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Your dog is cute, cuddly, obeys commands and is quick to learn tricks. But that does not necessarily mean he’s the canine equivalent of Einstein. If you’ve ever wondered just how smart your best friend really is, the three-part series Is Your Dog a Genius? will give you some answers.

Airing over three nights as part of dog geniusNat Geo Wild’s Barkfest Weekend of dog-centric programming, the series is full of fun, interactive games that test your dog’s cognitive capabilities.

“The show talks about the best dog geniusscience relevant to how your dog thinks,” says Dr. Brian Hare, professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University, and director of the Canine Cognition Center there, and he is also the host of the series. “Other shows have done that, but what’s new and different about this is it’s based on Dognition, an online tool based on games that we’ve developed at Duke, and other scientists at Yale or Harvard have designed tests that let you find out what type of intelligence your dog has.”

“For example,” says Hare, “There’s a game where a dog watches you hide food, but you gesture toward another location indicating it’s there. Does the dog rely on its memory or you, his trusted friend? Some dogs, even though they just saw where you put it, will follow you, their owner, and others will rely on what they saw.”

“Other games measure your dog’s ability to make inferences,” he continues. “They're able to put two pieces of information together that 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 can do that.”

In his own research at Duke, Hare compared dogs to primates like bonobos and chimpanzees, humans’ closest living relatives, and discovered that dogs communicate with people more like human infants, than chimpanzees and bonobos do. He also compared dogs with their canine ancestors—wolves--to explore how and why dogs evolved like they have. “It's likely due to their cognitive abilities, that allowed dogs to take advantage and become such an important part of our society,” he genius

His findings led to the foundation of the Dognition program and its database. “When you complete Dogniton, your dog’s data is compared to every other dog’s, and you get a report explaining how it compares. You learn about your own dog and also contribute to learning about all dogs,” says Hare, who like a lot of the participants in the series, was surprised what he discovered about his own dog. “I thought my dog would be an amazing communicator, and have great memory. In fact, he has no working memory, and he’s bonded with me in a way that I didn’t understand.”

Also included in the series are real-world applications, showing how Dognition games can help a family choose the shelter dog that’s right for them. It’s been instrumental in helping Canine Companions for Independence, which provides assistance dogs to people with disabilities, identify the best dogs for particular needs. Over 200 dogs have been evaluated by the program to date.

Paul Mundell, CCI’s CEO, explains that not all service dogs are alike. 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. For hearing assistance dogs, a key component of the training is for them to easily learn new sounds, 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. There’s clearly a genetic component to it,” he adds, noting that certain breeds, like Labs and Golden Retrievers, generally make good service genius

“Some types of cognitive skills we can increase through selective breeding. How to tease that genetic component out from the relatively uniform socialization and puppy-raising and training procedures that we use, is difficult,” Mundell continues. “But by doing the Dognition tests over several generations of dogs, we hope to discover exactly how inheritable some of these different characteristics are.”dog genius

Brian Hare is excited about that prospect as well, for CCI and for working dogs that guard property and assist on farms, K-9 units in the military, law enforcement, and of course, pets everywhere.

“By measuring what dogs are capable of, we can find traits that not only might be inheritable, but actually  predicts their performance,” he says. “I think the thing to understand is dogs have more jobs than ever before. How do you pick the right dog for the right job? One of the ways you can do that is to test what type of intelligence is your dog relying on. Is your dog a great communicator?  Is your dog incredibly empathic? Is your dog capable of inferential reasoning?  Is your dog really cunning? Maybe the reason he or she never listens to you is, it knows when you're watching and not, and it uses that strategy to disobey.  Different dogs have different strategies, and we can help you figure that out.”

“Ultimately, I think what people can take away from Is Your Dog a Genius? is that dogs have different types of intelligence. There's not one that's higher or better than the other,” Hare concludes. “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. A fun way to think about it is there’s somebody sleeping in your bed that you really don’t know. We all love our dogs, but the question is, can we get to know them better?”

“In my opinion,” Hare concludes, “This is a way to get to know them much better, measure how they solve problems, compare them to other dogs......and find out what their genius is.”

Is Your Dog a Genius? airs May 15, 16 and 17 at 10 pm/ 9:00c on Nat Geo Wild. Don’t miss it! / Issue 169 - September 2018
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