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Dog Emotion and Cognition

Brian Hare, Ph. D., Duke University

In this on-line course from Duke University, Brian Hare teaches us about dog evolution and domestication, dog cognitive abilities, dog-wolves differences and dog aggression from a scientific viewpoint.

It is based on and uses as support, Brian’s book, The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think ( and uses Dognition exercises (  as labs activity were you can play games designed by scientists with your dog and get  a profile report that gives you individualized insight into the cognitive strategies your dog employs and compare the results with other dogs.

It takes about 10 to 15 hours of lectures by Brian Hare and assessments to complete.
This course is available free online and it is possible to earn official certificate for a small fee (49US$).

I completed this course in about 2 weeks and liked it very much. It is very interesting and well built. Brian Hare is a very good and motivating teacher.

p.s. :data from Dognition is available at:

Here is a summary.




Hare defines cognition as the mind flexibly solving problems. He specifies that a complex behaviour is not necessarily cognitive. Some examples are insects that build complex things but whose behaviors are inflexible.

Cognition is formed from a multitude of different abilities such as navigation, memory social learning, inhibitory control, empathy, etc.  Cognitive approach considers that each species and each individual possesses a combination of these abilities at different levels, each species have a profile of these abilities and each individual have a specific profile of these abilities.


In Dognition, his citizen science project, he enrolled via Internet many thousands of persons that evaluate their dogs using standardised games (tests). For each dog, Dognition produces a profile (see sample profiles at:

The data collected made him discover that:

As a scientist, he favors scientific experimentation to reveal the inner working of the animal mind. The same behaviour can result from very different cognitions. Systematic experimentation can precise what mental processes are involved.

He is interested by an ecological approach to cognition: evolution. The ecological approach to cognition considers that cognition is not a uni-dimensional trait that can be called “intelligence”. Intelligence is composed of many abilities. Asking which species is more intelligent, is like asking what is a better tool? A hammer or a screwdriver? The best one can be one or the other: it all depends of the situation.


Social intelligence hypothesis

Humans are experts at reading other’s social cues as early as 14 months old. Experiments with dogs revealed that dogs too are good at reading social cues. Dogs can use information from humans when they are pointing or gazing at objects. Dogs can also use information from other dogs. Dogs are remarkably better than apes at this. Dogs are also better than wolves and foxes at this. Belyaev selected foxes that were least fearful from humans and breeded them together for many generations (45 years). The result was that those foxes did not only changed behaviorally but also changed morphogically (floppy ears, curly tails, piebald coat, etc). Domesticated foxes from Belyaev’s breeding program ( and were methodologically tested and it revealed that domesticated foxes were better than control foxes at using human gesture.  This ability probably evolved during domestication; it is the domestication hypothesis.

Dogs demonstrate to have theory of mind: they are able to think about the thoughts of other (


Artificial vs self-domestication

Brian responds to the question “How did dogs evolve from a feared predator into a trusted companion?”  with the theory that wolves and humans have competed for food for 50, 000 years, wolves were eradicated by humans in Europe. He believes it is unlikely that the first dog evolved from wolves due to humans breeding wolves together and selecting better ones. It is more likely that wolves who were scavenging from humans self–domesticated themselves. The wolves that were scared by humans had access to the more and the best waste, so they were the most likely to survive and reproduce.  This theory is also well described by Raymond Coppinger in his book, Dogs, A New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior and Evolution ( ). Coppinger supports this theory with observations he made of many groups of dogs living from human dumps around the world. Artificial selection of dogs by breeding 2 dogs is a recent phenomenon. In many countries, dogs still live like they used to live earlier: they are freely roaming, they eat from human waste and they breed freely. Some of them considered better than others, are adopted by humans who feed them and use them at different tasks.  The selection is made after the pups are born rather than before.

The self-domestication hypothesis would also apply to humans that would not have evolved without increase in tolerance and decrease in aggressiveness. Morphological changes support this theory.


Dog cognition research on the rise

Scientists around the word are doing more and more research about dog cognition. It was discovered that dogs can do fascinating things:


We also learned that:


Dogs vs wolves

Dogs and wolves evolved form a common ancestor. Dogs are not wolves; here are some differences:




Tolerant of strangers



Cooperative breeders (mating pairs working together to raise the pups)



Cooperative breeders (adults in pack working together to raise and protects the youngs)



Cooperative hunters




Relaxed hierarchy

Strict linear hierarchy

Relation with humans

Cooperation; excellent hunting companions

Competition with humans.


Dog aggression

Dog aggression is a serious problem in the U.S. (4,7 million people bitten by dogs in the US every year; half the children in the US have been bitten by the age of 12).  Using data and logical analysis, Hare demistifyes beliefs about pitbulls being more dangerous than other dogs.  He explains that the belief that pitbulls have a biting force of 1,800 pounds per square inch is not scientifically founded. He explains that white male children under the age of 10 are the most susceptible to be bitten, most often when they come in contact with dog’s food or possessions. Most aggressive dogs are large dogs and male dogs are more likely to bite than female dogs. Hare says that breed specific legislations are doomed for failure because dogs can be bred very quickly to be more aggressive.


Teaching Genius

Behaviorism considers that:

Ecological approach to cognition considers that:

Hare teaches us that dog cognition can work against trainers and that understanding dog cognition can help us design new learning strategies.


Going further (my suggestions):

Dr. Brian Hare

The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think, Brian Hare

The Brilliance of the Dog Mind

Family Dog Project

Theory of mind in dogs? Examining method and concept
Alexandra Horowitz


Louis Cimon
July 2015