Why-Q: Do we care how ‘smart’ our dogs are?

How long until we get to the giant cake?
How long until we get to the giant cake?

Miles the dog is crazy smart, with an emphasis on the crazy. If he channeled the brainpower he otherwise devotes to locating food and molecular remnants of food, he could probably cure cancer.

There's gotta be something edible down here somewhere....
There’s gotta be something edible down here somewhere….

In his 12 years on this planet, Miles has learned how to open just about every type of door that may conceal food (he has unsealed numerous pantries, closets and cupboards to treat himself to between-meal buffets); he knows that closed containers can sometimes be knocked from high ground and their contents loosed (Miles was the lone beneficiary of Christmas cookies from my mother a few years back, which he obtained by jarring the refrigerator, atop which the cookies apparently taunted him from their airtight, Tupperware interior—after additional episodes the attending human finally stopped leaving anything edible in the open, no matter how far it may seem out of reach); he once turned a weekend backpacking excursion into an overnight camping trip when he burst through the tent door and ferreted out the individually bagged portions of dog food from the bottom of my pack while I gathered firewood (he strikes quickly and decisively). Diabetes, blindness and old age have neither diminished his appetite nor dulled his reasoning. If anything, he has grown craftier and more keenly attuned to his surroundings and to the whereabouts of humans who would foil his quest to spend every waking second eating.

Miles is the embodiment of Baruch Spinoza’s notion that, “Will and intellect are one and the same thing.”

As more people bring dogs into their homes, and as more people view their furry companions as family members instead of as mere pets, canine intellect is the focus of expanding attention and research. People want to know how smart their dogs are, and dogs happen to be abundant and obliging subjects (especially when the experimentation involves attention and treats).

A Jan. 7 article in The New York Times detailed humans’ increasing obsession with their dogs’ intellect and highlighted the rise of canine intelligence research; Yale University and Duke University, for example, each operates a dedicated Canine Cognition Center (“Your dog has to come to our center at least four times to get an undergraduate degree,” digs Duke’s Dr. Brian Hare, who is also the cofounder of Dognition. “But only once to get a certificate at Yale.”).

Eat dreams....
Eat dreams….

Intelligence, of course, is a human concept, so we’re projecting on our pets. When it comes to dogs, many people equate intellect with trainability and obedience. But research indicates—and I would attest based on personal experience—that smart dogs can be challenging. Certain breeds also have inherent traits and excel at certain tasks for which they have been propagated for centuries; it’s unfair to compare the “intelligence” of different breeds or mixed breeds based on a narrow set of abilities at which one of them may be predisposed to excel.

Some canine cognition studies are breed specific, while others inadvertently reveal variances between breeds; research published in 1995, for instance, implied that breed may impact spatial learning. Still others take a broader approach; Dognition acknowledges breed as a variable, but it bases its intelligence assessments primarily on home-based games and tests that target five key areas: empathy, communication, cunning, memory and reasoning.

A dog’s cognitive abilities aren’t limited to its learning threshold and problem-solving skills, however. A recent study suggested dogs have the capacity for episodic memory, the autobiographical recollection of a specific experience. Another new study demonstrated that adult dogs don’t respond to our condescending baby talk.

Less baby talk, more dispensing of food...
Less baby talk, more dispensing of food…

It should be noted that most canine cognition research focuses on domesticated dogs who are accustomed to interfacing with humans. People have significantly impacted dogs’ breeds and behaviors, and in many cases we shape their individual development from puppyhood. Dogs largely rely on us for their basic needs, and they also turn to us for help to solve problems in a way that even wolves raised by humans do not; a 2015 study found that dogs will most often turn to a present human when faced with a perplexing situation, while wolves continue to focus on the task at hand (or paw) until they figure it out.

But intelligence is relative and sometimes (though not in presidential elections) overrated. On Dognition’s evaluation, Chaser, a border collie famed for understanding more than 1,000 words and often billed as “the smartest dog in the world,” scored high for intelligence and memory but low for empathy and communication; in The New York Times piece, Dr. Hare called Chaser “totally uninteresting.”

In other words, to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Character is higher than intellect.” Fortunately for Miles, he has enough of the former to balance the latter that he might live long enough to learn to open a new type of door or two.

Miles is devising a way to convert snow into carbohydrates.
Miles is devising a way to convert snow into carbohydrates.

4 thoughts on “Why-Q: Do we care how ‘smart’ our dogs are?

Add yours

  1. That’s incredible! Thanks for sharing; I hadn’t heard about that previously. I’ve read that many types of rats are “smart,” but after living in New York for a couple years I must admit I did not hold them in high regard. The movie “Ratatouille” helped, and this moved them up another notch.


  2. I just turned my back on some work I need to get done to read this. Thanks. It made me smile. When i was growing up we had a black Labrador. one day she stole a whole ham from the table (my parents were running a pub at the time, and this was meant for customers) and buried it in the garden. Our dachshund learned to check my mother’s bag for goodies she might have received from patients when she returned to nursing, and to take them outsode away from questioning eyes of humans.
    I think we are at the beginning of understanding animal intelligence. I’m fascinated that pet cats and dogs have learned to talk to us, when in the wild they rarely vocalise among themselves.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You make a great point about how dogs and cats have learned to communicate with us. I think our perceptions of animal intelligence are also shifting; just because we can’t measure their intellect in the same ways doesn’t mean they’re not smart. Reading a couple of the recent dog-related studies made me think of the book “The Soul of an Octopus,” which detailed a surprising level of cognition and problem-solving skills. As we learn more about the intelligence of other animals, hopefully we’ll accept them more broadly as our fellow travelers on this planet.


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