science | May 30, 2013

The "Extraordinary" Connection Between Dogs & Humans: Vanessa Woods

"The genius of dogs was not immediately obvious," science speaker Vanessa Woods writes in a new article. "After all, how smart can an animal be if it chases its own tail and drinks out of a toilet?" In the Live Science article (which she wrote with Brian Hare, her husband and co-author of the new book The Genius of Dogs) Woods says that IQ tests aren't a true measure of intelligence. Dogs, whose intelligence was long ignored by cognitive scientists, have developed a specific and remarkable type of intelligence not often determined through a traditional IQ test. Over time, dogs have developed the ability to flexibly read human gestures, a skill that no other species can do nearly as well as they can. Woods says that the ability to understand gestures is a key component to learning to communicate. Whether it's in the animal kingdom or the human world, interpreting gestures is the foundation of culture. The fact that dogs can do so is remarkable, Woods notes.

When you compare dogs to other animals in regards to their problem-solving abilities, the canine species doesn't rank very high by traditional intelligence measures. "But if dogs see humans solve these same problems, dogs get it right away," she says, "It’s when dogs partner with humans that they become extraordinary." In her book, The Genius of Dogs, Woods argues that understanding the unique brainpower of dogs is beneficial not only to learning about animals—but humans as well. Dogs and humans have evolved alongside each other for years, and their strong bond could possibly have contributed to the success of both species.

Woods explores the relationship between dogs and people at the Duke Canine Cognition Center, where she is the co-founder. In her keynotes, she shares her intriguing research on the complex relationships between humans and the animal kingdom. Whether it's probing into canine intelligence as a marker for human development, or, discussing how Bonobo apes (who share 98.7 percent of our DNA) could hold the key to what makes us human, Woods' speeches are an enlightening foray into understanding the planet we call home.