Claudia Kawczynska, The Bark
B: The bond between humans and dogs exists because dogs acquired traits that resemble those of humans in many respects; could you give some examples of this? Also, can the same be said about the humans “acquiring” canine traits, or, at least, evolving differently because of dogs, such as the reduction of our olfactory senses.
VC: Dogs have indeed acquired behavioral traits that have human analogues. For example, dogs form an attachment relationship with their owners, and very likely (to some extent) with other members of their group, that resembles the way human children are attached to their mothers. Moreover, we have shown that even adult dogs [living in dog shelters] can very rapidly form attachment to humans [after only approximately 30 minutes of interaction]. The development of attachment between adults is again a human-specific trait.
There have been suggestions that dogs and humans co-evolve, but at the moment there is little clear evidence for this. One could suppose that at some point of human evolution, human groups sharing their life with dogs had some advantage over groups avoiding dogs. Dogs could have been helpful, for example, in removing [eating] garbage, providing protection during cold nights or alarming people in case of potential danger. Some of these functions can be still witnessed in tribes living at remote places in Africa and Australia.
It is, however, more difficult to provide evidence that such association was the cause for any behavioral or other changes in humans. Such evidence should rely on showing that, for example, there is a progressive trend in the difference in human remains over a long period of time when they are found together with dogs.
B: Your investigations into dogs’ ability to “read” us and having a greater aptitude than chimpanzees to comprehend human signals seem to have been conducted well before those that were reported in Science, which were conducted by Brian Hare in 2004. Why do you think that your studies did not receive the same level of recognition in this country?
VC: We started our research program in 1994. At that time nobody was working with dogs in the ethological community, so we had to develop our research methods basically by trial and error. Our first paper on human-dog communication was published in 1998 after being rejected by a leading journal because they found it “unbelievable.” In other words, the results were “too good to be true.” The editors probably never had dogs. Further, we had a far-reaching research program in mind that took time to develop, and was aimed at finding parallels for various human-specific behaviors, not just in the case of interspecies communication.
We have some connections to Hare’s group in Germany and his team was faster to get an interesting aspect of this work into Science in 2002. We, however, were more careful in our experimental design and analysis (and consequently slower), but were able to publish our observations and provide a behavioral basis for dog-wolf differences in another high-profile journal, Current Biology with our tame wolf “Minka” on its cover-page. (Current Biology 13, no. 9 : 763-767)
B: You believe that dogs ask questions. Could you give some examples of canine questioning? How do you think a dog ponders an answer to a question about a future action-the example you give is asking your dogs “Which way?”‘ while taking them on a walk.
VC: Questioning is very important in human group behavior. To pose a question is to show interest in the thoughts of someone else. Young dogs also question us: Where do we go? Which way? Who is coming? Who goes down with me? Is it permitted? And so on. If people are careful and answer the questions, it can soon become a regular method of communication with the dog. If questions do not get attention, dogs give up, just like human children.
If I go for a walk with Jerry, at a crossroads I frequently ask a question: “Which way?” If I ask, then he carefully sniffs in both directions and selects the “better” one and starts to go. If I am not posing the question, then he just follows me.
B: I also took delight in your “do as I do,” dogs imitating their humans-could you suggest an example that our readers might try with their dogs?
VC: When I tried it first with Jerry, I put a chair in the middle of my room and placed a rubber toy behind him, then I performed one of three possible actions: put the toy on the chair, go around the chair, or stand on the chair. After each performance I asked him to follow. With some help, he was successful after three to four days, three to four trials each day. After this, I moved the chair somewhere else, and requested only one action each time. When he performed the action well, I showed him new actions: place the toy into a bucket, for example. Dogs usually learn this after a week. However, the rigorous scientific training procedure is not so simple. We will have a published paper about this research soon explaining all the “tricks” in detail.
B: What do you think of Rico, the Border Collie in Germany who made the news last year because he could differentiate the names of so many different toys?
VC: In my view, the Border Collie represents a very interesting case,
suggesting that dogs indeed have the potential for fast “word” learning. Of
course, this does not mean that they could acquire language like children, but
they might have some skills for recognizing the connection between a novel
vocalization (”word”) and the presence of a novel object.