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How Intelligent Do People Actually Think Dogs Are?

Dog owners seem to rate their dogs as being smarter than canine scientists do.

At a recent neighborhood gathering I found myself chatting with a woman who told me, "Dogs are really smart. My dog Robbie can read my moods better than my eight-year-old son Steven." Her part of the conversation was similar to many that I have had before. It is quite common for people to try to estimate the intelligence of their dogs and this usually involves comparing dogs to other animals or even to humans at various ages. Some research has been done in this area and it has generally been found that people rate dogs as smarter than most domestic animals (such as cows, pigs, cats, horses, sheep, chickens, and turkeys) but not as highly as children. Recently a team of Australian researchers headed by Tiffany Howell of Monash University decided to explore this issue further.*

In their study the data was gathered using an online survey. There were two main parts to the survey. The first part asked about how the person perceived the intelligence or mental capacities of dogs. This was done by presenting a series of statements and asking people to rate how much they agreed or disagreed with them on a five-point scale ranging from 1 = "strongly disagree" to 5 = "strongly agree". There were some items concerning dogs' ability to interpret human emotions (e.g. "Dogs are capable of understanding when their owner is happy"). A number of items concerned problem-solving ability and learning abilities (e.g. "If you put a toy or a treat behind a wire barrier like a fence, dogs can learn to go around the barrier to obtain the object by watching other dogs do it first"). In addition there were items about a dog's instinctive behaviors (e.g. "Dogs can instinctively solve problems like opening a container lid to get a treat"). Finally there were some general estimates of dogs' overall intelligence. The second part of the survey asked about how close the emotional bond was between the dog owner and his or her pet. In the end the research team decided to keep data only from dog owners, which meant they had 559 surveys to analyze.

As is typical of such research, the data was processed using some complex statistical techniques (such as factor analysis) which often makes it difficult for the average person to wade through the material and determine what was actually found. However there are some interesting nuggets of information that can be pulled out of these data. One of the most interesting findings is that the emotional closeness that people feel for their dogs is a strong predictor of how smart they think that their dogs are. The stronger the bond between the owner and the dog, the more likely it is that they will rate dogs as having higher levels of mental ability. This means that dog owners who were emotionally close with their dogs felt that dogs could recognize human emotions, learn to solve problems, model the behavior of people or dogs, were aware of human attention, had the ability to engage in deception, and had a higher general intelligence compared with humans. However, there was one exception in that the people who were emotionally closer to their pets or reported that they were more knowledgeable about canines also felt that the instinctive abilities of dogs were lower. In other words, they felt it was less likely that dogs would instinctively know which string to pull to get a treat when faced with a problem like that shown here or how to get treats when blocked by a barrier. In other words, they were confident the dogs could learn to solve the problems but felt that they couldn't solve them on their own.

Perhaps the most interesting finding has to do with the dog owners' comparisons of the mental age of their pets to that of human beings. As can be seen in the figure, the greatest number of people judge their dogs as having mental abilities equivalent to that of a human child aged 3 to 5 years. However, looking at the graph you can see that more than 1 out of every 4 dog owners believe their dog is as smart as a human who is six years old or older. 1 in 10 dog owners perceives their dog of having a mental ability that is equivalent to a human adolescent aged 11 years or older, and it is astonishing to find that 1 out of every 20 dog owners believe that dogs have the mental ability of humans who are 16 years of age or older.

So how do these judgments of dog owners compare to the actual scientific data on the mental abilities of dogs? Well, dog owners feel that their pets can judge human emotions and there is a lot of data which shows that they are right about this (click here or here for examples). Dog owners feel that their dogs can learn to solve problems, often by just observing the behavior of humans or other dogs who know the solution and again they are right about this (click here for an example). However, when it comes to comparing the equivalent mental abilities of dogs to that of humans of various ages, it appears that the dog owners tend to overestimate the cognitive ability of dogs relative to what the scientific data seems to be showing us. The research findings are that dogs' mental abilities are most similar to that of human children between the age of two and three (click here for an example). In the current study the dog owners most commonly placed the intelligence of dogs in the 3 to 5-year-old human range and nearly 25 percent of them rated it a lot higher than that. So dogs may be smart, but perhaps not as smart as we seem to perceive them to be.

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: The Wisdom of Dogs; Do Dogs Dream? Born to Bark; The Modern Dog; Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History; How Dogs Think; How To Speak Dog; Why We Love the Dogs We Do; What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs; Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies; Sleep Thieves; The Left-hander Syndrome

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* Data from: Tiffani Josey Howell, Samia Toukhsati, Russell Conduit, Pauleen Bennett (2013). The Perceptions of Dog Intelligence and Cognitive Skills (PoDIaCS) Survey. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 8, 418-424

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