Author Jan Bondeson frowns on 'Nazi superdog' claims

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The cover of Jan Bondeson's Amazing Dogs - A Cabinet of Canine Curiosities
Image caption,
Jan Bondeson spent five years researching his book, Amazing Dogs

An academic believes "Nazi superdog" press coverage has trivialised his study of the history of the partnership between man and his canine best friend.

Amazing Dogs: A Cabinet Of Canine Curiosities, by Jan Bondeson, of Cardiff University, has attracted international publicity.

One section outlines Nazi research into breeds' intelligence and personalities.

But he disputes claims attributed to him that Nazis experimented with super-intelligent "canine stormtroopers".

Dr Bondeson said a somewhat surprising aspect of Nazi philosophy was their commitment to animal welfare and advancement.

"It is certainly true to say that Nazi Germany had a higher regard for animal, and particularly dog welfare, than they did for the rights of many humans," he said.

"They were ardent anti-vivisectionists, and their laws against animal cruelty were amongst the strictest ever seen."

Dr Bondeson said that was part of their "murky philosophy" which contained a key concept that there was "a good bond between the human being, nature and society".

Codes of barking

A rise in schools of animal psychology in the 1930s was encouraged by the Nazis, and Hitler in particular, and their potential military use examined.

"But that's a million miles away from the press claims - which get taller by the day - that the Nazis had a legion of talking, machine-gun-toting hounds, on the point of being unleashed on the allies".

As part of his five-year research for the book, Dr Bondeson visited Berlin and studied long-forgotten Nazi-era scientific journals, which he said were often intentionally overlooked

There were many fascinating accounts of dogs able to perform incredible feats of talking, spelling out words, having conversations via codes of barking, and even debating philosophy, religion and poetry.

However none of these could be achieved consistently, and none could be replicated in other dogs.

The part of his book which Dr Bondeson believes press coverage has chosen to ignore is his explanation of the powerful nature of the so-called "clever Hans effect".

"I'm sure that the Nazi generation of animal psychologists genuinely thought they'd tapped into a hidden innate intelligence within many animals."

"More recent research has however revealed that what they thought were dogs and horses communicating via pointing to letters or barking in code, were in fact examples of the clever Hans effect; a horse who responded to almost microscopic cues from their owner, in order to please them with the desired response."

"It's very easy but entirely wrong to mock their findings, as the film footage appears extremely compelling. Dogs in particular have an innate need to please their pack leader, and will go to almost any lengths to achieve this.

Brain response

"It's only with the advent of sophisticated camera technology which can detect eye contact - and electrodes which measure brain response to stimulation as opposed to original thought - that we can prove categorically the existence of the Clever Hans phenomenon."

However, more recent studies have given new credence to the notion of dogs with advanced levels of intelligence.

Dr Bondeson outlined the case of Betsy, a border collie who, in 2002, was able to respond consistently accurately to more than 340 separate words.

In addition, she could identify 15 people by name, and select the correct toy from a two-dimensional drawing, even if she had not seen either the photo or the toy before.

"It's clear dogs have levels of intelligence entirely separate to, and well beyond, any test we can devise to measure it. You only have to look at the way in which they've adapted from wild animals to become entirely comfortable in domestic human surroundings to see the truth of that."

"The mistake generations of humans have made is to try and attribute human values and measures to canine intelligence."

"The question is maybe one of motivation. Dogs seem to respond to the need to eat, the need to ingratiate themselves with their pack, and in response to danger."

"Within those confines, there are limitless accounts of dogs' ingenuity, but they sadly don't appear to have humans' ability for imagination and abstract thought."

Dr Bondeson says he ia too busy working and travelling to own a dog himself at the moment, but would love to have a Newfoundland when he retires to his native Sweden.