Is there a Flynn Effect for dogs?

I would be surprised if there wasn’t:

Mr. Pilley told me, “The big lesson is to recognize that dogs are smarter than we think, and given time, patience and enough enjoyable reinforcement, we can teach them just about anything.”

It’s true that dogs everywhere are doing things that would have been unimaginable in the Alpo era. Last year, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Working Dog Center trained a team of shepherds and retrievers to sniff out lab samples containing ovarian cancer. Scent hounds are also being used to forecast epileptic seizures and potentially life-threatening infections. A black Labrador from the St. Sugar Cancer-Sniffing Dog Training Center in Chiba, Japan, was accurate 98 percent of the time in picking up early-stage signs of colon cancer. As Mr. Hare, from Duke, said, “I will take a dog smelling my breath over a colonoscopy any day of the week, even if it’s just an experiment.”

From David Hochman, there is more here.


Don't these examples more show an increase in the IQ & creativity of the dog masters?

For a canine Flynn Effect to exist, did anyone test dogs to sniff out cancer 50 years ago, and note that they had failed?

The increased IQ of dog trainers had a role no doubt. But that is of no use if the dogs do not have some innate ability. I mean can we train a squirrel or a kangaroo to do tghe stuff dogs do?

Can we teach them to play poker?

Or to paint pictures of their friends engaging in said activity?

Sniffing stuff has nothing to do with intelligence or the Flynn effect. the bloodhound, one the least intelligent dogs in terms of trainability, has an unrivaled ability to smell blood.

The dumbest dog I ever knew was a bloodhound, but it's sister was supposedly the best tracking dog in all of East Texas and Louisiana. Most dogs are befuddled by birds, some by cats, but this one was regularly outwitted by a tame armadillo.

Dogs are generally stupider than wolves. It's a common pattern for domesticated animals: they simply need less brain power to stay alive because their human owners do some of the thinking for them.

It'd be awesome to watch grandma's face when the doctor walks in with a big wolf on a leash. "Oh! Don't worry! He's just testing you for cancer. Won't hurt at all!"

But dogs have clearly developed forms of intelligence that are particularly tailored to living and working with humans. It's only been very recently that dogs have not been expected to earn their keep and dog breeding over the millennia has surely involved a lot of euthanasia, so dumb happy survival for domestic dogs certainly hasn't been the rule for very long.

Mutts are descended from ancestors who were smart enough to figure out how to get out of the backyard. Purebreds ... not so much.

Social policy parallel somewhere here.

Since dogs are neotenic wolves, in the same way that humans are neotenic chimpanzees, I highly doubt that's the case.

I would take a dog smelling my breath over a colonoscopy any day of the week, too.

Oh, he probably means for diagnosing colon cancer.

My impression is that dog breeders probably aren't as smart as they used to be. Scientific breeding of livestock was a central interest of the British intellectual elite in the 19th Century. Darwin's books are full of his correspondence with amateur and professional animal breeders. Other great thinkers who contributed to evolutionary theory and its associated fields such as genetics and statistics tended to be smart country boys (or in the case of Ronald Fisher, a city boy who moved to the country to run an experimental farm). But now breeding is of almost no interest to (at least) American intellectual elites, who tend to find distasteful most aspects of non-urban life.

Breeders made remarkable advances in the past such as the Newfoundland, a huge dog programmed to rescue drowning people. In my lifetime, however, there has been little interest in breeding for functional advances and more in aesthetics, often at the expense of function. Lassie can't figure out how to save Timmy from the well anymore, because collies have been bred to have skulls so stylishly narrow that there isn't much room for brains anymore.

I think the shift is probably more driven by the increasingly small role agriculture plays in the economy. When agriculture makes up 25% of GDP as it did in Darwin's day you'd expect a lot more intellectual effort devoted to it and its ancillary fields, like animal breeding. Today agriculture only makes up about 2% of the developed world's GDP. Similarly I'd expect you'd find declining brainpower devoted to mechanical engineering today.

The British intellectual elite of the Darwin-Galton era was strikingly non-urban. Social prestige was related to owning farmlands, so middle class merchants and factory-owners would make their pile, then buy a country house where their descendants would grow up surrounded by nature, wild and domestic. Moreover, the Church of England distributed well-educated parsons all over the countryside, and left them little to do other than deliver a sermon on Sunday. (A large fraction of Darwin's correspondents were ministers who took a studious, first-hand interest in nature.) The dense web of railways that covered England by the middle of the 19th Century meant that these rural dwellers weren't terribly isolated, so could get today's newspaper today and have bright friends from Cambridge or Bloomsbury over for the weekend.

Most of the major evolutionary theorists of the 20th Century had similarly bucolic upbringings. William D. Hamilton, for instance, grew up in a house in the fields five miles from Darwin's house. Edward O. Wilson recently wrote an autobiographical novel about his youthful days on the Alabama-Florida border. Dawkins grew up in Kenya, etc.

You have a point there. I think it is an exaggeration - but also definitely a trend. One simply has to look at the effort shepherds go through to train their dogs to realize that something has been altered in the relationship (with "pet" dogs) over the past 100 years. The sheperd/dog relationship has not changed - but most other dog/human relationships have, I think.

I grew up on a sheep farm. When one of our dogs was getting too old for a full day of work we got a pup and put it to work with the other dogs. It picked up what to do, and what all the calls meant, simply by observing the other dogs. The only training it recieved was being reprimanded for doing stupid things, just as all sheepdogs get all through their working lives. Older dogs, one hopes, less than young. The old dog that was being replaced was given to us by a retiring farmer. She was an excellent dog which had won local sheepdog trial competitons. Her replacement, a particularly intelligent mongrel with a lot of collie in her, eventually became at least as adept as she had been.

Modern Ag Science breeding is very sophisticated, but I agree that it only incidentally attracts truly first class minds anymore. They do exist however, but usually in very idiosyncratic areas. I know a cattle breeder who is among the smartest people I know, but he is from a dairy dynasty, and pedigree dog and cat breeders are never at their level anymore, outside of the ruins of the East Bloc.

Worse for our culture is that the people who live in Brooklyn and write for the New York Times are largely detached from the wisdom of the Ag Sciences (Nicholas Wade excepted). The biologists who have had the largest impact on how contemporary journalists and other non-scientists think about the history of science, Gould and Lewontin, grew up in Queens.

Could a lot of it be just diminishing marginal returns? You cannot keep improving breeds at the same pace for ever. Perhaps most of the improvement that can be had by simply crossing over livestock has already been had?

Or you can breed for new circumstances that didn't exist in the past.

How about a dog breed that only needs to be walked once per day? Perfect for high rise dwellers ...

Nope, you have it exactly backwards. Dog breeds began their decline in health in 19th century Britain. Breeders began practicing eugenics on dogs, creating breeds with "line purity" and dogs began their gradual decline. Now dogs are bred for purity and nothing more, and they are riddled with debilitating disease. Hip dyspepsia, cancer, deafness, heart disease, you name it.

Can you recommend a source for this part of dog breeding history?

There are many, start here:

I have more if you don't feel like using google for more than a minute

Dynamism eventually leads to stultification as people come to worship the accomplishments of the past without understanding them: e.g., Ancient Egyptian art, Confucius, Aristotle ... Same with dog breeding today.

"But now breeding is of almost no interest to (at least) American intellectual elites, who tend to find distasteful most aspects of non-urban life"

For example, the notion of cancer-sniffing dogs has been around in the news at least since the beginning of this century. And yet, in the dozen or so articles I've read on this subject over the years, I've never seen the notion of breeding together the best cancer-sniffing dogs to create a specialized breed be brought up either by a reporter or a scientist.

I have to imagine that in Darwin and Galton's day, that the practicalities and difficulties of developing a specialized breed of canine cancer super-sniffers would have been of interest to the press. Today, the whole topic just doesn't seem to come up.

In Southern California today, dogs are generally an expression of class and stage of life identity. There is an obvious divide for example between the breeds preferred by owners depending on whether or not they have tattoos.

Tattooed owners: Pit bulls, bulldogs, chihuahuas

Backyard owning non-tattooed married couples with children -- labradors

Non-tattooed married couple empty nesters -- smaller cuddly dogs

There is little energy and even less intelligence devoted to the 19th century concept of improving the breeds.

That 98% detection accuracy quote set off my skepticism alarms. Are dogs really that good at sniffing out cancer?

we would need to know how may false positives

Exactly. I could become 100% accurate simply by diagnosing cancer for every patient.

The idea of cancer-sniffing dogs has been in the news for awhile -- e.g., here's a 2006 NYT article:

But it would be a hard thing to monetize. The big pharma companies would have hard time making money off it.

But, if it's a real trait, a breed could be created quickly. Dogs have generation times of two years, and breeders can get amazing results by extreme inbreeding. If you want a tail-less subbreed of an existing breed, for example, you can get one that breeds true in a decade.

But most of the energy in dog-breeding these days is devoted to aesthetics rather than functionality. The idea of creating a new breed of dog that would actually be superior to other breeds at doing something important sounds kind of Nazi these days.

I think you are reading too much into it. Yes, dog-breeding focuses on aesthetics today but probably because looks are the metric dog buyers focus on too. The general utility of canines in society has declined, not because breeding went out of fashion, but because alternatives proliferated & economic activity profiles changed.

I suspect this putative capability of dogs is more a function of the animal knowing its owner over its life, and sensing a delta in the profile of certain volatile organic compounds in his/her breath - probably increases in concentration - (there are >2,000; Linus Pauling investigated these via spectroscopy late in his career), indicating poor health. Also, doubtful if there is a particular 'magic bullet' marker compound for cancer - itself a broad category of hundreds of variants. Last, dogs can detect the presence of a number of diseases - not just cancer(s).

UPSHOT: Since by definition the animals would be sniffing humans who are complete strangers, they would have an extremely limited/no reference points by which to compare (baseline). Breeding for a 'disease sniffing' dog probably a waste of time.

This is similar to a number of medical 'stories' - this one's been around for decades, yet never gone anywhere. A chestnut for 'slow news days'...

So there are two paths for a potential cancer sniffing dog -- one is as a specialist working a medical center, sniffing lots of patients. The other world be as a pet, but one who is very sensitive to change for the worse in your metabolism. When I came down with lymphatic cancer in 1997, I could have used a dog worrying me to get to the doc before it reached stage IV.

Actually current breeders' fetishes for "line purity" is straight up nazi eugenics and most people are ok with it.

Probably not. If it were true, there should be a crash project in developing specialized cancer-sniffing breeds, especially for 3rd World medical care where people can't afford a lot of expensive laboratory tests. Develop a breed of dogs specialized in a major cancer that can be defeated if caught early and give one each to health clinics in poor countries.

On the other hand, the reality of cancer-sniffing dogs is frequently asserted, but it never seems to occur to anybody to consider breeding them as opposed to just looking for them.

My point is that today we're fundamentally unserious about promising-sounding dog breeding projects. Perhaps it sounds too much to us modern sophisticates like "the pseudoscience of eugenics." So what if a lot of Third Worlders dies of undetected cancer? At least we didn't pollute our consciousnesses with impure thoughts.

Even if some dogs were good at sniffing out cancer, I would think that it would be challenging to use them in diagnosis. Each trained dog will probably have a somewhat different aptitude at sniffing out cancer, which will have to be determined and re-determined as the dog ages by testing them against other means of diagnosis with a stable error rate. If you have to constantly verify efficacy for each dog, there is not much in the way of savings here. Doctors are also probably reluctant to use such low tech methods, because it gives patients the impression that other methods of detecting cancer (and other things, as well) are highly primitive. Even if they are highly primitive, you want patients to think that you know what you are doing. Inspiring false confidence in others is 80% of what being a professional is. Having a dog sniff someone's colon does not inspire patient confidence.

"Each trained dog will probably have a somewhat different aptitude at sniffing out cancer"

That's why it would seem to make sense to developed specialist breeds that "breed true" (relatively) for a particular skill. If you need a dog with the urge and the swimming skills to save swimmers from drowning, you don't test hundreds of dogs at random, you test a few Newfoundlands and take the best one. That's because somebody already hundreds of years ago went to all the trouble of testing a lot of dogs for these traits and creating a fairly stable breed out of them.

I'm not saying that it would be feasible to develop a useful cancer-sniffing dog breed. I'm just calling attention to the fact that the idea of creating a cancer-sniffing breed just hasn't come up in dozens of articles I've read on the topic. Darwin, Galton, H.G. Wells, Robert Heinlein, they all would have thought of the idea of creating a new dog breed to do this better than random dogs, but in the 21st Century, we seem to be suffering an Anti-Flynn Effect when it comes to thinking about scientific breeding.

For example, if border collies didn't exist, it would be hard to believe you could breed a dog to be born with a fanatical work ethic who not only loves to herd but who is smarter overall: border collies love to learn complicated new duties. It would be especially hard to believe in the existence of border collies if you believed all today's conventional wisdom about "the pseudoscience of eugenics."

"for example, if border collies didn’t exist"
I don't care if that was a hypothetical, take that back right now!

"If it were true, there should be a crash project in developing specialized cancer-sniffing breeds, especially for 3rd World medical care where people can’t afford a lot of expensive laboratory tests." (snip)

Government funded?

The horror.

There are a lot of billionaires these days.

But you can see the public relations nightmare for a Bill Gates, say: creating a new breed requires incest-level inbreeding (mother-son, eg) and disposal of the puppies that don't work out. A commenter pointed out that to SWPLs, dog breeding seems kind of "rapey" because the bitch doesn't get much choice in the matter.

Like Victorian magicians, pre-computer bridge sharks, and 1970s cruise ships gigolos, those brilliant and kind people who have unique and surprising skill at training our gentle friends in the dog world are not likely to widely share their discoveries and insights. Sniffing cancer is a big exception, of course.
Dogs are not getting smarter, that is the same illusion modern liberal romance and thriller (e.g. Jason Bourne) readers have when they think if they spend time in a faraway clime they will find that one foreign person who did not exist thirty years ago and who is a fully progressed culmination of his or her culture and who was dramatically waiting just for them.
My opinion is that, considered as individuals, the old-time foreigners were good enough and aren't getting better, same for dogs.

Let's hear from the FDA and AMA and 6 other Gov Agencies - what are the minimum wage and workweek rules for dogs?

I have always thought dogs made better economists than economists do.

I would take a colonoscopy over smelling my dog's breath... at least Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, and alternating Saturdays.

There's a big difference in intelligence between different dogs, even those of the same breed. Keep in mind also that dogs pick up what they think their handler wants, which makes cop use of dogs for probable cause inspections of motor vehicles baloney, as outlined here:

it will be nice if dogs can be trained to sniff out careless reasoning in economics publications

I sensed that being a pet parent today — nobody uses the word “owner” anymore, apparently — means cultivating intelligence, manners and communication skills the way the parent of, say, a small human might.

"Pet parent", "parent of, say, a small human..." These people will become extinct in favor of a people with a more utilitarian view of dogs.

No offence but do any one of you know a serious hobby breeder, participate in any dog events or even own a dog bought from a responsible breeder? I own two. The breed is irrevelvant. I show in conformation and in obedience. I have been a member of my breed parent club for over a decade and still consider myself an apprentice. The long time breeders are truly dedicated to preserving the working ability of our breed and improving the health. We have had a series of remarkable breakthroughs in genetic testing. We argue among ourselves but we do not ever lose sight of the welfare of our dogs and our breed. One of my own dogs functions as my service dog. Please get some data before reaching conclusions. Serious hobby breeders are the people who make it their life's work to put together a sound breeding program. The media and Joe Schmoe never hear of them.

Yes, I do know serious dedicated dog breeders. And, offense intended, they do not care about the health of the dogs. If they did, they wouldn't care about line purity. You buy purebred dogs, which means you don't care about their health either. You speak here in a state of ignorance.

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