Dog Smarts: If We Were Smarter We'd Understand Them Better

"My own dog is an idiot, but she’s a lovable idiot" claims dog researcher

Posted Jan 11, 2017

"I used to look at [my dog] Smokey and think, 'If you were a little smarter you could tell me what you were thinking,' and he'd look at me like he was saying, 'If you were a little smarter, I wouldn't have to.'" -- Fred Jungclaus

GARETH COOK: What is the biggest misconception people have about the dog mind?

BRIAN HARE: That there are “smart” dogs and “dumb” dogs. There's still this throwback to a unidimensional version of intelligence, as though there is only one type of intelligence that you either have more or less of.

Both Fred Jungclaus and Dr. Hare, who runs the Duke Canine Cognition Center are right on the mark.

We need to be more clever in our studies of dog intelligence, and research has shown there are multiple intelligences in dogs and other animals and individual differences among members of the same species are to be expected. They are the rule rather than the exception. Research has shown that there are many different variables that can influence a dog’s performance in laboratory settings, and it's not at all unexpected that there will be differences among the results stemming from different research labs. These variables include how many dogs were studied, their gender, their age, and the exact sorts of experiments that were conducted. Furthermore, an individual dog can have a “bad day,” just like we can, and his or her behavior will reflect this, so it would be misleading to say this is who they are and how smart they are.

Along these lines, Emily Bray and her colleagues have discovered that temperament, in the form of increased arousal, can influence a dog’s problem-solving cognitive performance. They discovered differences between pet dogs and service dogs and also that experimenters could manipulate a dog’s level of arousal. Highly aroused pet dogs showed a decline in performance, whereas highly aroused service dogs showed enhanced performance in the problem-solving tests that were used. 

Clearly, we must be very careful of oversimplifying what we actually know about “the dog.” And, of course, this isn’t a criticism of the researchers or the work they do, but rather a fascinating fact that makes the science of dog cognition and behavior (and their emotional lives) all the more interesting and captivating.

I'm interested in anything that's written about dogs, so a recent essay by Jan Hoffman in the New York Times called "To Rate How Smart Dogs Are, Humans Learn New Tricks" caught my eye. Ms. Hoffman's essay is available online so here I just want to make a few comments on the topic of dog smarts. I've also recently written about some aspects of dog behavior and dog-human interactions (please see, for example "If Dogs Truly Were Human They Would Be Jerks," "Training Dogs: Food is Fine and Your Dog Will Still Love You," "Dogs, Dominance, Breeding, and Legislation: A Mixed Bag," "Some Dogs Prefer Praise and a Belly Rub Over Treats," and "Do Dogs Really Bite Someone for "No Reason at All"? Take Two") and their cognitive capacities ("Dogs Remember More Than You Think" and "How Smart Is that Doggie at My Table? A Measurable Fido IQ"). 

Ms. Hoffman begins, "Suddenly how smart your dog is seems to matter — an aspiration that has also not gone unnoticed by the commercial pet industry. Walk into any pet supply chain, such as the aptly named PetSmart, and take in the toys, gadgets and foods advertised as optimizing a dog’s intelligence. Or just do an online search for 'brain games to play with your dog.'” She then asks the crucial questions, "But when owners use 'smart' and 'dog' in the same sentence, what exactly do they mean? Smart compared with what [sic]? A cat? Another dog? A human?" The only meaningful comparisons as far as I'm concerned would be with other dogs, as cross-species comparisons in intelligence are fraught with error because individuals do what they need to do to be card-carrying members of their speciesDogs do what they need to do to be dogs, and cats do what they need to do to be cats. Mice can do things that dogs can’t do, as can ants, but it doesn’t get us anywhere to say individuals of one species are smarter than the other.

Intelligence can be viewed as an adaptation and individuals within species vary, so it’s possible to ask if one dog is smarter or more adaptable than another, but this too must be done with care because dogs like other animals display what are called multiple intelligences, so there can be street smart dogs, dogs who are better than others at stealing food or living on their own, and dogs who are better at adapting to the comforts of a human home. 

“There are no ‘unintelligent’ animals; only careless observations and poorly designed experiments”

Two quotes caught my eye in Ms. Hoffman's essay. The first is, "Smart dogs are often a nuisance ... They get restless, bored and create trouble.” The second quote reads, "I think ‘smarts’ is a red herring ... What we really need in our dogs is affection. My own dog is an idiot, but she’s a lovable idiot.” Both were offered by Dr. Clive Wynne. While smart dogs can be a nuisance, so too can dogs who we believe are not all that clever. I've seen this over and over again. All sorts of dogs become a nuisance, but often it's due to how the humans interact with them, rather than who the dogs really are. And, frequently the dog really isn't being a "nuisance." Rather, the human with them simply doesn't understand what their dog is doing or trying to tell them. Because there are different types of canine intelligence, I'm not sure what it means to talk about smart and not-so-smart dogs.

But, what about dogs being idiots? Are there really dunce dogs? Once again, we need to be very careful about characterizing dogs in this way. One of my favorite quotes about how we refer to other animals comes from the Hungarian anatomist, János Szentagothai, who famously remarked, “There are no ‘unintelligent’ animals; only careless observations and poorly designed experiments.” And, there's Dr. Frans de Waal's very interesting book called Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? (For further discussion please see "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?") In this book de Waal asks us "to rethink everything you thought you knew about animal―and human―intelligence." de Waal concludes, "Instead of making humanity the measure of all things, we need to evaluate other species by what they are. In doing so, I am sure we will discover many magic wells, including some as yet beyond our imagination." (p. 275) 

I couldn't agree more. It could well be the case the dogs we call idiots are just not well understood and we need to do much more to learn just who they are and what kinds of intelligence(s) they possess. And, discoveries we consider to be "surprises" aren't really all that surprising when we keep an open mind about what we are learning about cognitive capacities of other species

Where are we now?

While we know quite a bit about dog smarts, there still is much to learn. And, what's called "citizen science" can really help us along. In 2015, an international group of researchers concluded, “in the future, citizen scientists will generate useful datasets that test hypotheses and answer questions as a complement to conventional laboratory techniques used to study dog psychology.” Also, many researchers agree that there are multiple intelligences in dogs. 

A recent review of research of dog cognition by Miles Bensky and his colleagues concluded (1) we need to focus on replication of research results, (2) it’s important to be able to apply what we learn to helping dogs live with humans and other dogs, and (3) we need to pay attention to individual differences. That more attention has to be paid to individual dogs is clear. In a review essay that covered research on the cognitive abilities of dogs from 1911 to 2016, Rosalind Arden and her colleagues found only three studies that focused on individual differences. They also found that the median sample size for studies was 16 dogs. Dr. Arden was part of a very important study on dog IQ and individual differences among dogs I mentioned above.

Concerning differences in the results coming from different groups of researchers, one dog expert wrote to me in October 2016 and asked, “Who are these dogs in all of these tests?” He was referring to the clear fact that it's just not possible to say all or even most or many dogs do this, all or even most or many dogs do that, or dogs and wolves are similar in this way and different in that way. Many of the people I meet walking their dogs and at dog parks know this already! And, many dogs act like they’re one of a kind. 

Dogs aren't brain-dead beings

Clearly we need much more work on dog smarts to learn about what they're capable of and to come to a fuller appreciation of individual differences. We also need to study dogs outside of laboratories and come to appreciate what they know and what they can do when they're more on their own. And, while we're doing these studies, let's keep in mind János Szentagothai and Frans de Waal's cautioning us about writing off other animals as brain-dead beings, for they surely are not. We need to sharpen our skills and also appreciate that variation is the name of the game, and how exciting this is as we probe more into the minds and hearts of dogs and other animals. 

Anonymous and ad hominem comments will not be accepted. 


Szenthgothai, J. “The ‘Brain-Mind’ Relation: A Pseudo-Problem?” In Mindwaves: Thoughts on Intelligence, Identity and Consciousness, edited by C. Blakemore and S. Greenfield, 323–36. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1987. (p. 323)

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals' Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in April 2017 and Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018.

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