Is your dog smart? I know both my dogs are. I think if you ask any dog owner, they would have dozens of stories to show how clever their canine companions can be. Our dogs seem to have some pretty amazing abilities from being able to work out how to steal an appetizer from the table while we’re not looking to knowing when it’s time to for dinner even before we do. And that’s just the stuff they pick up on their own.
When it comes to training, the sheer variety of behaviours people have been able to train dogs to do is just jaw-droppingly amazing. From cute tricks like walking on their front paws only to more the more utilitarian skills of service dogs like answering a telephone, dogs have proven their intellectual capabilities many times over. Their ability to learn and repeat behaviours on demand is unparalleled in domesticated animals.
A different experience of the world
What makes our dogs’ intelligence all that much more astounding is that it comes from a very different brain than the one that we use. While our dogs share our five senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell, their biology makes their experience of these senses radically different from ours. Some estimates have put the dog’s sense of smell at more than 100,000 times more acute than that of humans. And the part of the brain that controls scent processing in the dog’s brain is 40 times larger than its counterpart in the human brain. It’s safe to assume that our dogs base a lot of their experience of the world on what they smell.
Sight and hearing also have their distinct differences. Dogs have a wider field of vision than humans but a smaller field of depth perception. They have eyes that have evolved from a predator to accurately predict and track movement and they are not good at detecting fine details in stationary objects. While a dog’s hearing range is close to that of humans, it is 3 to 4 times more acute – meaning that a dog can detect sounds happening up to a mile away in some cases.
Aliens in our living rooms
I have often said that communicating with dogs is very likely the closest I will ever get to communicating with an alien species in my lifetime. While they live in the same world I do, their experience of it is very different. Yet we find a way to understand each other and work together. That easy coexistence has made the dog our closest companion and the only domesticated animal we put to death in the millions that is not used for food.
When dogs exhibit human characteristics, we find them clever, cute, and very endearing. The trouble with this is that our dogs may be doing things that look human but they are doing them for very diffferent reasons than we may think. There are many factors that contribute to this from the differences in the biology of our dog’s brains to the different ways they process and use information. Our dogs can make what looks like very “human” choices but they are doing it for very “canine” reasons. And that can lead to humans assuming too much in our dogs.
That disconnect, expecting human motivations and thought process in our dogs, can lead to us being disappointed, angry, or worse. A quick scan of blogs on the Internet from both dog fancier and dog professionals will show a variety of curious assumptions. Some believe that dogs can hold grudges and plan revenge, others believe that dogs must show respect to their owners, and still others believe that dogs find some kind of pleasure in willfully disobeying their owners. Science has given us enough insight to know that the canine brain, lacking the complexity of our human brains, cannot even process higher order emotions like “vengeance”, “respect”, or “schadenfreude” (the joy found in the discomfort or frustration of others who we feel deserve it).
Racket science and Smell-o-vision
The fact that my dog doesn’t think like a human is not necessarily a handicap. My dogs are absolutely brilliant at things I can’t ever hope to be good at. Our tracking dog, Rizzo, is so keen to use his nose at tracking class that the best reward for him finding the hidden object on the track is…another chance to track! He would rather have another scent to track down than any kind of food reward.
As I sit here writing this, my older dog Tira is next to me. I won’t have to wait to hear my wife’s van pull up to know that she is back. Tira will hear it a full 30 seconds before I will. And she will know that it is our van because she recognizes the unique sound. Our dogs whine with excitement when we approach favorite exercise spots even if they are in their crates in the back with only a limited field of vision. Our dogs seem to have an uncanny sense of direction when out hiking or away from the house. They just don’t get lost.
Dogs, with their alien senses and different memory systems, do things for different reasons than humans do. Science has been testing the intelligence of dogs for over a century. At the turn of the 20th century, psychologist Edward Thorndike tried to devise experiments to determine the problem solving abilities of dogs. While not entirely successful, Thorndike was able to determine that dogs learn by “trial and error” learning and not by conceptual learning as humans do.
Research in canine cognition continues in our modern era. One study by researchers Britta Osthaus, Stephen Lea, and Alan Slater attempted to determine if a dog could understand the means by which a solution could be reached rather than just trial and error learning. In their experiment, the researchers placed a food treat behind a barrier but visible to the dog. The treat was connected by a string to a piece of wood that could be pawed or grasped with the dog’s teeth and pulled through an opening. In the experiments, either one or two strings were presented to the dog. The results showed that the dogs showed a marked preference for the string visually closest to the treat even if that string was not connected to the treat. It seems clear that the dogs did not understand the means – the connected string – to get the treat but only repeated an action that had been successful for them before.
Great minds but not thinking alike
What difference does all of this make? Does it matter that dogs think differently and approach the world differently than humans? I think it does. Every time I hear someone disgustedly mutter, “Stupid dog” I have to wonder how they don’t see the dozens of astonishing feats of intelligence their dogs exhibit every day. A dog always seems to be in the right place for that dropped piece of food. They seem to always dodge the dropped object. They always seem to know when it’s dinner or walk time. They know where the cookies are kept. They know when to come to us for comfort and when to keep their distance.
Dogs are incredibly intelligent and adept at kinds of thinking at which humans seem woefully inadequate. A dog would indeed make a fairly stupid human. But we would make pretty clumsy dogs with all of our conceptual thinking. Our dogs have reflexes and thinking patterns that make humans look ridiculously slow. But only in their unique canine way, in the way that they respond to the world.
The danger here is that we humans try too hard to map the intelligence of our dogs into our own experience of the world. We want them to think like we do. We constantly make comparisons and are either amazed or frustrated when those comparisons seem to work out perfectly or not at all. It is important to recognize the innate intelligence of dogs as a species. The fact that we use dogs as search and rescue workers and assistants to the physically and mentally disabled shows that we have already put the unique abilities of dogs to productive use. Unfortunately, it is much more common that our dogs disappoint us by not being enough like us. We can’t understand why the alien does what he does. Sometimes it’s frustrating enough that we punish them. Sometimes we even send them away. And sometimes we even put them to death when we don’t understand.
Dogs are not human. Dogs are dogs. And they are pretty smart at being dogs and doing what dogs do. As their caretakers, we need to stay aware of that and not punish them for not being human. We should be helping them be successful in a world that was not designed by them or for them. One in which they live with us hoping for some companionship and security.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
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