Dogs and Human: More Similar Than You Think

Would you rather raise and be responsible for a dog or a human child? While most people will probably choose the dog, the difference may not be as great as you think. Recent studies and research have shown that the brains of dogs work extremely similarly to the brains of toddlers, particularly in the learning of vocabulary and inference. I was watching TV this weekend when I caught this information at the end of a 60 Minutes episode (if anybody wants to watch it, here you go). It was interesting, so I decided to look a little deeper.

Surprisingly, despite how closely we live with dogs and have lived with dogs for millennia, we actually don’t know that much about them – particularly how their brains work. It wasn’t until recently that they were considered really important enough for serious scientific study. What has come up is pretty interesting.

John Pilley, a retired psychology professor, points to his border collie as an example of dogs’ mental capacities. He believes that the best metaphor he can use to help understand Chaser’s [the dog’s] development is a two-year-old toddler. While most toddlers have a vocabulary of around 300 words, Chaser’s is over three times that large. She has a collection of over 1,000 unique toys, all of which she knows the names of and can identify individually. When asked for a chicken, Chaser finds her chicken toy and brings it to Pilley. To prove she knows all of these words, Pilley cataloged all of the toys and tested Chaser’s memory hundreds of times over the course of three years.

She never scored below 95%.

It doesn’t stop at vocabulary, either; Chaser demonstrates that she understands the difference between pawing, taking, putting her paw, and putting her nose on something. She is able to do all of these things on command and understands that they are different tasks.

So fair enough, the dog can learn. But we see that all the time. Almost every domestic dog you encounter can sit or stay or come when called. I can do this in a week with my dog through simple repetition of a command. What makes this different?

Psychology discusses a topic called inferential reasoning; essentially, it’s the idea that you can make conclusions based on inferring information from your surroundings. Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke, weighed in on Chaser’s astounding learning capabilities and related it to inference. He says that the reason why Chaser is able to learn literally thousands of words is because she uses the same methods and cognitive ability that children use when they are learning lots of words.

To demonstrate what is called social inference, Hare hid a ball under one of two cups and asked his son, Luke, to get the ball. Luke didn’t know which cup the ball was under beforehand so when asked to retrieve it, the only information Luke had  came from his father, who was pointing at the cup with the ball in it. Another dog, a Labrador named Seesu, demonstrated the same capability, locating an object that was hidden based entirely on pointing. She understood the pointing action and inferred from it that the ball was hidden under one cup or the other.

Curiously, animals that have been considered extremely similar to humans evolutionarily have not been able to do what Seesu did. The same experiment with the balls and cups that Hare conducted with Luke and Seesu was repeated, only using Bonobo apes as the subjects.

The Bonobo failed the test, often grabbing the wrong cup even with Hare pointing at the correct one.

This tells us that dogs are actually pretty smart, and there’s a whole lot more going on up there than we may give them credit for. Who knows, maybe in the next few years we’ll start to see research into the brains of dogs. Soon, we might just know who’s a good boy once and for all.


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