Do You Believe a New Study Saying Dogs Are Not Smart?


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By now, most of us have seen the 2008 film Taken, starring Liam Neeson, and it features what is easily one of the most frequently parodied and repeated speeches. In it, Leeson’s character Bryan Mills, threatens an adversary and says, “I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career.”

Why do I bring this up in an article about dog intelligence? Well, it all started when I read the title of a story in Popular Science from September 2018. The title said this: “Dogs aren’t especially smart, but they have a particular set of skills”. Now, I won’t lie – I was deeply annoyed by that.

Upon reading that, I felt like getting hold of the Neeson character and asking him to make a similar call to the people who published that article!

Dogs, NOT smart? Who are they kidding!

But, me being me, I was compelled to read it through and see what these maniacs were trying to say.My attitude did not improve within the first paragraph which said that “Sure, dogs are smart—at least when it comes to working with humans. But pigs, for instance, are smarter…”

Okay, I thought, where is this headed? It seems that some scientists worried that too much emphasis has been placed on dog intelligence – in the scientific and everyday communities – when animal intelligence is the issue being studied. Dogs have been the focus of cognitive research for centuries (do you hear Mr. Pavlov’s bell ringing?), and it has only been in recent eras that primates and other animals began to attract notice.

This led one team to wonder “if dogs had been oversold as uniquely intelligent” or just over emphasized in most studies. In other words, are they so amazingly smart or is that we’ve looked at them too closely and far more than others.

So, they set out to compare the findings of more than 300 different cognitive studies and “compared dog studies of ability to studies of three broad groups, all of which dogs could be said to fall into: carnivorans (the fancy term for ‘carnivores’), social hunters that rely on one another to bring down prey, and domesticated animals.”

If that left you as confused as it did me, let me explain – they “reviewed evidence that compared the brain power of dogs with other domestic animals, other social hunters and other carnivorans (an order including animals such as dogs, wolves, bears, lions and hyenas).” Okay, it was that explained. Still, it meant they were looking at the abilities that dogs have been studied for displaying in order to see how other animals lined up against dogs in studies of said abilities.

Okay, I thought, fair enough. Comparing them to other meat eaters, social hunters (like lionesses) and domestic animals like pigs is only rational. Then came the blow – it seems all of that data pointed to one truth and it was that dogs don’t really stand out from other animals in those groupings and categories. The pigs, for instance, were able to match or even outsmart dogs in certain capabilities.

The Upside

In doing all of the comparisons, scientists did notice something utterly unique about dogs. Where dogs DO stand out, is that they are unique in their ability to match animals in all of the groupings, i.e. they actually fit into all three categories. As another researcher said of the study, “Even within the proposal that dogs aren’t uniquely intelligent… there may be something interesting and unique about dogs that enables them to sit in the middle of those three categories.”

Multi-taskers capable of doing an array of things that few other animals seem capable of doing; I’d say that impressive. And yet, the scientists were not quite ready to let go of this idea that dogs are not smarter than other animals.

They argued that it was their ongoing and prolonged presence in the lives of humans that enable us to recognize their intelligence to such an extent. As one researcher explained, “they are naturally comfortable around us…the human environment is their natural environment and that’s not true of most of the other animals”.

The actual study noted that “Dog cognition may not be exceptional, but dogs are certainly exceptional cognitive research subjects…they have been selected for, over the millennia, based on their performance in a range of cognitively interesting tasks…Our knowledge of nonhumans’ understanding of pointing, gaze, and other human signals has been greatly expanded through studies on dogs…There are several fields of cognition—empathy, for example—where almost our only non-primate evidence comes from dogs, and the number of these seems likely to grow because the cooperativeness of dogs means that more complex research designs can be carried through than could be contemplated with less obliging subjects…And although dogs may not be typical carnivorans, or typical social hunters, or typical domestic animals, what we know about cognition in all those groups consists to a substantial extent of what we know about dog cognition.”

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In other words, we know ourselves better because of dogs. We understand the issue of understanding better because of them. And we can hopefully come to understand “what, fundamentally, a dog uniquely is” because of the study.

And yet it was also clear that the study had hopes of gaining some clarity on the ways that dogs think, too. Not just what they are or mean in the greater sense of the human world, or even human understanding of it.

How They Think

Another point the research touched on is that it is growing more and more important for us to figure out how dogs think. Their populations in many parts of the world, especially the US and European nations, is growing significantly, and they are being looked to as more than pets. They are support animals, security providers, and even showing that they can use their powerful sense of smell in ways previously untapped, such as sniffing out different types of cancers or chemical changes prior to seizures.

As another report on the study had to say: “Because of their overlapping classifications, canines are uniquely well-suited to certain tasks, such as serving as guides for the blind or assistants to police officers. But in each of these three categories, you will find other animals or other species that will do as well as dogs, or maybe even better. And many animals could be considered special when examined through the lens of their specific qualities…”

The scientists also argued that studies of this kind may allow us to better understand the cognition of other highly intelligent animals and then better meet their needs in terms of welfare, mental stimulation, socialization and more. That too I think we can all appreciate.

Today, we have no idea how to express or communicate our wish for animal help or support with different tasks unless we are clear about the ways that animals “think”. They do not think in universal ways and there is no such thing as a “generalized” animal. Yet, the interaction of dogs with humans allows us to understand their cognition in ways we cannot with so many other species.

The Verdict

So, the verdict is that dogs are smart, but not supremely so over all other animals.

I am perfectly fine with that conclusion. And I really loved what one of the researchers had to say about canine intelligence specifically, noting that “treating dogs like a superlatively intelligent species may actually be doing them a disservice. We need to take into account that dogs are dogs. We need to be fair toward dogs, to know what their limits are, so we don’t expect too much.”

Yet, I really wish they had mentioned or looked at what it is dogs expect or need from us. Animal studies, by nature, are one-sided. They have an objective and use specific methods to look for and obtain answers. And though the report does close with a sentence emphasizing the importance of understanding what a dog is – on a fundamental and unique level – it does not mention what dogs need from us.

Psychology of Dogs

We think dogs are smart. I mean, I know Janice and Leroy are smarty pants canines, and I know lots of other dogs who are incredibly bright. And because of that, I often ask people why they think dogs and people live together so well. Why on earth did dogs choose to live with us? It is something I look at from lots of angles and write about often in these pages.

In fact, only a few weeks ago I ran across an article about the history of canines in the human timeline and wrote about it here. In that particular study, scientists argued that we would never have flourished and grown to our modern populations without the help of dogs. They even said that dogs have been domesticated at least twice in the human timeline – first as wild wolves and then again after they migrated and encountered other human populations.

While there is a huge amount of debate about any such theories, I for one believe strongly that we couldn’t have achieved all that we have without the help of dogs (or wolves). On the most basic level – think of the hunter-gatherer hunting in a group and with primitive tools. Then imagine the hunter-gatherer who had the help of dogs to run down prey. Clearly, it is that dog-assisted group that would have more protein and better health.

Yet, after reading that study, I began to wonder about that one scientist noting how the human environment is a dog’s natural environment. I began to look at different psychology articles to understand why humans and dogs are so well adapted to one another.

An article in Psychology Today gave a few answers, saying that “Dogs have a special chemistry with humans that goes back many tens of thousands of years.” Yet, the article noted that the social adaptations of humans and dogs are so similar that it has to be part of the reason that we can all co-exist so easily.

Both groups are territorial, hunt cooperatively and form packs or tribes that are emotionally bonded, often enthusiastically greeting one another after any sort of separation. There is tremendous overlap, in fact, and many dog owners view dogs as family members with dogs becoming protective guardians and loving towards children.

We are so closely related, in fact, that we forget they are NOT human. As one psychologist said, “on an emotional plane, families do not see the dog as alien… 40% of owners identify their dog as a family member reflecting social compatibility between our two species.”

So, dogs recognize something of themselves in us, as we do in them, and this helps us to bond. Yet, dogs are way better at guessing what we are going to do and are often much better readers of body language than most people. They are, as the article noted, “attuned to the emotional state of their masters” and can often express an emotion that mirrors or balances our own.

It goes beyond symbiotic relationships, and what I’m getting at here is that dogs may not be the Einsteins of the animal kingdom that many of us would argue (I know dolphins and chimps are scary smart, too), but they have “emotional intelligence”.

They are able to recognize and understand emotions in others, and themselves. If you disagree, just look at a dog that is guilty of doing something naughty. Watch them as they have “sympathetic yawns” in response to your own yawns and watch them tilt their heads when they are confused and seek clarity. They read inflection in the human voice and expressions of the human face.

We can all agree that dogs are intelligent and that they are a vital part of the human environment. The study said they have certain skills, and that they are actually quite numerous skills. And as sentimental as it sounds, I think one of those skills is to see and forgive humans their ignorance, and still love us unconditionally.

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