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Canine Smarts: Behavioral Science Turns to Dogs for Answers

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For a long time, domesticated dogs were seen as just the slobbering, dumbed-down ancestor of the wild wolf. Dogs, though, have learned a few tricks of their own through the millennia -- and can teach us a lot about ourselves.

Guinness the border collie loves the program. Flip on the monitor, and she can sit for hours watching the colorful images flitting across the screen -- like a teenager in front of a Playstation. As soon as the images change she presses the touch screen with her nose. If she selects the correct one of two photos, a piece of dry dog food automatically drops down to her feet. If she selects the wrong one, the screen turns red for a moment, and then the exercise continues.

Guinness, though, rarely makes mistakes. She can identify different landscapes, and picking out dog breeds, likewise, doesn't present much of a challenge. She's even adept at choosing human faces. "It's only when she is supposed to recognize the same face in different photos that she makes a lot of mistakes," explains Friederike Range, a biologist at the University of Vienna.

Guinness isn't the only dog able to master these image experiments. Since the university's "Clever Dog Lab" opened its doors in a ground floor apartment in Vienna's Ninth District in April, the city's dog owners have inundated the place. "So far only one or two animals have shown no interest in the computer," says Range. "For most of them it's a blast."

What may seem like simple amusement for Guinness and her fellow canines is in fact revolutionizing cognitive research. Range is the first animal researcher to attempt to lure domestic dogs to a touch screen. Scientists in her field have spent decades working with pigeons pecking at pictures, conversing with apes using brightly colored touch symbols, and listening in on the grunting noises made by seals. But the talents of Canis familiaris remained largely unexplored.

Smarter than Apes?

For serious scientists, Lassie and her friends were deemed little more than dumbed-down ancestors of the wolf, degenerated into panting morons by millennia of breeding. But a younger generation of researchers has set out to restore the reputations of our beloved pets. "Dogs can do things that we long believed only humans had mastered," says Juliane Kaminski of the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Evolutionary Anthropology in the eastern German city of Leipzig.

It is precisely their proximity to people -- which disqualified our four-legged friends as a model for so long -- that now makes them interesting to animal researchers. "When it comes to understanding human behavior, no mammal comes even close to the dog," says Kaminski. Her Leipzig research team has demonstrated that dogs are far better than the supposedly clever apes at interpreting human gestures.

The researchers held two containers, one empty and the other containing food, in front of chimpanzees and dogs. Then they pointed to the correct container. The canines understood the gesture immediately, while the apes, genetically much more closely related to humans, were often perplexed by the pointing finger.

That's not all. Many dogs were even capable of interpreting the researcher's gaze. When the scientists looked at a container, the dogs would search inside for food, but when they looked in the direction of the container but focused on a point above it on the wall, the dogs were able to understand that this was not meant as a sign.

Follow the Finger

Dogs are so geared toward communication with people that it seems to run in their genes. For a still-unpublished study, Kaminski and her fellow researchers repeated the pointing experiment with six-week-old puppies. Astonishingly, even the puppies understood immediately that it was worth investigating the area the human finger was pointing to.

"Puppies are still with their mother at six weeks. The phase in which they are most susceptible to human influence only begins after that," explains Kaminski. Her conclusion is that the animals must already have the innate ability to interpret human gestures.

In a complex experiment, Adám Miklósi, a biologist at the Hungarian Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest and one of the pioneers of modern dog research, demonstrated that wolves, on the other hand, lack these communicative abilities, nor are they capable of learning them. He had 13 of his students each raise one wolf puppy. The students fed the wolves with bottles, took them home and onto the subway, and taught them to walk on a leash and respond to basic commands.

After a few months the researchers had the young wolves and a group of young dogs attempt the same task. First both groups were taught to remove a piece of meat from a container. After a while, the investigators closed the containers. While the young wolves kept trying to get to the food, the dogs stopped immediately, sat down in front of their human trainers and stared at them.

"The wolves were only interested in the meat," says Miklósi, "and, of course, so were the dogs, but apparently they knew that they would reach their goal more quickly by communicating with the people."

MPI researcher Kaminski believes "that dogs can show us how simple mechanisms can enable highly complex understanding." Human beings also had to learn highly developed communication over the course of the millennia, which leads the MPI researchers to hope that the dog can in fact teach his owners a great deal about their own history. "If two remotely related species have similar characteristics, they probably developed as a result of comparable evolutionary processes," says Michael Tomasello, one of Kaminski's colleagues.

Even more attractive for researchers: dogs are easy to study. "The great advantage of dogs is that we can study them in their natural habitat without any great effort," explains Adám Miklósi.

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