Our two dogs are sweet, lovable, and have completely bonded with us. Those are some of the traits they share. A trait they do not share is intelligence. I have had the great good fortune of sharing my life with a menagerie of animals with a wide range of behaviors and characteristics. Of all the animals I’ve ever lived with, however, the big boy I have now is, well, he’s the least smart of the bunch. That’s right, he’s just not that bright.
Not bright, but so willing to please. We call him “the little gentleman” (even though nothing about him is little) because he’ll come and sit down right in front of you as if to say “what do you want me to do now?” If there’s a group of us standing around talking, he’ll walk into the middle of the group and sit properly with his ears and eyes alert, just waiting for someone to tell him what to do. This dog will do anything you ask of him, if only you can get him to understand the request. That’s where things start to break down. He just doesn’t get it. In fact, he doesn’t get much.
I know this is just his nature because we have another dog that is bright. She understands our requests, responds well to training and commands, and clearly exhibits thinking characteristics. She makes wise decisions and seems to know what is expected of her with minimal urging. She has a large vocabulary. I would classify her as a smart dog.
Although we often credit our dogs with capabilities far beyond their actual mental abilities, they do often seem as if they understand and respond to specific things we say. For example, when we spell words the same way we would in front of a small child in order to hide our meanings from them. Eventually a child grows old enough to understand what we are spelling, but a dog learns those words in very specific ways.
Dogs are not actually learning to spell the same way, even if it seems they suddenly understand and react to specific words spelled out in front of them. They make associations, and with constant repetition begin to associate certain words, sounds and letter sounds with any given situation such as a treat or other reward. They are clever animals and are aware of everything going on around them, but they process it differently than we do.
Take my dog Kira, for instance. One of her favorite games was chasing bubbles. If my daughter or I said the word “bubbles” Kira immediately went into an excited frenzy and raced to the door of the pantry where we stored our bottles of bubble liquid and the battery operated bubble blower that blew dozens of bubbles at a time for her to chase all over the yard until she was happily exhausted. Her tail would wag and all 100 pounds of her would bounce up and down impatiently waiting for us to get out the bubbles and go outside to play with her.
Border Collies are consistently among the top ten on those “smartest dog breed” lists, and they often rank number one depending upon who put the list together and the criteria used to assess canine intelligence.
What would happen then, when a Border Collie puppy gets adopted by a retired psychology professor with a penchant for scientific research and new discoveries in canine intelligence? Add to that, the man’s desire to help his smart dog unlock her full potential, so much so that he’s willing to devote four to five hours a day on training and teaching her?
The result is Chaser, a dog who knows more than a thousand words; that’s more than any other animal except human beings! Her trainer and constant companion is John Pilley, and he’s written a wonderful account of his experience with this incredibly intelligent dog in the book Chaser, Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words.
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.
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