Canine and able: Can dogs really understand us?

Super woofer? Brian Hare has devised 'dognition' tests to establish the IQ of canines. Picture: contributed
Super woofer? Brian Hare has devised 'dognition' tests to establish the IQ of canines. Picture: contributed
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YOU may think all those dog owners who insist their beloved pooches can understand everything they say are absolutely barking, but now a scientist claims they might just be right, learns Ruth Walker.

Man’s best friend holds a special place in our hearts – and sometimes in our beds. Bad dog! But this week, in particular, is special. This is the week in which the country’s pooches – and their owners – are celebrated in all their eccentric, pampered, clipped-toenail and coiff-coated glory. This is the week that the greatest dog show on the planet stands to heel: Crufts.

From elegant blondes like Zentarr Elizabeth, the lhasa apso who won last year’s Best in Show, to Becky, the Prettiest Crossbreed Bitch (a dubious honour, if you ask me, awarded by the parallel competition for mutts, Scruffts), our beloved hounds will be jumping through hoops and stay ... stay ... staaaaaying with all the strength they can muster to win their individual heats. Doggy treats are at stake, for Bonio’s sake.

Brian Hare, a lifelong lover and owner of dogs – as well as being an evolutionary anthropologist, which makes him top dog in anyone’s book – was studying chimp behaviour 15 years ago when he stumbled on a revolutionary concept. Dogs, not primates, are the animal kingdom’s clever clogs. Not only that, he claims everything we thought we knew about dogs and their evolution is wrong. We didn’t domesticate them; they domesticated themselves, because cosying up with mankind was the best way for their wild ancestors to get fed and, therefore, survive.

Dogs, he says, can recognise our gestures, read emotions and understand up to 1,000 words, making much of their communication similar to that of babies before they begin to talk.

He turns accepted training wisdom on its head, saying acting like the boss will not earn you obedience; that dogs appreciate friendliness over firmness.

In fact, perhaps the most ground-breaking discovery of all, he says, is that both our development and that of dogs is not down to survival of the fittest at all. It’s about survival of the friendliest.

At this juncture, I should make a confession. Dogs don’t do it for me. Too high maintenance. No, my life companion is a delicate, slightly uppity little cat called Willow. I also make the mistake of telling him my friend’s Labrador is the dumbest dog I’ve ever met. So I fear Hare and I might fall out before we’ve even started.

“The question isn’t, ‘Is a dog or a cat cleverer than the other?’,” he says. “That question assumes there is only one way to measure intelligence and that we can easily put a number on it. It’s a little bit like a toolbox: asking who’s more intelligent is like asking is a hammer or a screwdriver a better tool? OK, what’s the job? That’s how we think about the mind of an animal. How were they designed? Were they designed by natural selection to solve this type of problem or that type of problem? Then the question is, ‘Why are they designed that way?’”

He says scientists are now fascinated by dogs and their ability to do things like learn the names of objects and understand human gestures – things that could hold the key to their success as a species. “They’re also quite good at knowing when you can see them and when you can’t,” he says. “Not only do dogs know when you have your eyes open and closed, they also know when the light is on and off and use this information to decide whether they’re going to listen to you or not. If they know you can’t see them, they’re much more likely to be disobedient.”

It’s not all chum cheerleading, however. There’s a whole chapter in his book, The Genius of Dogs, that focuses on how completely rubbish they are at solving certain problems life throws at them. “It’s not that dogs are little people,” says Hare. “When I get up and do my research every morning I don’t think, ‘I have to find more evidence that dogs are like people.’ No, I’m just trying to find out what dogs are, how they evolved and how they navigate their world.”

But what he hopes readers will take from his book is not just an increased understanding of how dogs live and relate to us, but how we live and relate to each other. “Everyone thinks evolution is about survival of the fittest. People translate that as meaning you have to be aggressive and dominant. But the truth is that nature shows over and over again that the way many animals, in particularly humans, have been successful is by being really friendly. How else do you explain why we’re such a social species?”

Ah, I say, but what about Hitler? Stalin? Jack the Ripper? Not particularly friendly Homo sapiens, in my book. “But that depends who you’re comparing that person to,” counters Hare. “If you’re comparing them to a modern human then, yes. But if you’re comparing them to Homo erectus or Neanderthal or archaic Homo, they might be really nice. We only think of ourselves as modern humans. Our species is at least 250,000 years old, and some people argue two million years old. Two million years ago we were something else entirely.”

However, he believes dogs may have reached their evolutionary peak, so don’t expect your schitszu to start speaking any time soon or your Saint Bernard to tell you to go get your own slippers. “But I don’t know. Evolution is strange in many ways. It’s possible ...”

In closing, he directs me to Dognition, a test that can establish your slobbering pooch’s IQ and personality type. I’m tempted to try it on the cat, but think better of it. She’s above such things.

Twitter: @Ruth_Lesley

• The Genius of Dogs, by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, published by Oneworld, £20 (; Crufts, 7-10 March, TV coverage on More4 (