Saturday, April 23, 2005

Uplifting the dog

Print: The Chronicle: 4/15/2005: Clever Canines

With the remarkable exception of a Vernor Vinge novel, dog-like critters don't get much play in science fiction. Dogs don't get no respect. So when David Brin wrote the "uplift" series about cognitively enhanced cetaceans, he didn't mention dogs. Meanwhile, in the real world, canines are being "uplifted"...
Clever Canines
Did domestication make dogs smarter?
Budapest, Hungary

Vilmos Csányi's department has literally gone to the dogs. Canines have the run of the place, greeting visitors in the hall, checking up on faculty members in their offices, or cavorting with one another in classrooms overlooking the Danube River, six floors below.

And, not infrequently, they go to work in the laboratories, where Mr. Csányi and his colleagues are trying to determine just how much canine brains are capable of...

... Mr. Csányi's team has been studying canine cognition for the past decade and, in the process, has built a body of experimental evidence that suggests dogs have far greater mental capabilities than scientists have previously given them credit for. "Our experiments indicate a high level of social understanding in dogs," he says.

In their relationship with humans, dogs have developed remarkable interspecies-communications skills, says Mr. Csányi. "They easily accept a membership in the family, they can predict social events, they provide and request information, obey rules of conduct, and are able to cooperate and imitate human actions," he says. His research even suggests that dogs can speculate on what we are thinking.

The latest findings to come out of the department suggest that dogs' barks have evolved into a relatively sophisticated way of communicating with humans. Adam Miklósi, an ethology professor, set out in a recent experiment to see if humans can interpret what dogs mean when they bark. He recruited 90 human volunteers and played them 21 recordings of barking Hungarian mudis, a herding breed.

The recordings captured dogs in seven situations, such as playing with other dogs, anticipating food, and encountering an intruder. The people showed strong agreement about the emotional meaning of the various barks, regardless of whether they owned a mudi or another breed of dog, or had never owned a dog. Owners and nonowners were also equally successful at deducing the situation that had elicited the barks, guessing correctly in a third of the situations, or about double the rate of chance.

... dogs' interest in communicating with humans to solve problems appeared to be innate, probably an evolutionary byproduct of their domestication, says Mr. Csányi...
I've written about this before. The canine is a very interesting genus; remarkably adaptive to its host (us). We may best understand ourselves by better understanding them. Sometime I must write about my not- entirely-in-fun theory that dogs created civilization by allowing women and geeks to defend themselves against the alpha male.

I've only known one dog very well. I never got the feeling that she was sentient in the same sort of way I think I am, but she was certainly a person.

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