How One Scientist Unlocks the Science Behind Your Dog's Personality

Posted by Alessandra Rizzotti and GOOD Partner

This series is brought to you by our partner, Purina ONE®. These stories share the innovations that are changing how we care for and learn from our pets. Read more about how pets—and the people who love them—can brighten lives and strengthen our communities at the GOOD Pets hub.

The languages, facial expressions, and gestures that humans use to communicate make our social skills richly layered and unique in the natural world. While this makes communicating within our own species rewarding and nuanced, what about with our companion animals? Dogs have long been man’s best friend, but have you ever wondered what your dog is thinking when you’re talking to him? Scientists around the world have been studying canine psychology and cognition for decades, and Dr. Brian Hare, director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, has been on an 18-year quest to help bring behavioral science to pet owners.

“Everybody feels they have amazing relationships with their dogs, but many don’t know why,” says Hare. “Part of it is that dogs have intelligence. The thing that made them successful is their genius, which is an ability to socially interact with us in a more flexible way than other species.”

In 1995, while studying animal psychology at Emory University, Hare brought this idea up to Dr. Michael Tomasello, who was exploring how chimpanzees and infants used their social-communicative skills. Hare thought that his dog Oreo could understand human gestures better than the chimps that struggled to find hidden food even when it was pointed at. In 2002, after getting his doctorate in biological anthropology from Harvard, Hare published scientific results from four experiments with groups of up to 11 dogs, 32 puppies, 11 chimpanzees, and five human-reared wolves. He concluded that both dogs and wolves exhibited the same level of memory skills when finding objects without human help, but dogs were shown to be more skillful than both chimpanzees and wolves at interpreting human gestures to find hidden food. Even puppies performed just as well as adult dogs.

After this study, Hare concluded that the unique bonds humans have with canines weren’t necessarily developed during puppy training. Rather, dog social-communicative skills evolved over the course of 40,000 years as a result of domestication and human co-habitation, and not from their wolf ancestry. In fact, canines were born with distinct personalities, just like humans.

Many scientists are exploring the way dogs interact and cooperate with humans, and some are even studying how dogs respond to language. Viktoria Szetei and colleagues at Eötvös Loránd University and the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest found that dogs will follow human gestures even if they contradict what their powerful noses tell them. In an experiment, dogs were repeatedly drawn to empty containers that humans pointed at instead of strong-smelling salami nearby. With an experiment of random strangers offering liver sandwiches to dogs, Dr. Zsófia Virányi, co-founder of the Clever Dog Lab, demonstrated that dogs don’t beg at unfamiliar faces unless the faces were looking directly at the dogs.

What’s different about Hare’s approach is that he’s not limiting research to the lab – and he’s providing individual owners with unique insights into their own four-legged friends. By co-founding Dognition, a service grounded in “citizen science,” Hare has enabled owners to discover how their dogs see the world, while also contributing to the collective understanding of all dogs. Pet owners purchase a set of instructional science-based games to evaluate their dog’s everyday problem solving strategies in five areas: empathy, communication, cunning, memory, and reasoning. Based on this input and an online canine questionnaire, Dognition creates a detailed report that describes how each dog thinks through social and independent problem solving. Think of it as a Myers-Briggs test for dogs. Dognition categorizes dogs into nine distinct cognitive profiles, including the Einstein (who has a keen understanding of physics), the Charmer (who relies heavily on his owner to solve problems), and the Expert (who likes to solve problems independently but can also be a part of a team). With these profiles, both long-time and new pet owners gain a fresh perspective on their dogs.

Patricia Tirell, a certified dog trainer, has found that Dognition techniques changed how she worked with prisoners and shelter dogs through the New Leash on Life program in North Carolina. “We had this dog named Mikah who the inmates thought was stubborn and stupid. But, after using the Dognition assessment, the inmate who worked with him saw that the dog needed more time to think through commands and make decisions, based on his behavior and furrowed brow. So, rather than pushing Mikah like he was doing before, he adjusted how he connected with the dog. It really helped him learn empathy, and that’s what we try to do with all the inmates,” Tirell says.

Dognition’s growing database of more than 1,000 dogs will eventually make it possible for Hare to make breakthrough distinctions about the cognition profiles of dogs based on breed, size, and training background – criteria that can’t easily be studied in traditional research. However, Hare mostly sees this as an opportunity to help pet owners, shelters, and working dog groups deepen their understanding of pets. “In the case of shelters, Dognition profiles help tell the dogs’ stories, which is so valuable in calling attention to a pup who might otherwise be overlooked. That’s what Dognition can do—help explain who the dog is and why the dog is special. This is not replacing the services that pet behaviorists can do. It just offers tools to help them do their jobs better,” Hare says. In the case of working dogs, nonprofit organization Canine Companions for Independence is now using Dognition to try to identify potential service dogs for people with disabilities. And as dog owners use these same tools, they’re unlocking the science behind their pets’ unique traits and learning how to bring harmony inside the home.