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Brian Hare, PhD

Brian Hare PhD
Brian Hare, PhD

Primate researcher Brian Hare studies chimpanzee and bonobo behavior in Africa, but it was dogs that put him on the path.

Back when Brian was an undergraduate researcher at Harvard University, he was met with a challenge. His professor was investigating whether chimpanzees could understand what another chimp was thinking. Brian told his professor that his dog does that. To prove that his family dogs could infer human thought, Brian set up a simple experiment in his parents’ garage. To investigate the way dogs followed a pointed finger to the correct Dixie cup where food was hidden, he hid a treat beneath the cup and then showed the cups to the dog. He then looked or pointed to a cup to indicate which held the treat. Said Brian in a Smithsonian Magazine interview, “They knew exactly what to do. They headed straight for the right cup and got their treat.”

“I found it interesting that dogs can do this but chimps can’t,” he recalls in an interview for Duke Research with Monte Basgall. “People think solving this pointing problem is also very important for young children as they develop the ability to think about the thoughts of others.”

Brian is an Assistant Professor of biological anthropology and anatomy at Duke University. With his wife, scientist/journalist/blogger Vanessa Woods, he travels to Africa to study chimps and bonobos in orphanages. To find out what makes us human, Brian Hare asks our closest relatives and best friends.

Brian does research with these subjects by their own invitation. “The idea is coming up with experiments that are fun for the animals, so they’ll volunteer to participate,” he says. “In the morning, we ask them if they would like to play games with us. If they’d like to play the games, then we’re doing our jobs well.” Doing such research on animals living in totally wild settings would be impossible as well as unethical, he adds.

On February 26, 2009, Brian came full circle, returning to his studies on the evolution of the cognitive dog. His lab launched their new Duke Canine Cognition Center (DCCC). The Center will investigate the unique cognitive abilities in domestic dogs. He needs help from the public -- and their dogs. The DCCC will be enrolling pet dogs to participate in fun problem-solving experiments that the dogs will enjoy. Says Brian, “It’s a lab for people to bring their pet dogs in to play some fun games. We’ll be able to look at how dogs solve problems. We can also offer doggy day care.”

A much sought-after speaker when he’s not continent-hopping, Brian’s past conference presentations focusing on dogs include:

  • “The domestication of social cognition in dogs,” Tufts University Animal Expo
  • “The effect of domestication on dog cognition,” International Guide Dog Federation Genetics Research Workshop, The Seeing Eye
  • “Dogs use humans as tools: is it the secret to their success?” American Association for the Advancement of Science
  • “The dog’s mind and what it can tell us about human evolution,” Advances in Canine and Feline Genomics
  • “Have we identified heritable components of dog social cognition?” Wenner-Gren Foundation

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