They aren’t a wild animal, and they’ve lived with us for thousands of years, so most scientists considered them artificial and even tainted. Researchers interested in the animal mind studied chimpanzees and rodents instead.

But things changed when Hare, Adam Miklosi, and other prominent scientists began to notice something remarkable about dogs. I had come to the Duke Canine Cognition Center to see what first piqued their interest. And that’s where I ran into Napoleon.

Hare was tied up when I arrived at the lab, so a couple of his grad students volunteered to show me the experiment he’s become famous for.  As you’ll see in the video below, Napoleon watches intently as grad student Courtnea Rainey squeaks his favorite toy—a miniature tennis ball–and then hides it, or pretends to hide it, under one of two red cups (the second cup is off-screen, to the left of Napoleon).  She then points to one of the cups, and the other graduate student—Evan MacLean (who is also Napoleon’s owner)—releases the leash.  In trial after trial, Napoleon always runs to the cup that is pointed at—and happily retrieves his ball.


This may seem like a simple test, and indeed, even one-year-old children can pass it.  But chimpanzees fail miserably.  They ignore the human helper, pick cups at random, and rarely score above chance.

What Napoleon had done was demonstrate a rudimentary form of a skill known as theory of mind.  That’s the ability to intuit how others see the world, and even, to some extent, know what they’re thinking.  He had recognized that when Rainey pointed at the cup she wanted to show him something; that she had a desire.

Theory of mind isn’t just a neat cognitive trick.  Scientists like Hare have postulated that the ability has been critical for the success of our species.  That it helps us work together, learn from our parents, and even communicate.  Without it, we wouldn’t be here.

Tiny Napoleon had done something more human-like than a creature that shares 99% of our DNA.  And that means that, more than any other animal on the planet, dogs could shed light on how our own mind evolved.  When we peer inside Napoleon’s head, we are, in many ways, peering inside our own.

5 Comments

  1. avatar

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  2. avatar

    I love this blog, but I think the comment that dogs have done something more human-like than apes is a bit misleading. PBS aired a program ( I forget the name) about cognitive studies in animals. One problem-solving study compared the response of dogs to wolves. When faced with a challenge to get food the dogs would invariably look to the human handler for instruction. The wolves never did. The dogs would also give up rather quickly while the wolves would keep at it. One conclusion from this study was that dogs have been breed to respond and interact with humans. I think this is why they are considered ‘tainted’. I also think this is a justified criticism.

    Assuming the conclusions of this research are correct and dogs share a cognitive ability with humans that chimpanzee lack, then that suggests that this ability resulted from convergent evolution. Much like the wings of birds and bats, this cognitive ability was not shared with common ancestors suggesting that they evolved independently. So there may be similarities in the behavior but I doubt the structures are the same.

    • avatar

      Thanks for your comment Brad! I believe the PBS program may have been Dogs Decoded. And you are correct that dogs look to humans for help while wolves don’t. (Curiously, in a similar test, cats behave much like wolves–which probably doesn’t surprise most cat owners). I don’t believe the fact that dogs look to humans for help is evidence that they’re not smart, however. It’s just evidence that they’ve evolved to look to us for information rather than trying to gather it themselves. I see it more as efficiency than a cognitive deficit.

      And your point about convergent evolution is a great one–and indeed it’s championed by many of the scientists I talked to. But I think that many of them would say that convergent evolution is exactly why dogs are *not* tainted. Because dogs share many of the same behaviors we do, they give us the opportunity to explore the evolution of our own abilities in another animal–something that few other creatures provide.

      Once again, thanks for your great comments!

  3. avatar

    Thanks a ton for this – love the info and agree with your perspective. However many others will not, so thanks for speaking up. Nice blog, well done!

  4. avatar

    Very well made blog. I’ll add this website http://davidhgrimm.com/2011/09/30/canine-mind-readers/ with no doubt to my bookmarks.

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