By Ashley Yeager

Brian Hare and Evan MacLean, co-directors of Duke's Canine Cognition Center, play with Lilu, a labradoodle. Credit: Ashley Yeager, Duke.

Brian Hare and Evan MacLean, co-directors of Duke’s Canine Cognition Center, play with Lilu, a labradoodle. Credit: Ashley Yeager, Duke.

Lilu, a beautiful brown poodle-labradoodle mix, couldn’t sit still. Scents of pizza and peanut butter dog treats and the sights of new people easily distracted her.

The ADD behavior could be one trait that made her fail out of service-dog training.

“Six out of every ten dogs wash out of service training. But it’s hard right now for scientists to understand why,” said Duke evolutionary anthropologist Evan MacLean, co-director of the university’s Canine Cognition Center.

He, along with biological anthropologist Brian Hare and geneticist Misha Angrist spoke about ‘Genes, Brains and Games’ in man’s best friend as part of the Science and Society Journal Club on April 26.

MacLean and Hare explained that dogs have taken on many jobs in human society, acting as everything from pets, to our eyes and ears to being like coal-mine canaries searching for hidden bombs and missing people.

“Dog vocations require different sets of cognitive skills,” MacLean said. He studies military dogs, looking for traits that make them more suited for service tasks than pets like Lilu.

MacLean would ultimately like to identify the genetic components that underlie the characteristics suited for each type of job that a dog might do.

Scientists are interested in correlating dogs’ cognitive traits to their associated genes because the animals are “the most exquisite example of artificial selection,” Angrist said.

In Portuguese water dogs, for example, just six substitutions in individual DNA bases of the dogs explain variations in body size. In humans, nearly every gene could factor into height. It’s the same challenge that makes understanding human cognition and intelligence difficult at the genetic level.

Of course, defining cognition and intelligence at the conceptual level isn’t so clear cut either. “It’s so hard for people, journalists and the general public, to understand multiple intelligences,” Hare said.

He explained that at a basic level, cognition is the ability to make inferences, and that when we think of intelligence we think of IQ and standardized tests. These tests, however, measure only one type of intelligence. They don’t measure the ability to empathize, to verbalize a new idea or to put two completely separate ideas together to form a new one, which are other, important facets of intelligence, or really multiple intelligences.

At the Canine Cognition Center, and through the citizen science website Dognition, Hare and MacLean use standardized tests to study the variation in dogs’ intelligence. The tests, unlike the SAT or ACT, “cast a wide net across skills sets dogs could use for different vocations,” Hare said.

Dogs like Lilu, he added, are “really the hope of the world” for understanding cognition.