Skidboot was an extraordinary dog that entertained people everywhere he went as the World’s Smartest Dog. A crowd pleasing trick involved Skidboot listening to his owner, David Hartwig, count to three before retrieving a ball, but Hartwig mixed up the counting in an attempt to stump his dog. In the end, Skidboot eagerly focused on the ball and pounced on it when Hartwig said three. People were convinced the dog could count. Jim the Wonder Dog was also famous for his ability to recognize numbers, but can canines really understand simple math?
Quantitative thinking is something most people don’t believe dogs are capable of. It’s the concept of analyzing mathematical data in relation to quantity or number and having the ability to figure out if one thing is larger than another. One early experiment that researchers conducted was to see if dogs understood quantity. They used a large and small ball of hamburger, each on a separate plate, and tested dogs to see which one they would choose. When the plates were set at different distances, the dogs took the one closest to them regardless of its size, but when both plates were of equal distance they always chose the larger ball of meat.
Researchers concluded dogs didn’t understand quantitative thinking and couldn’t determine the difference in size. However, what they failed to account for is the opportunistic nature of canines and seemed to discount the fact that dogs picked the large ball of meat when the two plates were side by side.
Ivan Pavlov, a Russian scientist, won the Nobel Prize in Physiology in 1904 for his work on the digestive system of mammals. He is famous for his revelation in classical conditioning. Pavlov discovered by accident that the dogs in his lab had learned to associate food with his lab assistants. They would salivate when any of the assistants entered the room whether they had food or not. It was a response to a stimuli and something the dogs learned on their own. Classical conditioning was the first step in beginning to understand how dogs think.
From the beginning of the 1900s up to the 1960s, scientists focused on dog behavior, but they lost interest and didn’t resume studying canines until the beginning of the 21st century. For the last 14 years, scientists have found a renewed interest in canine research to better understand a dog’s body language – including subtle signs they use, how they think, how they learn, the emotions they feel, how they view their world, and what they like. As we learn more about why dogs behave in certain ways, we have a better understanding of the canine mind and what dogs think about.
Of course, the answer to the question of what dogs think about is as complex as it is in determining what humans think about. We don’t have the ability to get inside the mind of another person to understand precisely what’s going on in their mind, nor can you really understand what your dog is thinking about when he’s staring at you. I know from personal experience how good some dogs are at problem solving, especially if they are trying to figure out a way to escape from their enclosure or steal food behind your back.
Intelligence in dogs can be subjective because of the different jobs they were bred to do. The Bloodhound ranks at the bottom of the intelligence list, but that doesn’t mean he’s dumb. When it comes to finding a scent and following it, there’s no other breed that can top the tracking ability of the Bloodhound. Dogs and cats have different innate skills that set them apart from each other, too. According to scientists, there is a difference in their level of intelligence. But does that mean one species is really smarter than the other?
I’m not a fan of labels, like smartest or dumbest, to describe animals or people. Everyone is good at something, and we develop needed skills that allow us to be successful. A science whiz can carefully analyze statistics from a study, but may freeze in fear when presenting it to a group of peers. A chef can create an exquisite meal that melts in your mouth, but can’t fix the broken freezer in his kitchen. Cats and dogs use smarts they were born with as well as learned intelligence to process information they need to survive.
Cats do have smaller brains than dogs, but a smaller brain doesn’t necessarily translate into being “not as smart.” If you’ve ever watched a cat stalking a mouse, you see a disciplined and patient hunter that knows the exact moment to attack. The cat may not realize the mouse is food, but instinctively understands the process required to be an efficient hunter. A dog is more apt to race around chasing the poor mouse until it collapses from exhaustion.
The danger to cats is when people believe felines are such good hunters that they can take care of themselves. Kittens that were never taught by their mother to hunt, kill and eat are capable of catching prey, but won’t learn an important life lesson of survival. Lost cats have to learn that lesson on their own if they are going to survive.
Of course I’m not asking that question about my dogs; they are perfect. (Ha!). There is a certain dog I’m acquainted with, however, that doesn’t seem to be progressing as quickly as other dogs in a training class we, um, somebody I know is in. This person tells me that her dog is not motivated by treats or affection and is all but impossible to train.
So I went to my most reliable sources – my animal-crazed friends – for feedback about how their dogs stacked up on the intelligence meter.
Heather said her family tried and tried to get their dog, Toby, to roll over on command, but he would just roll over onto his back. She says it was frustrating trying to get him to roll completely over. Finally, thinking he just wasn’t going to “get it,” they started rubbing his belly every time he “rolled over” onto his back.
According to Unleash Magazine, Heather’s dog isn’t dumb; her anecdote is an example of “profitable misbehavior.” Dogs do what works for them. For instance, if jumping on you makes you speak to, touch, or even look at your dog, he’s getting a payoff. Jumping on you is getting him the attention he wants. In cases like this, even if you are scolding your dog or pushing him off of you, he’s still getting what he wants: attention. This response can make dogs seem unwilling or unable to learn, but the issue is with the human who is unwittingly reinforcing undesired behavior.
Another reason people may think their dog is dumb is because he does not respond to them, perhaps due to lack of early human interaction. If I was to take a guess, I would say this is the core issue with our dog er, my friend’s dog because the dog spent his first year and a half in the shelter system and likely did not get enough time with humans. If a dog doesn’t experience enough human interaction during his formative years, he hasn’t learned that humans are relevant and that our words and actions should matter to him.
Pet people love to brag about their pets, and we love to read about them. So I asked this simple question: What’s the smartest thing your dog has ever done? I got loads of fun and interesting answers.
A common theme among the answers I received was “dogs trying to outsmart their humans or the other pets in the home.” Laura’s Dalmatian Sparky hated to be cold. If he was outside and wanted in, he rang the doorbell. If she didn’t answer right away, he kept ringing. He wore out several doorbells with his big paws! When she looked out, she’d see him standing up, looking back in the window chattering his teeth as if he was freezing to death. The family caught on to his act when one summer day he decided he wanted in and started ringing the doorbell. When they looked out, he was chattering his teeth – but it was 95 degrees outside!
Deborah’s dog is rebelling because he’s on a “diet.” The other day, when no one was home, he got into the box of dog treats. He hid them all around the house, in different rooms. He knew he’d get in trouble for spilling the box, so he hid each treat individually and genuinely thought he wouldn’t get caught going back to snack on those treats later on. This smart pooch also uses a bell at the door when he needs to go outside.
Jo’s Bichon Sadie will stare at her brother (a rat terrier of limited intellect) to try to get him to move from a spot she wants to occupy. If he ignores her, she runs to the front window and barks. Since terriers must guard and protect, the rat is easily lured to the window, at which time Sadie runs to claim the spot she initially coveted.
Sangay volunteers at a wolf and wolf dog rescue, and there is a pair of low ranking omegas who learned to separate other dogs and people from their treasures. Ex: One will pester the eating alpha male. When the alpha gets up to chase the pest away the other steals the prize and they both meet up (far away) to enjoy it.
Anyone who has lived and interacted with dogs knows how closely they pay attention to our words. I’ve even been known to spell out my intentions in an attempt to keep my dogs from knowing what I’m saying so they don’t get overly excited. In reality, I’m the one being fooled, and can attest that my dogs have mastered the spelling of certain words. There’s no question in my mind that dogs comprehend a lot more than they are given credit for, and can understand our spoken words and even some spelled words.
The Border Collie holds the top spot when it comes to the most intelligent dog breed, so it was no surprise that Chaser, a female Border Collie, was crowned the smartest dog in the world in 2010. Within a three year period, she learned the names of 1,022 different toys, and even learned how to correctly categorize them.
Understanding words and vocalizing, of course, are two different abilities. Dog owners learn how to read their dog’s body language and recognize their dog’s unique yips, yaps, whines and barks. We can communicate with our best friend with or without the use of words.
Dogs learn language skills from us when we repeat and reinforce what we say to them. That’s all training is – telling your dog what you want, and then reinforcing his compliance with a tasty treat, like soft and chewy CANIDAE TidNips™ or crunchy Snap-Bits™. Some breeds are more stubborn than others, which require his owner to be even more dedicated and consistent when it comes to teaching basic commands. However, after living with multiple purebred and mixed breeds dogs, I am convinced dogs do have an innate ability to learn. We just need how to learn to focus on motivating them so they are interested in learning.
Chaser’s owners Alliston Reid and John Pilley, who are also researchers, conducted a study with their dog at Wofford College. The study showed that their dog had the same vocabulary skill as a three year old child. Their research also concluded that dogs have the ability to learn and develop a more extensive understanding of words than was once believed. They even believe the study proves our canine friends can learn words for specific objects and put them into categories according to shape and function. Chaser was also able to pick out a new object in a group of familiar ones by using reason. She knows proper names and remembered the names of toys better than they did. Reid and Pilley believe Chaser is capable of learning even more words if they take the time to teach her.
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