Dogs — all 300-plus existing breeds — are curious creatures: The domesticated variety is notorious for mindless habits like chewing on socks and chasing down squirrels, even while their more disciplined brethren sniff out illegal drugs, explosives and even cancer.
Those characteristics are all part of canine cognition, a growing field of research conducted by leading dog psychologists (yes, really) who actively examine why our furry friends behave the way they do. Places like Stanford, Yale and the University of Florida are just several of the research institutions pioneering a broad effort to understand what makes dogs tick.
Studying the relationship between humans and canines is nothing new. Mankind and dogs have been collaborating for hundreds of years, living together both as master and pet as well as trainer and assistant in areas of forensic investigation. However, with researchers recently discovering some dogs have the ability to detect certain types of cancer, the science behind how dogs think has taken on new interest.
Brian Hare, a Duke University professor of cognitive neuroscience, is helping pioneer what he calls "dognition" to explore the mutually beneficial relationship between humans and dogs. In a recent interview with CNBC, he said the abilities dogs have developed over time enable them to understand human instruction so closely.
These abilities seem closely tied to human interaction, and corresponding social cues that develop regardless of their environment.
"It wasn't a big surprise to dog lovers that dogs use gestures and they're amazing communicators," Hare said. "They understand us in ways that other animals don't, including great apes. It was our discovery of this that set off a firestorm within science that people got excited about."
Hare explained that in some ways, canines have the ability to process human behavior better than do chimpanzees, the closest living evolutionary relative to humans. Domestic dogs have the ability to understand so-called cooperative-communicative social cues that allow them to quickly and accurately complete social tasks with only simple guidance from an instructor.