Ádám Miklósi is professor and the head of the Ethology Department at the Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Hungary. In 2016 he was elected as a corresponding member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
He is the co-founder and leader of the Family Dog Project, which aims to study human-dog interaction from an ethological perspective. In 2014 he published the 2nd edition of an academic volume entitled Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition by Oxford University Press.
In this interview with Professor Adam Miklosi we learn about the many aspects of human-dog behaviour, how dog pets should be chosen and treated, common interests between dogs and humans and more.
Professor Miklósi, Thank you for the opportunity for this interview with you. What was your motivation to study the many aspects of dogs and human behaviour?
I was always interested in cognition, how the mind controls and influences behaviour.
However, humans are too complicated to study this phenomenon, and there are also many restrictions on what we can do with humans.
Dogs are not people but they share the same environment and also have a lot of interest in common.
So I thought that studying dog behaviour and their cognitive skills may not only broaden our understanding about how dogs think, but also how we humans think.
Please tell us about the Family Dog Project that you have been dedicated to for so many years.
The project started officially in 1994, also it is now more than 25 years old.
The main focus of the project is to study the dog-human relationship from an ethological perspective, that is, we aim to understand the dog’s behaviour by investigating how evolution and domestication has shaped it, and what kind of mental mechanisms are responsible for the complex behavioural output that we observe in this companion animal.
In addition to the mental abilities of dogs, what are the other areas about them you have studied?
Dogs are not people but they share the same environment and also have a lot of interest in common.
For example, when a dog (or a human) is looking for something, often the mind is controlling the search behaviour by entertaining a mental ‘picture’ of the object (we call this “search image”).
But, among others, we have studied olfaction in dogs and how it influences the behaviour because many people think that dogs ‘see’ with their nose. Well, this is not true.
Actually, to the contrary, dogs rely on their vision a lot and ‘forget’ about having a nose. But if trained well, dogs can show a very sophisticated performance in tasks for which the nose is essential.
They can react to minute amounts of a chemical whether it is a trace from a bomb or some drug.
What are your major observations on the cognitive abilities of dogs?
In the course of our research we have made several ‘discoveries’, although some may sound trivial.
The first insight was that dogs and owners develop a mutual attachment toward each other.
At least with regard to their behaviour, the owner and dog relationship is comparable to that between the mother or father and the baby. Of course, many people treat their dogs as if were a baby.
But we were able to show that there is a real similarity between the behaviour of a dog and a young infant.
At that time many people were not interested in this topic but nowadays the situation has changed, and the attachment relationship became an important aspect of dog training and owner education.
Some compare a dog’s brain to the middle part of the human brain in terms of cognition. Is there any truth in it?
I have never heard about this assumption. Comparing brains is complicated because they differ not only in size but also in the details how different areas are connected to each other.
I think it is much better to talk about similarities or differences in terms of problem solving performance.
What should be the approach towards breed selection when wanting a family dog?
Everybody should think why he or she wants to have a dog. Should it be a companion or rather a friend with similar interest in sport.
Should it be rather small for economic reasons, or on the contrary it may feel safer to live with a larger individual.
Some people may prefer the look of one breed over the other. So it is difficult to give general advice.
It is more important that the future owner should look around (on the internet), ask friends and colleagues who have such a breed for advice, and also they should also talk to the breeder before the mating.
Owners should ensure that both parents of the puppy are healthy. It is also useful to visit the breeder a few times after the puppies are born.
This could help a lot in choosing the right puppy.
Please, also consider taking a puppy from a shelter, rather than buying a new breed dog.
Is it at all possible to make an assessment of a dog’s personality when it’s still a puppy?
There are many so-called ‘puppy tests’ that are used for behavioural evaluation of dog puppies.
But these tests alone are not able to reveal adult behaviour of the dog because there can be many environmental influences.
Much longer observations, involving the whole socialisation period (weeks 3 to 12) would be more informative but people do not have the time to sit there and watch the puppies for many hours per day.
A good breeder, who spends a lot of time with the puppies, may be able to give some advice but these also may not be 100% true.
What would you tell those who insist on that perfectly trained dog?
Do these people also insist on themselves being ‘perfect’? Family dogs need some training because living with people is complicated.
The owner has to be able to call the dog back, or it is very helpful if the dog learns to stop at the curb before crossing the street.
And because from the dogs’ point of view neither of these actions make any sense, there is a need for training.
However, this should be started when the dog is young. Most owners think that puppies are not able to learn but this is not true.
Dog puppies learn just like human babies, and they learn faster when they are young. Dog training is more successful and less demanding if the owners start to introduce these ‘rules of life’ as soon as possible.
Which are the breeds that respond best to training?
If you think about ‘general training for everyday activities’ then breeds that have been selected to work with humans have some advantages, for example, sheepdogs, hunting dogs etc.
But there is also huge variation within dog breeds, and the personality of the dog plays also a role.
Again, when started early, dogs are able to learn the basic rules that the owner requires.
One just needs to be patient and enduring at the beginning. There are some breeds or selected lines within breeds that may be especially suited for some kind of training, but this should always be discussed with a professional before getting a new dog.
It should be noted that the same applies to shelter dogs.
They can be trained also but perhaps with a bit more effort.
The reason is that these dogs often have a miserable fate before or during their life in the shelter, and this may inhibit them to perform well under pressure.
More than in any other country one observes the most well behaved dogs in Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic even when not on a leash. For example, it’s not uncommon to find them waiting patiently outside a shop, unleashed, while the human is shopping. What is the reason behind this?
Honestly, I do not know. We have also noticed that the ‘culture of dog keeping’ is different among countries but there are no systematic investigations.
In England dogs are very silent, they rarely bark, in Austria many city dogs are trained to ‘give paw’… perhaps because it is so cute.
In many countries dogs should be always on leash during walk, so I find it actually very amusing (and also useful) that some people train their dogs to walk on an ‘invisible leash’ at their side because actually this gives more freedom for the dog.
Certain breeds such as the Pitbulls and Rottweilers have acquired a negative reputation. What is your observation?
It is never the breed that is responsible for any wrongdoing. So breeds have a bad reputation because with adequate training and education these dogs can inflict serious wounds due to their body strengths and mentality.
So only experienced people should have such dogs because they can ensure that these dogs get the right training and experience that minimizes the chance of any problems.
The majority of dogs belonging to either the pit bulls or the Rottweilers have a very peaceful life in their human families, and the fatalities are really very rare.
How much of a human’s language do dogs really understand?
Dogs only understand a little bit from the spoken language. They may react to some names of objects or action labels, or half sentences, but their understanding is not linguistic.
If the owner tells the dog, “Let’s go out and get your ball!”, because they want to play outside, the dog may only understand the word “ball” and nothing else.
However, dogs are very good at perceiving the intonations of the sentences, judging the emotions based on how we talk or utter words.
Is it true that dogs respond better to the male members of the family?
No. Why would they? Following a command or a signal is a complex mental process.
Some male humans could be more enforcing by shouting or displaying a larger body surface, so they may look being more ‘aggressive’ but in many cases this does not facilitate the dogs’ response.
Do you have any advice for those who would like to have a dog?
Think twice before you get a dog. This is a 10-15 year long project, and any dog needs a lot of attention, social interaction, exercise and also time for simply “being together”.
People are often a bit selfish, they only see the relationship from their perspective, so the dogs should “make them happy”. I encourage prospective dog owners to think from the dog’s point of view: Can I provide the dog with a kind of life that I wish for myself.
Photos: Adam Miklosi
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