Do dogs have a brain

Brain Research in DogsJust woof ?!

Studies have shown in recent years that dogs can empathize with people. In addition, unlike great apes, they understand pointing gestures and thus interpret human behavior like no other mammal. The wolf-dog-human triangle thus offers unique opportunities to research the evolution of cognitive abilities - including our own.

I almost had one myself: a little mongrel with long, black fur. I was seven or eight years old and a school friend's bitch had had kittens. We played with the puppies for months. Then I was allowed to choose one and took it home with me - but had to bring it back immediately: because the campaign was - admittedly - not discussed with my parents.

The sadness was great. It felt like I lost a friend. Because when the dog and I looked at each other, I had the feeling: We understand each other.

"You are sweet, are you sweet, huh? It's nice here, isn't it?"

Man and dog have a lot in common

Hunting helper, protector, friend: people and dogs have a lot in common. The four-legged friends can even interpret human pointing gestures correctly.

"And the bottom line is: dogs can do that in contrast to great apes."

So smarter than chimpanzees? Or rather trained recipients of orders?

"Sit down, I tell you! The dog is getting closer and closer."

Just woof ?! About the brains of the dogs and us. By Lennart Pyritz.

Behavioral tests at the Max Planck Institute

Why do we feel so well understood by dogs?

In search of answers, I first traveled to Jena, to the Max Planck Institute for the History of Man. Behavioral tests are carried out on dogs in the rooms of an old cafeteria.

It smells like wet fur. A work room with desks and computers; behind it two unfurnished, tiled rooms. A border collie and two golden retrievers scurry around in the anteroom. In the middle is the biologist Juliane Bräuer, who leads the dog studies ...

"A dog is stroking our legs here. Is that yours or is it just here for scientific purposes?"

"He's also here for scientific purposes. But it's also my dog. That's Nana, she's almost five years old now, a Border Collie. And of course I like to take her to work, which is nice for the dog too and for me. But she's actually here for scientific purposes too, because I try out a lot of things with her, how such a test can run. "

"We are lucky now: We can accompany a pilot study. In which subject area does what we can look at right now fall into?"

"Unfortunately, I can't reveal details, because research is always something that takes place in competition, and besides, if I am talking about it here, I cannot publish such a study in a specialist journal."

Social learning in dogs is tested

Before the behavioral researchers conduct an investigation, they test the concept in a small preliminary study. How do the dogs react? What is the ideal process? The study that is being tested for today is about whether and how dogs learn from humans. Juliane Bräuer calls this: social learning.

"That means we have two people whom the dog knows little. And normally the dog develops a preference immediately. And we see whether this preference changes too."

The psychology students Julia and Theresa and the biologist Kathrin support Juliane Bräuer. Julia goes into the test room and hides behind a cloth on the wall.

Today's pilot is Alex, a one and a half year old, quite massive Golden Retriever. For her investigations, Juliane Bräuer in Jena uses a database with around 200 dogs. In terms of temperament and motivation, retrievers or border collies are particularly suitable.

"Are there also breeds that are not so well suited or does it ultimately make no difference whether you use dachshunds, mastiffs or pugs?"

"I can't remember that we once had a mastiff. But basically, if we look at cognition tests, we don't find any major differences now."

Check the dog's preferences

On the way to the test room, Alex sniffed the microphone extensively.

"Alex, come over here."

"Now my colleagues and Alex are entering the test room. So, close the door. Now Alex is being put on a leash here. That has something to do with it - he shouldn't get behind the test person in the experiment."

Two circles are painted on the floor in front of the opposite wall. Kathrin and Theresa stand in there. Alex Leine is so long that he can approach both of them from the front up to a short distance. "

"And Alex can show who he prefers, that is, who he finds more interesting, you could say. And here we take a very simple measure: who he approaches. He has now clearly decided in favor of Kathrin."

Then comes the calling phase, in which Kathrin and Theresa bend their knees and beat their thighs rhythmically with their palms.

"Alex, Alex!"

"That means, the colleagues call at the same time, in the same way. And Alex still has a clear preference for Kathrin."

All test runs are filmed

There are other parts of the experiment in which her colleagues would also swap places, says Juliane Bräuer. This is to ensure that the dog does not prefer one place in the room, but actually one of the two people.

"Well, now the phase begins, about which I won't reveal any details."

It's about whether Alex learns something specific and thereby changes his preference for one of the people, that much is clear. Alex and I can only speculate about how exactly this will work out. Which in turn is certain: at the very end of the attempt, the ball is played.

"My two colleagues take a ball at the same time. They always try to keep everything in sync. And, Alex is in the way. Alex, at least get up here for the demonstration."


The colleagues take a swing, but only pretend to throw the ball. At the same time, the third assistant Julia drops a ball on the floor behind the cloth in the middle of the opposite wall.

"And the ball rolls in front of the curtain. And it brings and still has a very strong preference for Kathrin. That was the sequence of this experiment."

"So now the attempt would be over. Alex can be off the leash again."

All test runs are recorded by video camera so that they can later be evaluated by an independent observer.

"Well then..."

"Am I going out with you?"


Social learning: "Birds are good, monkeys and dogs are bad"

"The experiment that we have just followed is about whether dogs change their preferences through social learning. You cannot say more yet, you do not want to say yet, you are not allowed to say yet because it has not yet been published But if we now, so to speak, take this research area as a basis - social learning - what groundbreaking studies have been done and published so far. So what can be scientifically proven to say about social learning in dogs? "

"The surprising thing about social learning is always, I find, that animals are amazingly bad there. So birds are just fine. The monkeys are amazingly bad. And the dogs are from what I know or from tests that we have done , also pretty bad. We did a study on whether dogs learn from each other - and a certain command. That means, we had a model dog. In that case it was actually my dog ​​again - at that time still another dog . This model dog has learned to do something specific on a command. And that was a word that a dog has definitely never heard. That was the name of my boss at the time: Giuseppe, we said Giuseppe. And with "Giuseppe "Mora lay down. And then we showed it to another dog. And whenever Mora lay down on" Giuseppe ", she was given food for it. And in total we had 200 dogs in different conditions in the study n tested. None of the dogs copied the behavior. So dogs are amazingly bad there. "

Dog-dog cooperation "is not particularly good"

"Another large area of ​​research regarding dog cognition is cooperation. Cooperation among dogs and also cooperation between humans and dogs. What groundbreaking studies have been carried out so far - to what extent animals do so with one another or with owners, that is People cooperate? "

"I think it is really very important to make a distinction: dog-dog cooperation, according to what we know the dogs are not particularly good at that. But that doesn't really surprise me, because the dogs prefer humans Social partners, and it is actually not illogical that they cooperate particularly well with people. We carried out a study that is easy to explain. We had a room that was surrounded by such plexiglass walls. And in that room there was a key . And the human had obviously lost his key in the room. And the dog had previously learned how to open the room with such a button. And now the question was: would the dog open this room for its owner? And we have found: the dogs have helped, that is, they have not only opened it once or opened it for a reward, but also over several rounds. Monkeys do that too, for example. They help, but they help en often only in the first run. And when they notice they are getting nothing, they stop doing it. The dogs are highly motivated. "

"Monkeys cannot interpret this pointing gesture"

"That was just a pilot study, where you couldn't say that much and, above all, you don't know the results. You have now agreed to demonstrate a few established, so to speak, established studies and experiments with your dog, Nana. to which you can then also say what actually came out of it. And I can already see: Here are two opaque, yellow cups placed on a table in front of you. They are sitting behind them. Nana is sitting on the other side and is already looking very excited . "

"Yes, she's looking very excited, she thinks it's great."

The table is only about 30 centimeters high, so that the Border Collie has a good view of the cups.

"So you have two cups, two containers, and there is food in one, but the dog doesn't know which one, and then we let him choose, and beforehand we give him various hints. And so that's the classic way that I'm here now put these two yellow cups down as there is a barrier in front of them ... "

"... an opaque barrier so that the dog does not notice in which cup the food actually ends up."

"Exactly, that is an opaque barrier. There is another way of reaching under both cups and not showing where I am putting the food, but I always find the better option. So now I push the two cups so that they Stand about three feet apart. And now I point to the right cup - and then I say: Go away! And now the dog is going there. And it's no coincidence that she can do it. All dogs can do that Even puppies. Dogs can do this better than hand-reared wolves, although hand-reared wolves can also learn that. And the decisive factor is: dogs can do this in contrast to great apes. And that's actually why dogs got into cognitive research. That's because it gave psychologists a headache that the monkeys couldn't interpret this pointing gesture. "

Dogs interpret pointing gestures much better than chimpanzees

"So dogs - and wolves, with reservations - are the only animals that have so far been found to react correctly to these human pointing gestures or to interpret them correctly?"

"Dogs are by far the best at it. Sit, I tell you! The dog gets closer and closer. In principle, other pets can also interpret these pointing gestures."

"For example, which ones?"

"There are studies with goats and with horses too. But they don't do as well as dogs, although dogs can of course gain a lot more experience with this pointing gesture. And the monkeys, as I said, are pretty bad at it."

Dogs interpret human gestures better than almost any other mammal - and much better than our closest relatives, the chimpanzees. And they can do even more. Researchers have found that dogs put themselves in the perspective of their counterpart: For example, they eat forbidden food more often when they know that humans cannot see them.

Behavioral differences due to domestication

But tests have also shown what dogs lack understanding: logical relationships in their inanimate environment. As an example, Juliane Bräuer presents another experiment. She shows Nana a piece of dry food. Then she places it behind the opaque barrier in one of the yellow cups and closes both containers with a lid.

"So and now, that's important, I'm not looking at the dog in principle. I push the cups to one side again. And now I take one cup, shake it."

"The food rustles in there."

"And now I say: Go away! And the dog goes to the other. What the dogs definitely cannot do is this exclusion principle. So to say to yourself: If I shake the empty cup - it makes no noise - to say to yourself: Aha, made no noise, I have to go to the other person. And only very few animals can do that. Great apes can do that. As far as I can remember, parrots can do that too and, according to our experiment published last year, wolves too. And dogs just can't do that. And that's a very remarkable difference that obviously has something to do with domestication. "

Talented in communication and cooperation with people

Nana also fails in the shell game that follows: Juliane Bräuer puts a piece of dry food in one of the cups. The other is empty. Then she swaps the position of the cups - all in front of the dog. He looks for the reward anyway in the place on the table where he saw it disappear into the cup.

"The idea is that dogs simply no longer have to solve their physical problems themselves. That means they just don't care about the physical environment and solve it communicatively, so to speak."

Talented in communication and cooperation, especially with people. On the other hand: not much understanding of logic in the environment. So is the dog smart or not?

"I am very often asked which animal is the smartest? I don't answer in a certain way because I think the question is wrong. The dogs are simply fantastically adapted to their human environment. The dog can do certain things especially good, just as the chimpanzee is especially good at certain things. And every animal is adapted to its environment and has just developed the cognitive abilities that it needs in this environment. "

The dog - "colossally over- and underestimated"

"In your opinion, are the mental or cognitive abilities of dogs in everyday life, in the general assessment, rather underestimated or overestimated? Is the dog the underestimated or the overestimated being?"

"Yes, the dog, I would say that one half is hugely overestimated and the other half is hugely underestimated - and the truth, as always, lies in between. There are these dog owners who tell me: My dog ​​understands every word. And everything that the dog does is somehow interpreted as if it were a better person - I think that's exaggerated. And just like that, there are those who say that when in doubt it is instinctual and maybe even aggressive and unpredictable, and I think that too is exaggerated. "

Half of the people overestimate dogs and half underestimate them. This is what Juliane Bräuer from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Man has just said in her conclusion. In any case, everyone seems to have an opinion about the four-legged friends - which might have to do with the fact that everyone knows at least one dog. Or has one. Or almost had one.

But how did the wolf become a dog and thus our constant companion? How did the shared story affect the dog's mental abilities? And what does that say about our own knowledge?

To answer these questions, I spoke to someone who researches the triangle of wolves, dogs and humans: Friederike Range from the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna. She is a behavioral researcher and co-founded the Wolf Science Center in Ernstbrunn, Austria, where the intellectual abilities of wolf and dog are compared. Also the Clever Dog Lab in Vienna.Friederike Range knows when and how the common path between humans and dogs began.

(Interview with Friederike Range, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, on the common history of humans and dogs and the cognitive abilities of dogs and wolves.)

"We are the pack replacement of the dogs"

So why did I have the feeling at the time that I was losing a confidante with the dog? Why do we feel so well understood by dogs? After the talks with Juliane Bräuer from the Max Planck Institute for the History of Man in Jena and Friederike Range, I would say: Because we are the pack substitutes for dogs; their natural environment to which they have adapted over millennia.

As a result, dogs have developed amazing abilities to communicate with us and to put themselves in our perspective. On the other hand, they don't care much about logical connections: we are there to get them food.

That doesn't make them smarter or simpler than other animals. Nor does it automatically mean that a dog's mental abilities are based on the same foundation as ours. But it creates a unique cross-species understanding.