Rover's No Rocket Scientist
(he's just very well adapted)
We've all seen the bumper stickers proclaiming, "My
dog is smarter than your honors student." We've seen bomb-sniffing dogs
in action. We've heard stories about dogs alerting their owners to a
seizure or heart attack before it happens. But, what sort of intelligence
do dogs actually possess?
"I love those bumper stickers because I think everyone instantly recognizes
that there must be something wrong here: the intelligence of a dog cannot
be compared to the intelligence of a child," said Clive Wynne, UF associate
professor of psychology. Wynne has been conducting research in canine
cognition and has authored a book in the field titled Do Animals Think? "And,
that's a theme that is close to my heart: intelligence isn't a quantity,
like temperature, that different species have more or less of, it's something
that differs qualitatively between species."
Canine cognition has appeared in the news recently, featured in articles
in the New York Times, the St. Petersburg Times and the New York Post,
to name a few. And small wonder -- with 75 million dogs in the United
States, the equivalent of 40 percent of American households own a dog,
many more than have children.
"My impression is that we know far less about dogs than about children," Wynne
said. "So it doesn't surprise me that whenever we or another research
group have a result, the public wants to know about it."
Wynne and his research team are currently conducting several different
experiments to study cognition and the sociability of dogs and whether
or not their sociability changes over time. These tests involve looking
both at domesticated canines and wolves to note differences between the
groups; Wynne visits with wolves several times a year for his research.
"Wolves have intensity and focus that I find lacking in dogs," Wynne
said. "My ideal would be to live someplace where I could visit with wolves
on a daily basis."
One experiment involves testing the use of clickers, a popular form
of dog training, and whether or not it has an impact on accelerating
learned responses. Another experiment investigates how easily a dog can
learn to go to the opposite location to where a human points.
"We have found that dogs are very resistant to the idea of going where
the human is not pointing," Wynne said. "Wolves are more willing to do
Wynne's team is also studying the ability of dogs and wolves to look
at people's eyes, a concept called "eye gaze," to track whether dogs
can understand when a person can or cannot see them. In the experiment,
a dog receives a treat if the person can see them. The research has shown
that a dog's response is based on how the person's vision is obscured.
If the person's back is turned or they have a book in front of their
face, the dog will not ask for a treat. However, if the person's face
is covered in a bucket, the dog fails to understand that this means they
cannot see them and asks for a treat.
"The argument has been made that dogs are more willing to look at people's
eyes than wolves are," Wynne said. "We haven't tested wolves for this
yet, but we doubt the claimed difference between wolves and dogs will
stand up to systematic test."
"Aside from the intrinsic interest in the research itself -- which is
always new, because you never really know what is going to happen --
I like seeing how owners respond to their dog's performance," Wynne said.
Owners sometime bring two dogs to the studies, convinced that one is
smarter than the other. However, Wynne and his team often find that the
results of their tests are the opposite of what the owner expects.
Wynne and his graduate student Monique Udell first delved into canine
cognition after reading about the minds of apes, chimps, orangutans,
and gorillas, our closest animal relatives. A research project started
by European scientists 10 years ago applied cognition tests that have
been used to measure cognition of apes to dogs, and found that the dogs
responded better to many of those tests.
"Actually their thinking is not all that similar to ours -- and the
human relationship with apes is slight," he said.
Wynne was born on the Isle of Wight, a small island off the south coast
of England. He did his undergraduate studies in Human Sciences at University
College London. He then received his Ph.D. in psychology from the University
"I learned a lot in Edinburgh," Wynne said, "but I rate my experiences
as a post-doc as even more important to my development as a scientist."
As a post-doctoral student, he worked under Juan Delius in Germany and
John Staddon at Duke. Delius had studied under Niko Tinbergen, the most
important European figure in the study of animals in their natural environment;
Staddon had studied at behaviorist B. F. Skinner's lab at Harvard. "I
had the good fortune to have mentors in both the North American and European
traditions of studying animal behavior and I consider that plurality
to be one of my strengths," Wynne said.
Since moving to the United States, Wynne has not owned any dogs. However,
he enjoys the day-to-day benefits of seeing his subjects' interactions.
"Dogs bring a lot of pleasure to a lot of people, and probably provide
some health benefits," Wynne said. "I would like to contribute to maximizing
the upside and minimizing the downside of dog keeping."
Wynne hopes his research will help people learn more about how dogs
react to humans. This may lead to the prevention of dog attacks, especially
"I have contemplated working directly on what factors precipitate dog
attacks, but this would be rather dangerous research," Wynne said, "so,
I'm sticking to basic factors about dogs' reactions to people."
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