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More to a dog than tricks

By Malcolm King - posted Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Dogs. Even the word leaps up and is full of fun. It bounds up at you like a five year old child and then tears around the back yard until its exhausted and falls at your feet for a pat.

But there is much more to domestic dogs than my anthropomorphic introduction.

My interest in dogs has sharpened due to relatively recent findings about domestic dog cognition. While dogs are man's best friend, there is now considerable evidence that there's more to a mutt than a wagging tail.


I studied politics, linguistics and sociobiology and focused on how humans use language. I examined the anthropology of organizations – how they worked, why they worked - or didn't work. It was through this work that I stumbled on studies of canine cognition.

The origin of dogs goes back about 15,000-20,000 years. Some researchers believe they evolved from just a handful of wolves tamed by humans living in or near modern day China.

But of even more interest are the recent results of the domestic dog's cognitive abilities.

In a simple experiment in 2002, designed to compare domestic dogs behavior to those of wolves and chimpanzees, the results showed that dogs, even young puppies, were far better at interpreting social cues from humans.

An authority on animal communication, Professor Brian Hare from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences in the States, said that during domestication there was a change in the dog's cognitive ability that allowed them to figure out what humans wanted using social cues such as pointing.

But surely wolves, the progenitor of all dogs, could perform these tasks. Professor Adam Miklosi and researchers from Eotvos University in Budapest conducted 'shell game' tests on wolves.


The test wolves were raised by humans and socialized to a comparable level as their dog counterparts. But although they could follow some signals, the wolves could not perform to the level of domestic dogs.

Miklosi's test also included an important second function. He presented the animals with an unsolvable problem – a bowl of food that that was impossible to access. The team found that while wolves continued to work at the unsolvable problem for long periods, dogs quickly looked at humans for help.

Miklosi said that based on his observations, he suggested that the key difference between dog and wolf behavior was the dogs' ability to look at the human face.

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About the Author

Malcolm King is a journalist and professional writer. He was an associate director at DEEWR Labour Market Strategy in Canberra and the senior communications strategist at Carnegie Mellon University in Adelaide. He runs a writing business called Republic.

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