Doggone! They're Just Like Us



Jennifer Viegas / Discovery News / June 3, 2005

The domestication of dogs has caused them to acquire some uniquely human characteristics, an animal behaviouralist says.

And we're getting more tuned into what goes on in the minds of our canine companions, says Professor Vilmos Csányi, chair of the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest.

He says the increasing closeness of dogs and people has made dogs appear smarter, or at least more human-like, in that they can imitate complex human behaviour and seemingly have acquired certain basic human characteristics.

Also, humans appear to be developing a better understanding of how canines communicate among themselves and with us.

"During the long domestication process, the dog's mind has adapted to living in the human environment and dogs acquired some elementary characteristics of the human mind," said Csányi.

Csányi will present his findings at an international Ethological Conference in Budapest, Hungary, in August.

Wolves versus dogs

He says his studies comparing tame wolf cubs with pet dogs reveal that wolves make little attempt to communicate with people or dogs.

Videotaped footage of wolves entering rooms containing their human caregivers and dogs shows the wolves sniffing the humans and dogs before becoming bored and falling asleep in a caregiver's lap.

When faced with the same situation, the dogs in the study investigated the room and then went to enormous effort to establish contact with their caregivers by wagging their tails, barking, licking their caregiver's face and then sitting in front of the human with ears pointed upward.

"Wolves can be tamed, but they seldom focus their attention at humans," says Csányi.

"They just do not care about humans, except if they are threatened or fed by humans. Dogs are different."


Dogs can imitate humans

The differences between wolves and dogs appear to be paying off for dogs.

In a recent study, Csányi determined that dogs not only can move where directed with a visual cue, such as the pointing finger of a human, but that they can copy the human's pointing with their paws.

Another study, also by Csányi and published recently in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, found that many dogs could operate a ball release machine, similar to those used by baseball batters in practice, after watching a human stranger operate it a few times.

For the machine to work, a lever had to be pushed to the left or right side before the ball would release. 
In no time, dogs were having apparent fun by releasing the balls and then playing with them.

Interpreting barks

Dogs appear to be teaching humans a thing or two as well.

Adam Miklósi, one of Csányi's colleagues, recently tested 90 human volunteers on their ability to interpret the meanings behind dog barks.

The dogs were recorded barking under varied circumstances, such as when playing, waiting for food, or facing an intruder.

Virtually all of the humans, who consisted of both dog owners and people without pets, correctly interpreted the dog barks, and were even able to identify the situations that prompted the barking.

Are dogs getting smarter?

Professor Richard Byrne, professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, says the evolution of close communication between humans and dogs shouldn't be mistaken for superior cognitive skills.

According to Byrne, dogs shouldn't be considered "intelligent," because they lack "a flexible ability to solve novel problems."

"What Miklósi and Csányi's work has shown is that dogs are better able to fit into human communication loops because they act like children in looking up at the face," Byrne says.