Clive Wynne: Hello, I’m Clive Wynne, Director of the Canine Science Laboratory at Arizona State University. 

When I was a kid we had a dog. Benji was his name. There was­n’t real­ly any­thing that remark­able about Benji. He was just an ordi­nary, small­ish, brownish-blackish shel­ter mutt. He stole any food we left out. Sometimes he dis­ap­peared for days on end. He was one naughty boy. But there was one thing about Benji that kept us loy­al to him. He loved us. When my broth­er and I came home from school, we would plonk our­selves down on the sofa, and we would hear and then see Benji charg­ing in from the back gar­den. About ten feet back from us, he would launch him­self up into the air and he’d land on our shoul­ders and heads, and he’d thwack us with his hap­py wag­ging tail and kiss us. And all three of us would squeal in delight to be reunit­ed. That was the spe­cial thing about Benji. He did­n’t keep his love but­toned up. It shone out of every pore in his lit­tle body. 

I grew up on the Isle of Wight, an island about twenty-five miles long, fif­teen miles wide off the south coast of England. I went to col­lege in London, and I got my PhD at a Edinburgh University in Scotland. I was thrilled to find that there was such a thing as the sci­en­tif­ic study of ani­mal minds. What kinds of intel­li­gence do dif­fer­ent species have? How are they like us, and how are they different? 

In any decent uni­ver­si­ty, the psy­chol­o­gy depart­ment has at least a cou­ple of peo­ple study­ing the intel­li­gence of oth­er species. Usually the ani­mals they study are pret­ty small. They have to fit into the space avail­able. Animals like rats and pigeons. Early on I got bit­ten by a rat. So I main­ly con­cen­trat­ed on pigeons. But I found my inter­est in ani­mal behav­ior burst­ing beyond the bounds of what I could study in a lab. I real­ized I want­ed to not just under­stand ani­mal behav­ior, but under­stand the rela­tion­ship between peo­ple and oth­er species. And I could­n’t real­ly do that with pigeons. I cast around for an ani­mal the would let me real­ize the full range of what I want­ed to under­stand about human-animal relationships. 

And I have to admit that in ret­ro­spect it could’ve tak­en me so long to fig­ure out that I need­ed to be study­ing dogs. Dogs have tremen­dous­ly rich behav­ior. There are dogs that sniff out can­cer and con­tra­band. There are dogs that know the mean­ing of hun­dreds of words. There are dogs that help blind peo­ple cross busy city streets. Dogs have amaz­ing behav­ior. But more than that, for any­one inter­est­ed in peo­ples’ rela­tion­ships with ani­mals, there is no ani­mal with which peo­ple have had such a rich and long rela­tion­ship as the dog. Dogs and peo­ple have been liv­ing togeth­er for well over ten thou­sand years. 

Of course I was­n’t the first psy­chol­o­gist to think of study­ing dogs. Does the name Pavlov ring a bell? After a long absence from sci­ence, in the ear­ly 2000s dogs were mak­ing a come­back. The new wave of dog psy­cho­log­i­cal research was­n’t inter­est­ed in why dogs might slob­ber when some­body rings a bell. These new sci­en­tists have big­ger fish to fry. Early in this new cen­tu­ry, sci­en­tists start­ed claim­ing that dogs, because of their domes­ti­ca­tion in close prox­im­i­ty to peo­ple, had devel­oped new forms of intel­li­gence not seen any­where else in the ani­mal king­dom. These sci­en­tists argued that dogs have evolved to under­stand human actions and inten­tions much as how we under­stand each oth­er. Furthermore they argued that these abil­i­ties were appar­ent in the youngest pups that they could test, and that no oth­er animal—not even the wolf, which is the ances­tor of all our mod­ern dog breeds, or the chim­panzee which is our human clos­est ances­tor, none of these oth­er ani­mals could achieve what dogs could do. 

Now at first, the stud­ies my stu­dents and I car­ried out con­firmed what these oth­er sci­en­tists have found. We too found that if you point at a con­tain­er on the ground, your dog will go to the loca­tion that you have point­ed to. We too found that if you give a dog a choice of two peo­ple to beg from, one per­son who can clear­ly see the dog and anoth­er per­son whose back is turned, we also found that the dog will choose to go to the per­son who can see him. In both these sim­ple exper­i­ments, which you can eas­i­ly try for your­self at home, we found that dogs’ suc­cess­es were tak­en to mean that the dogs under­stood that peo­ple have minds, just as we under­stand and our chil­dren even at a very ear­ly age under­stand that dif­fer­ent peo­ple have dif­fer­ent con­tents in their minds and know and under­stand dif­fer­ent things. These exper­i­ments were tak­en to show that dogs, unique­ly among all species, share this human abil­i­ty to under­stand what oth­er indi­vid­u­als have in their minds. Now, this made dogs com­plete­ly unique among all the ani­mals that have been tested. 

Our own view of the things that dogs can do began to change when we branched out from just test­ing peo­ple’s pets. First we were invit­ed to Wolf Park in Indiana to test hand-reared wolves. Testing wolf behav­ior is tremen­dous­ly impor­tant in this project if we want to under­stand what domes­ti­ca­tion has done to dogs. Because all dogs are descend­ed from wolves. 

To our very con­sid­er­able sur­prise, the wolves at Wolf Park were every bit as good in these tests as any­body’s dog that we had test­ed. At first this was all very con­tro­ver­sial. But grad­u­al­ly oth­er research groups have con­firmed that hand-reared wolves can be just as good at fol­low­ing human actions and inten­tions as are any dogs. So this showed the what­ev­er dogs are doing, it was not some­thing that was bred into them dur­ing domes­ti­ca­tion, because their wild rel­a­tives can do it too. 

Then peo­ple start­ed study­ing more species, more diverse species, and there was quite con­sid­er­able suc­cess with these oth­er ani­mals. We our­selves car­ried out a study on bats. Hand-reared bats were just as good at fol­low­ing human point­ing ges­tures as were dogs, as were wolves. This and many oth­er stud­ies on many oth­er species showed that what mat­ters for suc­cess on these kinds of tasks is how the ani­mal is raised and not what species it belongs to. 

One oth­er sur­pris­ing ear­ly result that we found was that dogs liv­ing in ani­mal shel­ters per­formed very poor­ly on these kinds of tasks. Even though we chose dogs at shel­ters that seemed very hap­py to be play­ing with us, not a sin­gle one was inclined to fol­low a sim­ple human point­ing ges­ture. And we were able to show that this was­n’t any­thing to do with some kind of genet­ic defect in these dogs. It was just that dogs liv­ing in shel­ters lack recent expe­ri­ence around peo­ple where the move­ment of peo­ple’s limbs pre­dicts that things that are valu­able to the dog are about to occur. 

All of this led us to reassess what we were being told by oth­ers about dog intel­li­gence. We real­ized there was noth­ing spe­cial about dogs when it came to their intel­lect. Dogs were just doing what any ani­mal would that had been raised around peo­ple and is com­plete­ly depen­dent on peo­ple for the ful­fill­ment of all of its needs. Dogs pay close atten­tion to every­thing peo­ple do that pro­duces an out­come that mat­ters to the dog. There’s no spe­cial intel­li­gence involved in doing that. 

Several years of research like this, debunk­ing suc­ces­sive­ly one claim for dogs’ unique­ly human-like intel­li­gence after anoth­er, gave me a bit of a rep­u­ta­tion. One jour­nal­ist called me the Debbie Downer” of canine cog­ni­tion research. I did­n’t mind. I had­n’t got involved in this to win some kind of pop­u­lar­i­ty con­test. And yet there was some­thing that nagged at me. Dogs might not pos­sess spe­cial forms of intel­li­gence, but I still thought there was some­thing remark­able about dogs. But what was it? Some of our stud­ies began to give me an inkling. 

In one exper­i­ment, we gave dogs a choice between two peo­ple. One per­son pro­vid­ed treats, the oth­er per­son just pro­vid­ed pet­ting. Now, not sur­pris­ing­ly, if the per­son pro­vid­ing treats hand­ed out the treats as quick­ly as she could, the dogs pre­ferred to stay with the per­son who was hand­ing out treats. But if the per­son hand­ing out the treats slowed down even a lit­tle bit, the dog start­ed pre­fer­ring to spend time with the per­son who was giv­ing pets and praise. 

Another study was one of the very sim­plest we ever attempt­ed. We just had a per­son sit in a chair and we marked out a one-meter cir­cle around that chair, and then we let a famil­iar dog come into the room for two min­utes. And we sim­ply mea­sured what por­tion of a two-minute inter­val did the dog spend inside this one-meter cir­cle as close to the per­son as they could. And we went back out to Wolf Park in Indiana and we repeat­ed this test with hand-reared wolves and the per­son in the chair was a per­son who was very famil­iar to the wolves—a friend of the wolves. 

Now, when we did the exper­i­ment with wolves, out of the two minutes—that’s 120 seconds—the wolves chose to spend around twenty-five sec­onds inside the cir­cle with the famil­iar per­son. When we did the exper­i­ment with dogs, the dogs spend every sec­ond of the two min­utes. They spent a full 120 sec­onds inside the cir­cle with this per­son. A per­son who was­n’t giv­ing them any­thing tan­gi­ble at all, noth­ing but praise and pet­ting, but that is what they want­ed; that’s what mat­tered to them. 

And that’s when the pen­ny dropped. In dif­fer­ent ways, these stud­ies show the exact same thing. And actu­al­ly, we all know what’s remark­able about dogs. Dogs have a tremen­dous capac­i­ty to form rela­tion­ships with mem­bers of oth­er species. I want to call this hyper­so­cia­bil­i­ty. Now a biol­o­gist might call it…social promis­cu­ity. But the truth is we might as well call it love. Dogs have an exag­ger­at­ed, ebul­lient, capac­i­ty for love. Our very lat­est research is even uncov­er­ing the genes that under­lie this exag­ger­at­ed capac­i­ty for love in dogs. 

Sometimes I find it slight­ly embar­rass­ing. After all these years of try­ing to study ani­mal intel­li­gence in the most hard-nosed way I could think of, I find it slight­ly embar­rass­ing to have to admit the what actu­al­ly makes dogs spe­cial is some­thing as sop­py as affec­tion. But I can live with that. Because it’s also tremen­dous­ly emo­tion­al­ly sat­is­fy­ing to real­ize that what I expe­ri­enced with Benji all those years ago was a real thing. It was the true essence of the dog-human relationship. 

I’m not sug­gest­ing that there are dif­fer­ences between dog love and human love. But what’s so won­der­ful is that there’s enough over­lap that dogs and peo­ple can live togeth­er in a very rich and reward­ing way. Dogs for exam­ple, they don’t actu­al­ly run and get help when chil­dren fall down wells. Trust me, a research group in Canada actu­al­ly car­ried out that exper­i­ment. It was mild­ly mod­i­fied so that no chil­dren were harmed, but they did test whether dogs would try and get help when an impor­tant per­son appeared to be in dif­fi­cul­ty. And they don’t. 

Dogs find it eas­i­er to form new bonds than peo­ple do. They are more read­i­ly able and will­ing to move on to new rela­tion­ships. And that’s actu­al­ly a very good thing. Abandoned dogs can be very hap­pi­ly rehomed. If the orig­i­nal sto­ry of Lassie, the book, which is the sto­ry of a dog that near­ly died three times strug­gling over hun­dreds of miles to get home to her orig­i­nal fam­i­ly, if that sto­ry were true, then the mil­lions of adop­tions of dogs from shelters—dogs most of whom had already lived in a human family—those would­n’t work out as well as they cer­tain­ly do. 

Our cur­rent dog came to us after a year of liv­ing with anoth­er fam­i­ly. Recently, just as an exper­i­ment, I said the name I know that she had for that peri­od of her life. I hon­est­ly was­n’t sure how she’d react. Thyra?” I said. Thyra?” She did­n’t even look at me. And then I said the name that she enjoys in her life with us, and she came run­ning towards me with the bound­less love that char­ac­ter­izes her kind.

Xephos? Xephos? [A black dog runs on-stage.] Yay, there you are sweet­ie! You’re such a star.