Review: The Genius of Dogs

The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter Than You Think by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods 519acsHwtqL._SL500_AA300_

Reviewed by Don Messerschmidt

To a reviewer (at least this reviewer) The Genius of Dogs is a genius of a book, and for that reason it poses a unique quandary. It deals with more information than I can give it justice in a short review. It’s the sort of book one wants to read many times over. And while it is scientific, the style of writing is easily approachable, highly informative, even captivating.

If you are the owner or admirer of dogs, and if you like, love, or adore them, then The Genius of Dogs is a ‘must read’!

First, about the book’s authors: Brian Hare is a biological anthropologist who teaches Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University and conducts research at the Duke Canine Cognition Center, which he founded. That’s your first clue about the book – it is all about canine cognition and intellect. Vanessa Woods is a research scientist at the center and an award winning journalist, the author of Bonobo Handshake: A Memoir of Love and Adventure in the Congo (2010). Together, Brian and Vanessa are good at studying and writing about animals. Vanessa and Brian are married and live in North Carolina.

In the Preface, the authors point out some of the background to the book. “In the last ten years,” they write, “there has been something of a revolution in the study of canine intelligence. We have learned more about how dogs think in the past decade than we have in the previous century…” Then, with “hundreds of studies and the latest research” to back them up, they set out to study and write about canine intelligence.

It takes superior intellect to adapt and survive as well as dogs have. Mere survival, they say, takes “a very specific kind of intellect.” Based on that premise, “the dog,” they say, “is arguably the most successful mammal on the planet, besides us.” Dogs have spread to all parts of the globe, “including inside our homes, and in some cases onto our beds…” where they often take the place of human children. “[T]here have never been more dogs on the planet than today,” they say.

Before going any farther, I wanted to know how many dogs there are in the world (as pets and otherwise). It turns out that your wildest guess may be as good as anything, for the data are very slim to non-existent for some countries and regions. What the experts do know (or think they know) about the number of dogs on the globe is this:

  • USA: 73 million (in 42.5 households); then add another 6 million for Canada.
  • Western Europe: 43 million (8.8 million in France, alone).
  • Asia: Unknown, except that in China there are at least 110 million (and to think that during the Cultural Revolution there was a concerted effort to destroy as many dogs as possible, as frivolous and wasteful creatures!)
  • For the rest of the world (S. America, Africa, etc.), there simply are no viable figures or well informed guesses.

In short, the global population of dogs is HUGE. We just don’t know how huge. The Genius of Dogs is the best attempt so far to explain why and how it got that way, and the authors do a masterful job of determining what gives canines the edge in adaptability and survival. To find out you’ll have to read the book where, for example, comparisons with wolf intelligence and the authors’ interpretations of “Darwin’s dilemma” and “Survival of the Friendliest” are revealing. And if you think your dog can talk, or that your favorite breed is smartest, or if you are having trouble training it, you’ll be surprised at their findings.

The Genius of Dogs has 11 chapters in three parts, plus a Preface, Notes, Index, Credits and Acknowledgments.

  • Part I. Brian’s Dog, with five chapters: 1. Genius in Dogs? – The many flavors of genius. 2. The Wolf Event – Wolves conquer the world, only to lose it all. 3. In My Parents’ Garage – The perfect place for a scientific discovery. 4. Clever as a Fox – How an obscure Russian scientist solved Darwin’s dilemma. 5. Survival of the Friendliest – How friendliness can get you ahead.
  • Part II. Dog Smarts, with three chapters: 6. Dog Speak – Are we having a conversation? 7. Lost Dogs – Dogs don’t beat wolves at everything. 8. Pack Animals – Dogs are best in a social network.
  • Part III. Your Dog, with three chapters: 9. Best in Breed – The question on everyone’s lips-which breed is smartest? 10. Teaching Genius – How do you train a cognitive dog? 11. For the Love of Dog – Could we love each other more?

What great generalizations backed up by absorbing details will you learn from this book? For one, “that the cognitive world of every dog is far more complex and interesting than we thought possible.” And, about the secret to their success, you’ll encounter many “a tantalizing glimpse” about “the stuff of dog genius,” say Hare and Woods.

So, friends of dogs, go fetch the book, drop it on to your favorite chair, call your dog to come lay at your feet, and settle in for a long and fascinating read.

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New York: Dutton Adult, 2013. ISBN 9780525953197. 384pp. Available in hardback, paperback & e-book editions. The estimates on the number of dogs in the world are from http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/canine-corner/201209/how-many-dogs-are-there-in-the-world.

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About LiteraryDogs

I write and read about dogs, and admire dogs in print; ergo 'LiteraryDogs'. If you have some or all of these same sentiments, let's share our reading/writing knowledge and canine literary insights. My own writings are about Tibetan mastiffs, but I'm flexible and enjoy all dogs.
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