Sci + Society,

#195: Dognition

August 25, 2017

I’m not a dog person.  I’m not a cat person.

I’m an evolution person. 

But that simple fact kind of forces me to be a dog/cat person.  Because the science of animal domestication is fascinating.  It’s a rare but highly-visible instance where we can see the change of animal species in non-geologic time.  In the case of dogs, it was the splintering of an ancestral line of wolves into the countless breeds of dogs that now grace the pages of Dog Fancy Magazine.

But “splinter” is the wrong word.  That makes it sounds like something large breaking into smaller pieces.  In the case of wolves either self-domesticating or being domesticated into dogs (the answer depends on who you ask), what actually happened was more like a flowering.  Or an explosion.

The raw number of dogs on the world is startling.  Current estimates put their total number at around a half-billion — equivalent to the world’s total human population in the year 1650.  This may sound like dogs are lagging far behind us, but consider two things:

  1. Hundreds of billions of them get free room and board for life.

    They also have people who clean up their poo for them.

  2. Compared to their origin species — the wolf — dogs crush the competition in total numbers.

    Domestication has been one of the most genetically effective tricks pulled off by any species in the modern era.

Man’s Best Friend is Built to Love.

Dogs love people.  Arguably, as much as other people do.  Dogs love people the way that bees love flowers — or, almost.  It turns out that there is a critical “imprinting period” during which young dogs must be exposed to human presence, or the dogs will remain forever wild.  Literally un-tame-able.  (Research conducted in the mid-twentieth century confirmed this unequivocally, but sadly led to the euthanizing of many perpetually unmanageable dogs.)

This imprinting period is of much greater length in dogs than in wolves — but wolves have it, too.  This shouldn’t be surprising, because wolves and dogs remain part of the same species, biologically speaking.  (Try telling that to your local Animal Control Officer.)

According to Dr. Clive Wynne, most of the differences we see in dogs versus their wolfish cousins derive from the fact that dogs — in Peter Pan fashion — maintain the features and mentality of juvenile wolves all through their lives.  A dog is wolf whose genes refuse to let it grow up.

Dr. Monique Udell, an Animal Behaviorist at Oregon State University, studies the differences (and the similarities) between dogs and wolves, including the approaches that each take to problem solving, social learning, and submission to human authority.  She paints a picture of dogs as a pretty laid-back species, un-self-consciously waiting on humans to solve their problems for them.  Kind of like a canine Marie Antoinette.

In Episode #195, both Wynne and Udell combine to provide a tag-team interview on almost everything you might have wondered about your dog’s innermost mind.  (The kind of questions you just can’t ask your dog without getting a cock-headed stare and a confused bark in reply.)

Read Full Transcript
Show Notes
  • 00:00:36

    Episode introduction: Dognition.

  • 00:01:49

    This Week in Neuroscience: Is Creativity Heritable?

  • 00:05:01

    5-Star review shout-outs.

  • 00:05:54

    Smart Drug Smarts news and updates.

  • 00:07:25

    Guest introductions: Dr. Clive Wynne and Dr. Monique Udell.

  • 00:08:59

    Interview begins: The rise of man's best friend.

  • 00:10:45

    Resident wolves.

  • 00:14:00

    Dogs are a subspecies of wolves; dog breeding.

  • 00:15:20

    Modern dog breeds.

  • 00:15:50

    Domestication of dogs.

  • 00:16:30

    Recent studies on cognition in dogs.

  • 00:16:45

    Dogs and juvenile behavior.

  • 00:19:00

    Dog breeding and cognitive differences in dog breeds.

  • 00:23:44

    Misconceptions about the ways in which dogs think.

  • 00:25:45

    Research using the "unsolvable task."

  • 00:29:24

    Critical period for social imprinting.

  • 00:34:41

    Perceptual differences in humans and dogs.

  • 00:39:58

    Dogs bred for specific types of behaviors.

  • 00:40:44

    Sight hounds and scent hounds.

  • 00:41:26

    Pug brain study.

  • 00:44:28

    Dogs and success.

  • 00:46:30

    Dmitry Belyayev and fox experiments.

  • 00:48:45

    Why don't we breed for things that really matter?

  • 00:49:10

    Dog friendliness.

  • 00:50:45

    Interview wrap-up.

  • 00:52:10

    Ruthless Listener Retention Gimmick: Natural language and dog directed speech.

  • 00:55:29

    Episode wrap-up.

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