Why dogs could be the key to understanding the evolution of the human mind

By Jemima Frame

Scientists estimate that dogs (Canis familiaris) were the first animal to be domesticated, sometime between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago . Consequently, they were often shunned by ethologists studying animal minds, due to the idea that domesticated animals were not as intelligent as their wild counterparts. In 1994 Vilmos Csányi, an internationally renowned ethologist, began to research dogs, dismissing the idea that domesticated animals were artificial and could not be studied and paving the way for researchers to embrace the study of domesticated animals (Csanyi, 2006). After years of study, he hypothesised that the evolutionary conception of dogs from wolves was a better model for understanding the evolution of the human mind, rather than the more common study of human evolution from chimpanzees.

The reasoning behind this hypothesis was that the minds of dogs are essentially shaped by humans due to thousands of years of domestication, i.e; their minds resemble those of their creators. Therefore, he hypothesised that we could study the human mind through the study of the mind of those dogs. He was not, however, the first person to be taken with the idea that dogs are more like humans than they are like wolves, with Darwin having previously written about the evolution of dogs and noticing certain human-like characteristics. In Darwin’s book, the Descent of Man, he writes “Dogs may have lost in cunning … yet they have progressed in certain moral qualities, such as affection, trust, worthiness, temper, and probably general intelligence”(Darwin, 1871). Darwin believed that dogs had imaginations and they were his leading example of how animals, other than humans, experienced emotions such as joy, pain and pleasure. 

Csányi’s team had to create new innovative experiments to test whether dogs actually possessed numerous behaviours and traits in common with humans. Their first experiment was to compare the intelligence of dogs and wolves (Morell, 2013). They designed a rather simple experiment where they placed each animal in a room with a gate, let them watch a person open the gate and then observed whether they could work out how to open the gate and walk through it. The wolves solved the problem immediately, however the dogs never attempted the challenge, despite being shown numerous times how to unlatch the gate. Csányi did not like this experiment and said that these results only showed that the dogs were well behaved and knew they shouldn’t open the gate; he did not believe the results were a sign of their lesser intelligence, so he modified the experiment. Food was placed into a dish with a long handle and slid beneath a low wire fence. An owner and their dog were called into the room and one of the researchers would demonstrate how the dog could get the food by pulling on the long handle. Most of the outdoor dogs, which were more independent and used to being on their own, immediately copied the demonstrator and succeeded, however all the dogs that lived inside with their owners did nothing at first, and it was only after their owners encouraged them that they pulled the handle, even then frequently looking back at their owner as if asking them for their help(Morell, 2013). This was an important breakthrough, as it showed that although dogs could solve problems just as well as wolves, they have an unusual desire to cooperate with their masters; they want to work with us. This tendency to cooperate is not totally uncommon and is often seen within wolf packs, however, to cooperate with an entirely different, distantly related species, and to search for that cooperation above all signifies that there has been a fundamental change in the brains of dogs. 

Other experiments carried out by Csányi and his team showed that the bonding process of dogs is very similar to a young human child, and that dogs experience separation anxiety when their owner leaves them, just as young children do when their mother leaves for the day. Perhaps most remarkably, they found that even adult dogs living in rescue shelters will quickly form attachments to a human; it takes a mere 30 minutes for the bond to start forming. It is extremely rare in most species for an adult to form attachments, providing further evidence that dogs possess humanlike traits. In a separate experiment carried out it was also shown that dogs can read and use a person’s social cues. In this experiment, food was placed into one of two scent proof containers. The owner then looked at or pointed to the container with food, and the dog used this social cue to interpret that the food was in the box the owner was pointing at. No other animals have been shown to possess this ability, once again suggesting that dogs have inherited humanlike abilities (Csányi, 2006). Interestingly when a researcher placed a ball in box A in front of the dog, while making eye contact and explaining what he was doing, the dog would retrieve the ball from the correct box, however,  when the researcher silently moved the ball into box B in front of the dog, the dog would still try and retrieve the ball from box A. Human toddlers make this identical error because both dogs and children learn by focusing on social cues from adults, rather than by making their own decisions. This is one of the most outstanding examples of how similar the minds of dogs have become to human minds. 

Many researchers now agree with Csányi’s initial belief that dogs possess human-like traits, and it is now believed that dogs and humans represent a special case of convergent evolution, as although dogs and humans share very different ancestors, they possess many of the same traits and behaviours, particularly the want to work together to accomplish a task. Due to these similarities, further study into how dogs acquired these traits over years of domestication may give us insight into the origination of these traits in human minds.


Csányi, V. (2006) If Dogs Could Talk; Exploring the Canine Mind. London,
Macmillan Publishers.

Darwin, C. (1871) The Descent of Man. London, John Murray.

Morell, V. (2013) Animal Wise ; The Thoughts and Emotions of our Fellow
Creatures. London, Old Street Publishing.

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