Brian Hare is an Associate Professor and Vanessa Woods is a Research Scientist in Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University. They founded Dognition, a Web-based service that helps people find the genius in their dogs. This post was adapted from their New York Times' best-seller "The Genius of Dogs (opens in new tab)," which comes out in paperback Oct. 29. They contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
Dognition is a series of games owners play with their dogs to better understand how their dogs think. One game evaluates how well dogs navigate, and from the data, female dogs appear to be more flexible navigators than males. The findings, which are the opposite of what one would expect with human behavior , give people important insight into how dogs see the world.
In the game, owners hid food under two bowls, and taught their dog that the treat was always on one side (for example, always the bowl on the left). Then, the owner brought their dog around to the opposite side and recorded which bowl their dog chose.
Female dogs were more likely to use an allocentric, or landmark-based, strategy. They used objects in the room to gauge distance and location and figure out which bowl to choose. For instance, in the beginning, perhaps the bowl with the treats was near a door, or a lamp. When the females were brought around to the opposite side, they still looked for those landmarks, which means no matter which way they were oriented, they would always go back to the bowl they learned was "correct" in the beginning. [10 Surprising Facts About Dogs]
In people, this is called forming a mental map, or using a bird's-eye view. Using allocentric navigation means the dogs were mostly relying on their hippocampus, a part of the brain that mediates spatial awareness and memory.This strategy is particularly effective in large and unfamiliar environments, and is the more flexible of the two strategies. Not surprisingly, people who rely on environmental navigation are good at reading maps.
Male dogs were more likely to be egocentric navigators. They learned the association by thinking "the treat is on my right." When owners brought the dogs around to the opposite side, these dogs chose the bowl on their right, which was the opposite bowl from that they had chosen before. By using this strategy, the male dogs were mostly relying on their basal ganglia, the part of the brain that mediates motor skills.
Before there were maps or navigational instruments, Pacific Islanders used egocentric navigation for long sea voyages. They used the position of the stars in relation to themselves, (e.g., "to get to this island, the Milky Way should be on my right"). People who rely on egocentric navigation tend to make good cinematographers — they have a special talent for allowing others to see the world as they do.
The results are the opposite as in humans, where men are usually allocentric navigators and women are egocentric navigators. Perhaps male dogs just need to get better at asking for directions.
You can try Dognition for free here. The authors' most recent Op-Ed was "Dogs Follow the Friendliest, Not the Alpha." The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This version of the article was originally published on LiveScience.