Your dog is loyal, affectionate and may even fetch your slippers. But how smart is your best friend? Through a series of games and tests, Nat Geo Wild's miniseries "Is Your Dog a Genius?" will show you how to test your pooch's specific abilities and determine what kind of intelligence he has.
Airing over three nights, from May 15-17, the program is part of the inaugural BarkFest block of shows that will also include "World's Greatest Dogs" and the "Cesar 911" season finale on Friday, a doggie episode of "Unlikely Animal Friends" on Saturday, and "Super Underdogs" on Sunday.
"We all love our dogs, but we may not know them as well as we think we do," says Brian Hare, Ph.D., professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, host of the show and co-author of the New York Times bestseller, "The Genius of Dogs." He runs the Canine Cognition Center there and is the co-founder of Dognition, a tool that enables dog owners to test and understand their pet's capabilities.
"Not only is dog intelligence more complicated than you might have thought, but that there are different types of intelligence — dogs actually have different abilities, different types of intelligence they express in different ways," Hare says. "The show is all about exploring that with some pet owners and showing how dogs communicate with us. If you take an evolutionary lens on it, it's a remarkable puzzle as to how dogs came to be. It's likely due to their cognitive abilities that allowed them to take advantage and become such an important part of our society. The show explores that, understanding how that science happened, and how that science is being used to understand individual dogs, your dog."
The various tests measure memory, problem solving, communication, reasoning, cunning, empathy, and other attributes, and evaluate them in comparison to other Dognition participants' results. "When you complete Dognition, your dog's data is compared to every other dog's, and you get a report explaining how it compares," explains Hare. The results can be surprising. "When I used Dognition with my own dog, I thought he would be an amazing communicator, and have great memory. That was not the case, but I found out he's bonded with me in a way that I didn't understand, and that was because we played these games."
For example, there's a test measuring inferential reasoning. "In the last 10 years, we've discovered that's not just learning by repetition. Dogs are able to put two pieces of information together they've never seen before and infer a solution to a problem. They're learning words using the same inferential technique that young children use to learn words. Dogs are the only species besides ourselves that do that," Hare notes. "By measuring what dogs are capable of, we can find traits that not only might be heritable, but actually what predicts their performance."
That's where the real-word applications of the Dognition program come in. The series shows how the assessment helps a family choose the shelter dog that's right for them, the dogs that are best suited to jobs on farms or the police force, and how Canine Companions for Independence (CCI), which provides assistance dogs to people with disabilities, uses it to identify the best dogs for particular service needs.
"Some skills are more important than others depending on the type of service," says Paul Mundell, CCI's CEO. "With hearing assistance dogs, a key component of the training is for them to learn to quickly and easily learn new sounds that are significant in the environment, whereas for most service dogs, we actually want to limit the amount of new things they learn, at least the new things that they're teaching themselves." For a person in a wheelchair, "we don't want independent decision-making. We want them interacting with the person in the chair and doing what they're told, like turning a light switch off and on, opening the refrigerator and get something out of it. We don't want them taking food out of the refrigerator on their own."
Through Dognition, "We can better identify the best dogs to help people," adds Hare, but he's just as excited about the implications for the average pet owner.
"What people can take away from the show is there are different types of intelligence. There's not one that's higher or better than the other. Perhaps there's something your dog does that you aren't even aware of that's incredibly intelligent; they're relying on a different skill. Different dogs have different strategies, and we can help you figure that out."