Monday, September 10, 2007

Canine cognition - at last, respect

Ten years ago I was a bit frustrated that dogs weren't getting much respect as a fascinating species*. Co-evolved with their human symbiotes, they likely altered human evolution even as they evolved at a terrific pace. Fantastic phenotypic plasticity, extreme variation in aging rates ... this is an animal worth understanding (affectionately, of course).

Now canine studies are everywhere, including a German institution specializing in canine cognition ...
Canine Smarts: Behavioral Science Turns to Dogs for Answers - International - SPIEGEL ONLINE - New...

... 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."
Border collies in particular, and working dogs in general, have been found to be unusually smart. Interestingly, changes in dog rearing practices may be elevating demonstrated canine IQ. Dogs are being raised more like children, and they're getting smarter as a result.

Dog owners are eager to demonstrate the brilliance of their canine masters. Of course a smart dog is not necessarily an unalloyed gift; our Kateva is brilliantly subtle at stealing food and is almost never caught in the act.

I wonder how far they'll go ...

* Many animals show up in science fiction stories -- but never dogs. Apparently they're left behind on earth. The one noteworthy exception is Vernor Vinge, who did a wonderful job of imagining a world of sentient dogs (of course they were supposed to be some dog-like alien critter rather than the human canine, but we know what he was up to).

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