‘Genius’ Misses the Mark

I cannot recommend The Genius of Dogs to anyone in good conscience.  That’s disappointing, since Brian Hare and his wife, Vanessa Woods actually turn some good phrases and tell some decent stories in the book.  It’s equally disappointing because Hare has done some interesting research into how dogs read and understand human signals.  Even the idea that dogs can infer meaning from our signals is fascinating, suggesting that they may be able to reason at some level.

Hare has done some notable preliminary work into how dogs think.  Like any good scientist, he’s focused and clearly states his focus.  “I am not so interested in fancy tricks and what dogs can be trained to do,” he writes, “I love seeing what a dogs do when they see a problem for the first time.”  That’s excellent.  I wish he had stopped there.

The trouble with Hare and Woods’ book is the unexpected and vitriolic attack against modern dog training.  The authors claim that Behaviorism (Skinner’s Operant Conditioning) is a relic of a bygone era.  The book gets more than a bit mean-spirited when Hare recalls speaking at a conference for dog trainers.  He’s aghast that modern trainers understand, use, and teach Behaviorism and Applied Behavior Analysis.  “It was like a spaceship landed and a whole bunch of aliens had jumped out and announced they were taking us all back to the fifties.”  He then goes on to write that the Skinnerian view of learning was long ago “rejected and replaced by a cognitive approach.”

The next segment of the book is called The Tyranny of Behaviorism in which Hare and Woods cast Skinner as an emotionless nerd wearing a white lab coat and thick glasses.  That may be true.  But they also claim, “Skinnerian principles are not useful as a basis for understanding and enjoying the company of your dog.”  That is simply not true.  There is nearly a century of data to indicate Learning Theory (Behaviorism) and Applied Behavior Analysis are cornerstones for understanding the nature of how all organisms learn and how we can influence behavior change.  For a deeper exploration into this subject, I recommend The Science of Consequences by Susan Schneider.

We could excuse Hare and Woods their errors.  After all, Hare’s own research is fascinating.  Add to that, in-fighting in the field of Psychology is legendary, albeit primarily a 20th Century phenomenon.  The Behaviorists rejected the Psychoanalysts (Freud and Jung); The Humanistic Psychologists (Carl Rogers, Fritz and Laura Perls, et al.) cast Behaviorism askew; The Cognitive Behaviorists (Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis) claimed superiority after that.  Hare’s myopic we’re number one cognitive approach to dogs is not exactly shocking.  Even the loosely woven concept he’s calling “cognitive training” for dogs is no jaw-dropper.  And the book’s companion for-profit “dognition” web site doesn’t exactly come with a spoiler alert either (have you seen the prices on there?).  We shouldn’t be surprised.  We could even excuse it, if the stakes weren’t so high.

In chapter 10, the authors describe how Hare tried to train his dog and failed.  It read like any number of emails I get from clients daily, “As soon as we were outside, or anywhere that mattered, I could just forget about it.  He would not sit or come when I called him.”  What was Hare’s explanation for this inability to learn?  The dog had a blue tongue, and was therefore a Chow mix.  I threw the book across the room.  (No, seriously, I did).  Hare is by many accounts a brilliant man.  He has a doctorate degree, which is more than I can say for myself.  His area of study is animal cognition, and I don’t dispute his rigor as a scientist.  Nevertheless, I was stunned when the book began to slip into this weird and fantastical mythology (I daresay I was experiencing some cognitive dissonance).  Hare’s solution to his dog’s errors was to castrate him (not a bad idea), and then everything was okay.   There was no teaching the dog; that failed.  The dog was flawed, inexplicably so until the hormones were cut off.  All this is in a popular book (and companion web site) highly promoted to the general public.  It’s dangerous.

How so?  “As we’ve seen,” the book says, as if it were long-established fact, “animals make inferences.”  That means dogs get it.  They know things, our signals, and our intentions.  They are, as the book suggests, interested in pleasing us.  They are special, our partners in co-evolution.  For more than 200 pages the authors outline the unique Genius of Dogs, weaving tales of impressive studies – and to be fair, debunking some mistruths along the way.  Still, by the end of the book we are left with an image of our own dogs as not only intelligent, but knowing (from the Latin cognitus – known).  So, If my dog “knows” what I want, then why doesn’t he listen to me?  I can hear my clients asking me now.  Hare uses the word “stubborn” in reference to his own dog, the same label my clients use.  He also speaks of dominant members of feral packs of dogs.  Sigh; are we back to that again?

I can tell you that we can teach dogs to listen and even to follow our leadership if that’s your bent.  But Hare throws that notion out the window when he aggressively attacks the science of learning (Behaviorism).   He tells us dogs should and do know us.  Then he strips his readers – some of whom I fear are quiet naïve – of the most tested and proven tenets of teaching their own dogs.  What are we left with?  A thin construct called “cognitive training” and a web site with celebrity endorsements from Victoria Stillwell and Nina Ottosson.  That will be $147 please.

The stakes are high.  When people think their dogs know what do to but are refusing, they get angry.  When they want to teach their dogs but then read that the industry standard for training dogs is false, they become helpless.  Helpless and angry are a dangerous combination in humans, and dogs suffer from it.  We humans like shiny new things – fresh – cutting edge.  That’s what this book promised.  Unfortunately, even notions that are wrong-minded sell in the marketplace of ideas so long as they are packaged well.  We need look no further than the success of Cesar Milan to see that truth.

And now we have The Genius of Dogs, a toxic if not intoxicating blend of science, pseudoscience, and lies.  I wanted to love this book.  I ended up hating it.  But more than anything, I think it just scares the hell out of me.


Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA teaches dog training in Houston, TX.