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Alumni Perspective: Dr. Brian Hare

Dr. Brian Hare, Co-Founder of Dognition

Dr. Brian Hare is associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University in North Carolina As a 2004 Sofja Kovalevskaja Award winner, Dr. Hare founded the Hominoid Psychology Research Group while at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, and subsequently founded the Duke Canine Cognition Center when arriving at Duke University. Dr. Hare is the co-founder of Dognition. His new podcast, DogSmarts, is sponsored by Purina Pro and available on iTunes through Panoply.

AFAvH: Tell us about Dognition. How does it work, and what can it tell us about our canine companions? How did you come up with the idea for Dognition?

Hare: Dognition is about helping people find the genius in their dog. As I said, different dogs use different strategies to solve problems. Does your dog rely on you to solve problems, or are they more independent? Do they pay attention to where you are looking before they decide to sneak food off the coffee table, or are they just straight up the king of the household and don’t feel the need for any sneakiness – if they see something they want, they just take it?

There are so many fascinating questions people have about dogs that, at the moment, we can’t answer with science – we just don’t have enough time or enough dogs. For example, to answer which breed is the best communicator or the most empathetic, I’d need at least 30 dogs from each breed. If you took the AKC breeds or all breeds worldwide, you would need between 6,000 -12,000 puppies, decades of work, millions of dollars, and about a thousand graduate students. It is no wonder no one has done it. But with Dognition, we could do exactly this and more. Questions that we could only dream of answering are now becoming a distinct possibility.

Dognition is all about playing fun games that will give you a window into your dog’s mind, that will in turn enrich the relationship you have with your dog. On top of that, the data that you enter will contribute to a huge citizen science project that will help us help all dogs, from shelter dogs, to service dogs. It’s an incredibly exciting project and I can’t wait to see what we find out!

AFAvH: How did you become interested in hominoid and canine cognition? What led you to this career path?

Hare: I was a 19-year-old undergraduate at Emory University and I was working with an amazing psychology Professor Mike Tomasello, who has been the head of psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. Mike was one of the first to realize that human infants develop powerful social skills as early as nine months. This is when infants begin to understand what adults are trying to communicate when they point. Infants also begin pointing out things to other people.  Whether an infant watches you point to a bird or the infant points to their favorite toy, they are beginning to build core communication skills. By paying attention to the reactions and gestures of other people, as well as to what other people are paying attention to, infants are beginning to read other peoples’ intentions.

Mike knew that our closest living relatives, the great apes, could not use human gestures, so he thought that perhaps this ability was unique to humans.

But like many dog owners, I’d spent countless hours playing fetch with my childhood dog, Oreo. If he lost a ball, I’d help him find it by pointing in the right direction.  When Mike told me that a chimpanzee couldn’t follow a human point to find food, I blurted out ‘my dog can do that!’ and it all began from there.

AFAvH: How has the Sofja Kovalevskaja Award shaped your research experiences and opportunities?  

Hare: The Sofja Kovalevskaja Award came at a pivotal point in my career. It allowed me to set up a project in Congo to study our closest living relatives, bonobos.  Bonobos are the dogs of the ape world – they show signs of being self-domesticated, like dogs, and can tell us so much about what it means to be human. Because of the Sofja Kovalevskaja Award, I could conduct some of the first, and certainly the largest experiments with bonobos at a sanctuary in Africa, called Lola ya Bonobo. Through this research project, we have made some important discoveries, such as bonobos being good Samaritans, and preferring to share with strangers, as well as some similarities that bonobos share with children, like nervousness around new objects. I will always be grateful to the Sofja Kovalevskaja Award for giving me the freedom to pursue the life-long dream I have had of working with bonobos, and to finding out more about what bonobos teach us about ourselves.

Also, I will never forget the amazing intellectual community of the Max Planck Institute. Every day, I spent time with brilliant, motivated, curious people who made me think about the questions I was asking in different ways.

AFAvH: US scientists and scholars generally are less mobile than their foreign counterparts. What has to change in graduate training or postdoctoral career paths so that more US scientists and scholars integrate international experience into their training and professional development?

Hare: Studying and working internationally is a critical part of any researcher’s career. We are a global community now, and experiencing the intellectual environment and people in different countries not only broadens your academic thinking, it prepares you to be a citizen of the world. Working and living in other countries has never been easier. Every student should seriously consider spending time abroad.

AFAvH: What advice would you offer young researchers who are thinking of pursuing fellowships like those offered by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation?

Hare: Do it! You will never regret it, and it will change your life for the better.