Ansprechpartner

Dr. Juliane Bräuer

Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig

Phone: +49 341 3550-413
Fax: +49 341 3550-119

Behavioural Biology . Cognitive Science

Over the years, the two researchers have gotten to know some particularly gifted dogs that not only are very good at interpreting human gestures and looks, but that also have an astonishing passive vocabulary. “Some can identify several hundred objects by name,” says Kaminski. The unbeaten champion in this particular discipline was Rico, a nine-year-old Border Collie who could recognize and classify over 200 toys by name.

Dogs not only bring objects that are indicated to them by name, they can also distinguish known from unknown objects by a process of exclusion, and in this way learn new words. On request, they also retrieve objects that are shown to them in photos or as miniatures. Zoom Image
Dogs not only bring objects that are indicated to them by name, they can also distinguish known from unknown objects by a process of exclusion, and in this way learn new words. On request, they also retrieve objects that are shown to them in photos or as miniatures. [less]

Kaminski and her colleagues carried out a study to investigate whether Rico could learn the names of new toys through a process of exclusion. To this end, they distributed new and known toys in a room while the collie waited in an adjacent room with his owner. He was then asked to bring a toy to the owner, the name of which he had never heard and which he had never seen before. Rico did, in fact, solve this task right off the bat, dismissing another theoretical human USP in one fell swoop: this manner of learning labels for objects, which is known as fastmapping, was also previously considered to be an exclusively human skill.

What dogs reveal about humans

As further studies revealed, Rico is a particularly gifted linguist, but his talent is by no means unique in the canine world. Other representatives of his species almost equaled him in terms of vocabulary. The fact that the best results were achieved by other Border Collies gave the researchers some food for thought. Whether this talent is a particular feature of the Border Collie breed is a fascinating question that remains open, reports Susanne Mauritz. “However, we avoid the term intelligence when we speak about our research.”

Instead, the focus is on identifying the special cognitive capacities that an animal species possesses and that are necessary for its survival. This is, above all, a question of specialization and evolutionary adaptation. For example, although dogs mostly achieved better results than other animal species in the studies on human-dog communication, they encountered greater difficulties in studies that required social learning through imitation or the resolution of problems by understanding causal links.

The apes, however, performed particularly well in these tests. When the researcher shook the container containing the reward, it was immediately clear to the ape that there had to be something inside it. The dogs, on the other hand, were unable to draw conclusions about the contents from the noise. “It is easy to explain these results. They are indicative of the environment in which both species must survive,” explains Juliane Bräuer. Due to the enormous competition for food that prevails in groups of apes, an ape would never dream of showing a fellow group member a source of food. Causal understanding, however, is helpful in the search for food in the tropical forest. By shaking a nut, the ape can establish whether it is worth cracking.

Border Collies like Rico recognize hundreds of words. If other races have similar skills remains to be seen. Zoom Image
Border Collies like Rico recognize hundreds of words. If other races have similar skills remains to be seen.

Dogs, on the other hand, do not have to worry about looking for food or other problems of this nature. They live with humans who provide for their needs. It is, however, an advantage for them to understand humans as well as possible. As a result, dogs have developed into real communication professionals over the past 15,000 years.

The Leipzig-based researchers are particularly interested in cognitive talents of dogs that are otherwise found only in humans, such as understanding pointing gestures. “This particular canine skill could, perhaps, provide us with information about our own development,” hopes Bräuer. “For example, information about what natural selection may have influenced in us humans. It is very likely that we encouraged the friendly, attentive dogs who established contact with us. It is possible, therefore, that in the course of human evolution, friendly individuals succeeded in asserting themselves, thus fostering in humans an extremely pronounced willingness to cooperate.”

The question as to whether such conclusions may be drawn from the skills of the dogs remains purely speculative. However, the work being carried out by the Max Planck scientists may well help in clarifying some of the mysteries that surround human evolution.

Glossary
Cognition
Cognition means the faculty of knowledge. It refers both to the mental processes in which individuals engage, such as thoughts, opinions, desires and intentions, and to information-processing operations, such as problem-solving and language. These operations enable individuals to flexibly adapt their behaviour and to learn from their interaction with their environment.
Ontogenesis
This term describes the development of the individual and his characteristics in the biological and psychological sense. Unlike phylogenesis, which refers to the emergence and development of a species, ontogenesis it is limited to the development of the individual.
Pongoland
The Wolfgang Köhler Primate Research Center (“Pongoland”) is a project of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and is operated in collaboration with the Leipzig Zoo. The research carried out at the Center focuses on the behaviour and cognition of the four species of great apes: chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and bonobos. Not only can visitors to the zoo observe the animals in interior and exterior enclosures, they can also observe the work being carried out by the scientists.

 
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