Genius of dogs (the)

Hare Genius of dogsAUTHORS: Brian Hare & Vanessa Woods


SUMMARY: An informal journey through the research into canine cognitive abilities, with some philosophical and societal discussions.

AUDIENCE: You won’t need to know scientific/technical jargon to follow the book, but it goes waaaaay beyond what a the average dog owner is looking for. So I would position it more as an education tool for dog professionals who want to brush up on dog cognition research.

02 Professional


Credit where it’s due

The book is written so damned well it’s impossible to put down. It is sharp, informal and precise in just the right doses. And it’s exploded a few intellectual bombs in me, giving me these delightful ‘ha haaa’ moments where the last few obscure pieces of the puzzle click together.

The authors integrate the results of each study they review (mostly their own research) into:

  1. The big picture: profound points about dogs’ cognitive abilities; and
  2. The mundane: shedding light on dogs’ quirky little habits.

They also approach controversial societal topics like breed-related legislation with balance and wit.

Potential points for improvement

In my view, the book overreaches for conclusions on Dr Hare’s findings into pointing gestures.

The authors position the cognitive revolution (a current in behaviour research which focuses on animals’ cognition and emotions) as mutually exclusive with behaviourism, when the two are not mutually exclusive (behaviourism should be one of the elements informing the cognitive approach). This compatibility is not stressed enough in the book, in my view. The book also seem to conflate dog trainers as fundamentalist behaviourists. But extreme behaviourists are, in my line of work, thankfully few and far between and most of us use a cognitive approach to dog behaviour. This takes a reductionistic approach to dog training, in my view.

As a trained applied behaviourist and zoologist, I am ‘a child of both schools’ (if you accept the dichotomy in the first place.) But modern trainers, zoology background or not, integrate biological predisposition, emotions and cognitive abilities into their protocols. Long gone are the days of arrogant behaviourists claiming they could change any behaviour in any animal. Let’s conclude my soapbox moment with Martin and Batesman’s observation (in “Measuring behaviour“) that all the sub-disciplines of behaviour research are merging, and that they are complementary to each other. I hope to see the day where neuroscientists, cognition researchers, and behaviourists play together nicely and share their toys.


I whole-heartedly recommend this book, but, as with every book, do keep your critical thinking hat on.

So, aside from a couple of dark clouds in the sky it read well, it was chock-full of new did-you-knows, and, above all, it made me think… What more can I ask?

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Author: Hare Brian, Woods Vanessa
Genre: pop science
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