Dogs Are Not Smarter Than Cats, and More: A Media Muddle

"Ha-ha, sourpuss. Cats have 9 lives but dogs have the sense of honor" misleads.

Posted Apr 22, 2018

An essay published in today's Sunday Times (UK) called "Ha-ha, sourpuss. Cats have 9 lives but dogs have the sense of humour" is a fun read, but unfortunately gets a number of things wrong, and this time it's personal. Last evening, before I'd had the chance to read this piece for which I was interviewed and in which I'm quoted, I received a few emails from overseas among which I was asked. "Did you really say this?", "You don't really believe this given what you've written previously, do you?" and "You've got to write something to set the record straight." Not knowing how the essay turned out, I went online and was able to read it and frankly was surprised given the much more rigorous and motivated conversation I'd had with the writer.1 (The essay seems to be available to people who register with the Times, but a few people told me they couldn't access it.) It's important to get things right, hence the reason for this corrective. (For more on how media misrepresents other animals, please see "Seeing Species: A New Book Looks at Animals in Media" and many links therein. There are widespread problems. For more on myth-busting and why it is essential to separate facts from beliefs, please see Dr. Jessica Pierce's essay called "Canine Myth Busting."2

The essay in which I'm quoted begins, "Dogs are not just brighter than cats but may also have evolved a sense of humour, say researchers who have compared the brains and behaviour of the two species." I'm then quoted as saying, "'Dogs do seem to enjoy entertaining people and making them laugh,' said Professor Marc Bekoff, an evolutionary biologist and author of Canine Confidential, a new book on dog behaviour. 'A sense of humour is valuable in social animals like dogs. However, I have seen no evidence of a sense of humour in cats.'”

The first statement is correct and I refer to a number of solid stories about dogs likely possessing a sense of humor and the need for more systematic research. However, I emphasized to the reported that the reason I have not seen evidence of a sense of humor in cats is because I've never studied them and have never lived with cats simply because I'm unpredictably allergic to many of these awesome animals. I would love to know more about cats, but I haven't been able to study them up close and personal, as I have been able to do with dogs. This is a extremely important omission because I've had people tell me that they've seen cats do some of the same things that dogs (and other animals) do, observations that lead them to argue that it's also likely that some cats do try to make us laugh and have a sense of humor.   

Who's smarter than whom? 

Later in this essay we read, “'Dogs are clearly brighter,' said Beverley Cuddy, editor of Dogs Today. 'Do we have Guide Cats for the Blind? Or police cats sniffing out drugs or explosives? No.'” Someone wrote to me and noted that there are clear practical reasons why there aren't "seeing eye cats," for example, and Ms. Cuddy's comments are gross overstatements of what we really know about research on comparisons of canine and feline intelligence. Also, being able to be a competent service dog or other animal relies on traits that go beyond being a guide dog or drug or explosive-sniffing dog. 

Intelligence as adaptation. The word “intelligence” generally refers to the ability of an individual to acquire knowledge and use it to adapt to different situations — to do what’s needed to accomplish various tasks, and survive. During my interview, we revisited the notion of "intelligence as adaptation" a number of times, because that is a good way to view what it means to be intelligent -- why have certain skills developed and evolved -- among members of different species.

There also are marked within-species variations. A friend of mine once told me about the free-running dogs she knew in a small town in Mexico who were cleverly street-smart and could survive in difficult conditions, but didn’t listen to humans all that well. Some were skilled at finding and snatching food and avoiding dogcatchers, unfriendly dogs, and people. Some were good at “playing” humans for food, whereas others weren’t. Conversely, I’ve known some intelligent, crafty, and adaptable dogs who weren’t street-smart, and likely couldn’t make it in such an environment. However, a few with whom I shared my home could easily steal my food and that of the other resident dog in a heartbeat, without either of us knowing what was happening. Individuals are smart in their own ways. 

"Asking if a dolphin is smarter than a crow is like asking if a hammer is better than a saw."

Most researchers with whom I'm in contact or with whose work I'm familiar, would refute Ms. Cuddy's claims that "Dogs are clearly brighter" than cats and that "bright dogs can make terrible pets." In an essay called "''My Own Dog Is an Idiot, but She’s a Lovable Idiot'”, I wrote quite a bit about the perils of cross-species comparisons in intelligence. I began with a quote from Duke University dog expert, Dr. Brian Hare, in an interview he did with Scientific American. When Dr. Hare was asked, “What is the biggest misconception people have about the dog mind?” he answered, “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.”

Questions I'm frequently asked deal with species differences in intelligence — are dogs smarter than cats, are birds smarter than fish, for example. I always say that animals need to do what's needed for them to be "card-carrying" members of their species, and we must remember that numerous nonhumans outperform us in many different ways, so the question about comparing different species doesn't mean much to me. Thus, I really like what Dr. Hare and Vanessa Woods write about this topic in their book The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You Think: "The cognitive approach celebrates many different types of intelligence and liberates us from the idea that intelligence is a linear scale with sea sponges at the bottom and humans at the top. Asking if a dolphin is smarter than a crow is like asking if a hammer is better than a saw. Which is a better tool depends on the task at hand or, in case of animals, which challenges they must regularly confront to survive and reproduce."

Cross-species comparisons are fraught with error. I know it's sort of cutesy to make eye-catching statements, but it's also very misleading. It's time we stop using eye-catching words and phrases when these comparisons are made, and focus on dogs as individuals. There really is no "the dog" (nor "the cat"), and what's so exciting about studying the cognitive and emotional lives of dogs and other animals is how much individual variation there is among members of the same species. As Linda Williams, an Associate Professor of Cultural and Environmental History at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, put it in an email to me, "the intelligence of both species [dogs and cats] manifests in different ways."

Do bright dogs really make terrible pets?

Concerning Ms. Cuddy's claim that "bright dogs can make terrible pets," she is not alone in making this sort of fatuous generalization. Dr. Clive Wynne, an Arizona State University dog researcher, has been quoted as saying, “Smart dogs are often a nuisance...They get restless, bored and create trouble,”

I know well that smart dogs can be a nuisance, but 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 to us for all sorts of reasons, but it’s not because of their levels of intelligence. These judgments reflect who we are and what we want from our dog. They arise from the particular success or frustrations that humans encounter as they interact with particular dogs, but they don’t reflect a common truth about who dogs really are. When dogs are experienced as a “nuisance,” it’s usually because their human 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. 

Where to from here?

Let's celebrate the year of the dog and continue learning about their emotional and cognitive capacities and how they develop, and why they have evolved. These data will surely be important in fostering and maintaining deep and reciprocal bonds between humans and dogs. Shared emotions work as a "social glue" to bond individuals of different species to one another, and when this happens, it can be a win-win for all. Dogs need all the help they can get in a human-dominated world, but unfortunately numerous dogs don't get what they want and need. Appreciating each and every individual's unique traits and being sure that a social relationship is good for all the beings involved, human and nonhuman, has to be the wave of the future. 

While I deeply appreciate, and am flattered by, the opportunity to be interviewed for different sorts of media, they've got to get it right. It's okay to be cute, but to conflate facts with beliefs and feelings misleads readers who are looking for credible information. 

The interesting and meaningful challenge for researchers and those who choose to share their homes and hearts with dogs is to understand each and every individual for who they are, and to come to appreciate why there are differences in cognitive skills, emotional capacities, and personalities. Recurring myths about dogs and other animals appear time and again and they undercut our ability to interact successfully with our canine friends. I look forward to reading about what we learn from future comparative studies and sharing this information with a wide audience who eagerly wants to know about what researchers discover and how this information can be used to enhance dog-human relationships. 

Notes:

1These are the questions sent to me in an email I was prepared to discuss.

-- What evolutionary forces might have helped boost canine intelligence? 
-- You suggest dogs may have a sense of humour -  is there much evidence for this?
How do the size and structure of dogs' brains support the idea that they have relatively good cognitive abilities?
-- You reject the idea of comparing the intelligence of cats and dogs but what can one say about the different kind of cognitive skills that dogs and cats might each have evolved? dogs, for example, are pack animals and so social intelligence might matter whereas cats are more individual and so have very different cognitive adaptations.

2In her essay Dr Pierce writes, "Dogs have never enjoyed so much attention from the media, either, and books and articles appear almost daily on one aspect or another of dog behavior or the human-dog relationship. Nonetheless, it seems we still don’t have a firm handle on who dogs really are and what they need from us. Persistent myths about dogs appear time and again and they undercut our ability to interact successfully with our canine friends." 

References

Bekoff, Marc. Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018. 

More Posts