The underrated dog

The cognitive abilities of dogs takes even researchers by surprise. This fall Per Jensen, professor of ethology at LiU, is coming out with yet another book about dogs’ behaviour.

The first book, Hundens språk och tankar (The Language and Thought of Dogs) from 2011, climbed quickly up the non-fiction best-seller list. And now the next one is in progress: Hunden som skäms – myt eller sanning? (Dogs that Feel Shame – Myth or Reality?), where Professor Jensen once again puts the results of hundreds of scientific articles into a dog’s daily life.

Another popular scientific book about dogs! But why?

“Because it’s so much fun to write them. And because there’s a lot to say. Every time I hear people tell stories about clever dogs, I can explain most of it based on new research results.”

At the turn of the century, there were some groundbreaking articles; since then, dog research has literally exploded internationally, and it seems like it’s just going to continue. Professor Jensen is also currently leading a research group focusing on dogs and behavioural genetics at LiU and the Department of Physics, Chemistry and Biology.

“Dog research might be an ethologist’s wet dream. If you want to understand how the world of animals’ thought works, having dogs as an object of study is great. In contrast to all other animal species, they are utterly transparent in their behaviour; it’s easy to read them. They can never keep the mask on. A ‘stiff upper lip’ is just not a dog’s thing,” Professor Jensen says and laughs.

After 15,000 years of coexistence, people instinctively understand dogs’ emotional expressions – and vice versa. Even small children without experience know which bark expresses joy, loneliness or fear; dogs react to humans crying with spontaneous comfort and can interpret our gestures, facial expressions and the focus of our gaze.

We are so used to having dogs around us – in Sweden there are some 700,000 registered – that we don’t even think about how remarkable the adaptation between humans and dogs is. Above all, perhaps, the developed ability in dogs to interpret people. From their viewpoint, our behaviour is no doubt transparent and, in addition, we are easily trained.

“Dog breeding also shows how quickly evolution can go: how it is possible to change behaviour only in a few generations. In a short time the golden retriever went from being a dark yellow, adroit retriever willing to work to being a very easygoing companion – light, large, and corpulent. It’s interesting, from a research perspective. It gives us the opportunity to understand how behavioural changes are passed down, and even to map which genes are involved.”

A range of scientific experiments over the last 15 years show that dog owners are not at all simply “humanising” their beloved pooches.

“Dogs turned out to have a cognitive capacity that time and again takes researchers themselves by surprise. And what goes for dogs, goes to various degrees for many other mammals, especially domestic animals. This makes the results of research useful in many areas.”

Among the things Professor Jensen was most surprised about is the ability of dogs to learn our language. He doesn’t mean commands learned through rewards, but words they learn just on the go.

“A psychologist in the United States decided to systematically teach his dog Chaser words. He showed an object, said its name, and then they played with it a bit. The next day Chaser got something new, and they kept this up for several years.

Chaser now has a documented vocabulary of over a thousand different objects. He can successfully categorise them into groups, like squeaky toys or balls. In addition, he can link them with verbs and understands the difference between pushing something and fetching it.

“The interesting thing is also that Chaser’s learning is linear, in principle; he displays no fatigue. Normally, learning capacity usually otherwise levels off.”

More scientifically exciting are studies that concern what Professor Jensen calls “theory of mind”–which doesn’t translate directly into Swedish, he points out.

It’s a question, for example, of perceiving the world around you, the ability to understand that other individuals have other perspectives than your own and to adapt your behaviour accordingly. Or experiences of more complicated emotional expressions. Professor Jensen provides jealousy, fair treatment, or shame as examples of secondary emotions.

“For example, dogs react just like we do to injustice. Simple experiments are enough to show this, such as having some dogs ‘shake hands’. Everyone gets rewarded, everything is OK. No one gets rewarded, that’s also completely OK. But the dog who sees others getting rewarded but himself goes without, stops the behaviour and goes away.

Other studies show that dogs keep a sharp eye on what their people are paying attention to. Few take a forbidden treat when they see a person looking at them. But if the person is gone (covered up in the experimental situation) it’s another thing entirely, as if the dogs know they are alone.

Here is where feelings of shame enter the picture. Many dog owners feel their dogs are ashamed when they’ve done something forbidden or stupid. Is it just imagination?

“There’s shame and there’s shame... But just when the dogs decide to steal that treat when they think they’re unobserved, their pulses rise, as do stress hormones. We’ve been able to measure this. And in a test situation, most dog owners can determine if their dog nicked the forbidden biscuit just by looking at them,” Professor Jensen says.

Refraining from something while waiting for something better is something most dogs can manage after a little training. This ability develops in humans at the age of three.

Flinga holding a packet of sausages in her mouth, waiting for an even better rewardDogs can learn to spit out a treat (in experimental situations, putting it into a little box) in favor of a tastier treat. Or exchange a sausage they’ve received when they understand they could get two instead. Or exchange two sausages for three... The record, of course, is held by a herding dog, who chose in studies to sit for a full quarter-hour with a sausage in its mouth in the certainty that it would be doubled!

But there are things that dogs can’t figure out on their own – for example, solving detour problems such as understanding how to get around an obstacle. They have an extremely poor sense of orientation and can have problems finding their way home; they don’t always understand that things fit together or that things cannot go right through fixed objects.

“But together with people, they solve these problems splendidly,” says Professor Jensen.

Last year he received a prestigious research grant: the Advanced Grant from the European Research Council, around SEK 22 million. This provided space for behavioural genetics dog research at LiU as well.

One study, for example, deals with the development of two groups of labrador retrievers: one born for hunting and the other directed towards the life of a companion. The intent is to see how the breeding impacts the dogs’ behaviour, and if it can be tracked in the DNA.

Next in the publication pipeline is a study on dogs’ spontaneous ability to ask people for help when they want to do something they can’t manage. For example, opening a drawer that contains a chew-bone.

“This is behaviour that most dog owners recognise. But all dogs aren’t equally as good at asking us for help; there is a strong genetic component here that governs the variation. We’ve researched this.”

Per Jensen, black and white portrait in the forestIt is impossible to ignore the popular scientific entertainment value of dog research. Professor Jensen has stuffed his schedule with popular scientific lectures around the country; recently, he got to spend an hour in the studio of Morgonpasset on Radio Sweden’s P3.

“It was an unexpectedly fun experience, they had both done their homework and were genuinely interested. And in fact, there’s nothing more fun than to talk about dogs.”

Possibly talk in combination with learning. The most sought-after individual course at LiU is The Behavioural Biology of the Dog, 7.5 credit-hours. This fall it has 1,020 applicants for 90 places (VHS statistics).

But for Professor Jensen, research on dogs also has a significantly more serious dimension, with repercussions for animal husbandry in general.

“It contributes new knowledge that places us before a moral dilemma and has implications for how we can treat animals, for example for food production. So ‘they are just animals who live in the moment and can’t think and feel like people’ is no longer a sustainable position. A pig is no longer just a future sausage.”

Text: Gunilla Pravitz   8 September 2014

Photos: Top and bottom, Per Jensen’s private collection. Others: Gunilla Pravitz