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In What Ways Are Dogs Intelligent?

There is no human counterpart to some types of dog intelligence

At Gizmodo recently, George Dvorsky adopted the useful, though somewhat unusual, strategy of determining dog intelligence by focusing on what dogs can’t do. He starts with the premise, as put by University of Exeter psychology professor (and dog expert) Stephen Lea, who says that domestication “has radically altered the intelligence of dogs.” Not so much raised or lowered it as changed its nature from the type of intelligence we would expect from a wolf:

“Dogs are very good at what they’re bred to do — they’re excellent at doing those things, and in some cases even better than other species we think are intelligent, such as chimps and bonobos,” Zachary Silver, a PhD student from the Comparative Cognitive Lab at Yale University, told Gizmodo. “But as soon as we step outside of that domain, we see a lot of failures in cognition, including a lack of flexibility and cognitive sophistication.”

George Dvorsky, “How Stupid Are Dogs, Really?” at Gizmodo (July 22, 2020)

Okay, so what specifically are dogs not good at, in Dvorsky’s telling?

Individual dogs show many differences because of breed, socialization, and experience but, in general, here are the test questions:

  • Do dogs show self-awareness? We’re told that they flunk a “classic test of self-awareness,” recognizing themselves in a mirror. Humans, great apes, and dolphins can do that but “Dogs are terrible at this, either ignoring their reflection or thinking it’s another dog.” But wait. A fish, the blue streak cleaner wrasse, also passed that test. No one thinks that the cleaner wrasse is self-aware. The test was originally developed for chimpanzees and results tabulated from various species here and there might not demonstrate anything significant.
  • Do dogs understand what we are saying? University of Toronto psychology professor Daphna Buchsbaum told Dvorsky that dogs can connect names with objects more easily than other animals do. One border collie, Chaser (2004–2019), is said to have recognized over 1000 words referring to toys:

But, Buchsbaum noted, dogs don’t understand grammar. That’s no surprise; grammar involves abstractions, which is not dog territory. Dogs, however, are better than wolves or chimpanzees at understanding human gestures, probably because of their importance to the dog.

  • Can dogs count? They don’t appear to be able to count or do sums though they do understand more vs. less. A number of animals, including chimpanzees and honey bees can count one-digit numbers, given an incentive.
  • Are dogs good at problem-solving? They don’t do well at that either independently or co-operatively. Dvorsky notes, “Indeed, as research from 2017 found, when working on a complex puzzle that could be solved with mutual effort, one dog will try to solve the conundrum, while the other dog will simply stand and watch.” But then, humans usually don’t expect — even want — dogs to solve their own problems. It’s no surprise, perhaps that the dogs don’t try. Or that wolves are better at it.

But dogs can navigate, using Earth’s magnetic field

On the other hand, there is no human counterpart to some types of dog intelligence. There are many stories of dogs finding their way home against difficult odds:

Researchers are only beginning to understand how sensing Earth’s magnetic field might play a role, as in a recent open access study:

When called back to their owners, the dogs used two different methods for finding their way back from an average of 1.1 kilometers (about .7 miles) away. About 60 percent of the dogs used their noses to follow their outbound route in reverse, a strategy known as “tracking,” while the other 30 percent opted to use a new route, found through a process called “scouting.”

Data from the scouting dogs revealed that their navigation capability is related to a magnetic connection. All of the dogs who did not follow their outbound path began their return with a short “compass run,” a quick scan of about 20 meters along the Earth’s north-south geomagnetic axis, reports the Miami Herald’s Mitchell Willetts. Because they don’t have any familiar visual landmarks to use, and dense vegetation at the study sites made “visual piloting unreliable,” the compass run helps the dogs recalibrate their own position to better estimate their “homing” direction.

Courtney Sexton, “How Do Dogs Find Their Way Home? They Might Sense Earth’s Magnetic Field” at Smithsonian Magazine (July 27, 2020)

Dogs are not unique in using geomagnetic field sensing. Pigeons, sea turtles, birds, lobsters, rainbow trout, newts, mole-rats, and others are thought to do so as well.

Is dog intelligence inherited?

Two new technologies have helped scientists better understand dog intelligence: fMRI imaging and genome mapping. One question researchers ask is, how much of a dog’s cognition (intelligence) is inherited and how much is learned?

A pair of new studies published in Animal Cognition and Integrative and Comparative Biology, used genome sequencing to quantify just how much dog cognition is based in genetics. They studied 1508 dogs from 36 breeds on 11 standardized tasks that animal behaviorists use:

The researchers analyzed the scores and found that about 70 percent of the variance in inhibitory control was heritable, or attributable to genes. Communication was about 50 percent heritable, while memory and physical reasoning were about 20 percent heritable. (July 31, 2020)

Viviane Callier, “What a Crowdsourced Study Taught Us About How Dogs Learn” at Smithsonian Magazine

“Inhibitory control” means that the dog does not do something when ordered not to. It’s not surprising if this quality and the ability to communicate with humans are heritable. Dogs are bred for those qualities and breed dogs’ ancestry is known. However, researchers caution, “Some of these traits are also influenced by environment and how the dog was handled as a puppy, so there are both genetic and environmental components.” As for problem-solving, well, as noted earlier, wolves are better at it. But again, no one rewards a wolf for not solving his own problems. What it all really shows is that the type of intelligence that dogs display is just the type that humans encourage, reward, and perpetuate.

Are some breeds really smarter than others?

Lists of smartest dog breeds turn up regularly in popular media. In a list from Reader’s Digest, from December 2019, border collies came first, followed by poodles and then German shepherds. This seems to be a widely accepted opinion but it’s not universal. The American Kennel Club, accessed August 5, 2020, lists the top three as American Leopard Hound, American Staffordshire Terrier, and Appenzeller Sennenhund. Woman’s Day offers the Gordon Setter, the Welsh Terrier, and the Old English Sheepdog as the first three of “20 smartest.”

What makes it complex is that a lot depends on what we are looking for when we say we are looking for canine intelligence:

Some dogs might excel at gauging social situations, others might be adept at learning words, while still others might have great problem-solving abilities — or your dog might have some other cognitive skill entirely.

Mary Robins, “Dog Cognition: Dogs Are Even Smarter Than You Think” at American Kennel Club (August 12, 2019)

The dog’s nose is his key sense organ

Robins at the Kennel Club reminds us that the dog relies on a different balance of the senses than we do. His nose is the equivalent of our eyes, only much more so:

Explosives-detection dogs smell as little as a picogram — a trillionth of a gram — of TNT or other explosive. What might it be like to notice a picogram of an odor? … The average cinnamon roll has about a gram of cinnamon in it. Sure, the human nose is on it, from the moment we open the door of the house. Now imagine the smell of one trillion cinnamon rolls. That’s what the dog coming in with us smells when we enter.

This sense of smell gives dogs remarkable insights into their environment. [Dog cognition researcher Alexandra] Horowitz notes that a tracking dog can tell which direction someone is moving in from smelling just five of their footprints.

Mary Robins, “Dog Cognition: Dogs Are Even Smarter Than You Think” at American Kennel Club (August 12, 2019)

What dogs really excel at is understanding humans. It’s the key to their well-being. Naturally, when they succeed, we think they are very clever. Are wolves more clever because they survive on their own? Well, they are more clever in certain ways, such as group co-operation and problem-solving, but not in understanding human communications. It really depends on what type of intelligence we want to measure.

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Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

In What Ways Are Dogs Intelligent?