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Book Review:The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter than You Think


By Terri Schlichenmeyer

Your dog has a species identity crisis.

Some days, he’s a copycat and it’s like monkey see, monkey do around your house. Other days, he’s stubborn as a mule, eats like a little piggy, is fearless as a lion, and he runs through the house like a herd of elephants.

You’re beginning to wonder what other souls lie inside the body of your canine. Is he part horse, part goat, part cheetah? Or, as you’ll learn in “The Genius of Dogs” by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods, is he really part Einstein?

Your dog is the smartest pooch on the planet. He can sit, beg, roll over, and shake. He also has a rudimentary grasp of physics, math, and language.

That’s because dogs are “arguably the most successful mammal on the planet, besides us.” They evolved from wolves to canine lupus familiaris and quickly, firmly glommed onto humans, but researchers have only recently determined how that bedrock-to-bedroom voyage happened.

For canine cognition expert Hare, learning how was a world-wide journey.

As a grad student trying to determine what makes us human, Hare began with chimps and bonobos but soon noticed that his dog was better at many tasks than were our closest evolutionary relatives. His research took him to Russia (with foxes) and to a German lab where he tested dogs to see what happens inside their furry little heads.

Dogs have lousy GPS, he learned. There are exceptions, but most lost pups who find their way home are “lucky.” Pooches have problem-solving skills, but most have a hard time figuring out new methods for old habits.

Conversely, as any astute puppy parent knows, dogs are masters of body language and have the basic skills of a human infant, socially and cognitively. They make decisions based on inference and grasp language in the same way as do babies. Their owner-attachment is similar to that of babies to their mothers. Dogs know how to recruit help, communicate needs, and offer comfort.

What we got out of the deal, Hare says, is love and a domesticated animal that may have domesticated us.

I’m a really big science fan and I completely geeked-out on “The Genius of Dogs,” but there was one curious thing I noticed: authors Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods present some highly fascinating research results, but they don’t acknowledge that dog owners have probably already seen it all.

Still, it’s awfully good to know where that behavior comes from and how inherent doggy-actions can be altered from cute parlor trick into something that enhances your fun with Fido. This book does tend to meander off the dog-path quite a bit, but I thought that off-topic-ness enhanced the puppy parts. Overall, I loved what I learned and I loved knowing that even the most mixed-up mutt can be a master at something.

This book also contains several enjoyable tests that you can do with your pup, so grab a handful of treats and get going. For you, “The Genius of Dogs” is something to get your paws on.

“The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter than You Think” by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods
c.2013, Dutton
$27.95 / $29.50 Canada
370 pages, includes index