The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday had an interesting essay favorably comparing, um, dogs to children. It's adapted from the authors' new book, The Genius of Dogs. (See blurb at end of essay for more info.) The title of the piece says it all: Why Pet Dogs Are As Good As Kids (Maybe A Little Better). When I read the essay to Widget for her bedtime story last night, she thought this was already pretty self-evident, wasn't sure why anyone would need to write a book pointing it out, and asked, "what's the 'maybe' part about?" In any case, I thought you'd enjoy reading the piece.
By Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods
Welcome the dog child. Up to 81% of Americans view their pets as family members, and think about their dogs as much as their children. 71% have a photo of their dog in their wallet or phone that they show other people.
There are obvious benefits to having dogs rather than children. Your dog will never slam a door in your face or tell you they hate you. They can be potty trained in eight weeks. They don’t need clothes, a car, or a college education.
In recent years, several discoveries about dogs make kids even less unique. It turns out that dogs are startlingly similar to human infants in several key areas, one of which is in the social domain.
At around nine months, human infants go through a social revolution. They begin to understand what adults are trying to communicate when they point and begin pointing out things to other people. By paying attention to the reactions and gestures of other people, as well as to what other people are paying attention to, infants are beginning to read other people’s intentions. This ability provides a foundation for all forms of culture and communication.
Every dog owner has helped a dog find a lost ball or stick by pointing in the right direction. It’s easy to take for granted the way dogs effortlessly interpret this simple gesture, but this ability is remarkable. Not only do dogs understand the meaning behind the point in a similar way to human infants, they are using the social information of a completely different species.
Soon after infants start reading gestures, they start to learn their first words. Anyone with children knows that toddlers learn words at an astonishing speed, and frequently use words that no one has “taught” them. This is because children learn by using inferences. For example, if you show an infant a red block and a green block, then say “Please give me the chromium block, not the red block,” most infants will give you the green block, despite not knowing that chromium is a shade of green. They inferred the name of the object.
A dog called Rico, and several other Border collies, can do the same thing. When Julianne Kaminski, from the University of Portsmouth, placed a new toy Rico had never seen before in a different room with seven of his toys that he knew by name. Then she asked Rico to fetch a toy using a new word he had never heard before, like ‘Sigfried’. Rico correctly fetched the new toy. One particularly verbose Border collie called Chaser learned over a thousand words this way.
Everyone knows that dogs are loyal, but recent research suggests that this devotion might go much deeper, even rivaling the attachment between children and their mothers.
Joszef Topal and colleagues from Lorand Eotvos University, Hungary used a test called “A Strange Situation” to evaluate the attachment of dogs and their owners. Usually, this test is used by psychologists to evaluate the relationship between a mother and her child. It is a kind of miniseries with several episodes where a mother and her child between the age of six months and two years old arrive at a playroom. A stranger enters and the mother leaves while the stranger plays with the child. Then the mother returns. The child is left completely alone, then the mother and stranger return together.
Children react in various ways, but securely attached infants use their mother as a base to explore the playroom. When their mother returns after a short absence, these children happily run to their mother and greet her with hugs and kisses.
Topal used the same test with owners and their dogs. He found that dogs were similar to children in that they explored and played more when their owners were in the room. Just as children showed searching behavior when their mothers left, dogs stood at the door when their owners left the room.
Upon the owners’ return, the dogs were more like the securely attached infants, seeking physical contact almost immediately with contented behavior like tail wagging. Topal concluded that the attachment of dogs to their owners is similar to the attachment of infants to their mothers.
In summary, dogs can read your gestures but they’ll never make rude gestures of their own. They can learn words like children but they can’t talk back. And they are as attached to you as a child, but are much, much cheaper. It isn’t hard to see which dependent is the logical choice.
Dr. Brian Hare is the director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center and Vanessa Woods is a research scientist at Duke University. This essay is adapted from their new book, “The Genius of Dogs,” published by Dutton. For science-based games for dogs, visit www.dognition.com