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Is Your Dog as Smart as You Think?

Researchers are now starting to look into the question, and see just how intelligent our furry friends actually are

Does he really miss you, or is that a tasty looking squirrel out there? Image: Scott King

Like your kid, you know your dog is a genius. I mean, come on, look at that face. But how smart are dogs, really? For a long time, scientists didn’t really study dogs. (They’re not exactly a good model organism.) But researchers are now starting to look into the question of canine intelligence and see just how canny our furry friends actually are.

One of the most prominent scientists studying dog cognition is Brian Hare, a researcher at Duke. Scientific American went to him to confirm whether dog are as empathetic as we want to believe :

Cook: How empathetic are dogs, truly, when it comes to their human partners, and how much is just our imagination, or our need to believe that they understand us?

Hare: As a scientist, it is hard to design tests that assess whether an animal is empathetic, because most research on empathy in humans relies on people reporting how they feel, and dogs can’t talk (or at least not yet in a way we can understand them).

But there is definitely something special about the bond we have with dogs. Their ability to read our communicative gestures makes them seem “in tune” with us. And their attentiveness to our every move can’t help but make us feel special. There is one study that shows that dogs would prefer to spend time with humans than their own species, which is unusual for an animal. Every dog owner is familiar with that rise in spirits as a thumping tail greets you at the door, and from the enthusiasm dogs have for us, it’s hard to believe the feeling isn’t mutual.

But that’s not exactly how everyone sees it. Last year, Carl Zimmer wrote a piece for Time magazine about the limitations to understanding man’s best friend. Often, when we think our dogs understand us, we’re really just projecting, he writes:

Take for instance the kiss a dog gives you when you come home. It looks like love, but it could also be hunger. Wolves also lick one another’s mouths, particularly when one wolf returns to the pack. They can use their sense of taste and smell to see if the returnee has caught some prey on its journey. If it did, the licking often prompts it to vomit up some of that kill for the other members of the pack to share. The kiss dogs give us probably evolved from this inspection.

One researcher Zimmer talked to tried to test that guilty look dogs have when they’re in trouble. You know the look, when you come home and they just know that they’ve done something wrong.

Researcher Alexandra Horowitz wanted to know if the dogs were really feeling shame. Zimmer writes:

First she observed how dogs behaved when they did something they weren’t supposed to do and were scolded by their owners. Then she tricked the owners into believing the dogs had misbehaved when they hadn’t. When the humans scolded the dogs, the dogs were just as likely to look guilty, even though they were innocent of any misbehavior. What’s at play here, she concluded, is not some inner sense of right and wrong but a learned ability to act submissive when an owner gets angry. “It’s a white-flag response,” Horowitz says.

Humans have a conflict when it comes to dogs. We want to think they’re smart, but we also don’t want them to be too smart. We’re the special species, after all. Neil Degrasse Tyson tackled dog cognition for NOVA:

And when it comes to our own pets, it’s awfully tempting to imagine that they have human thoughts and feelings. But researchers have always been skeptical about animal intelligence. After all, we humans speak, write and build spaceships and solve puzzles, yet animals, well, they’re just not that accomplished. Yet, recently, as we test more animals and try to reveal the way they think, we’ve come up with some surprising results.

And some research suggest that dogs are about as intellectually developed as your average 2-year-old kid. Live Science writes:

The canine IQ test results are in: Even the average dog has the mental abilities of a 2-year-old child.

The finding is based on a language development test, revealing average dogs can learn 165 words (similar to a 2-year-old child), including signals and gestures, and dogs in the top 20 percent in intelligence can learn 250 words.

And for those wondering about how smart their particular pooch is, some places will give your dog an IQ test. Here are some supposed tests of your dog’s intelligence:

Towel test:
Take a large towel or blanket and gently place it over your dog’s head.
If he frees himself from the towel in less than 15 seconds, give him 3 points. If it takes 15-30 seconds, 2 points.  Longer than 30 seconds earns 1 point.

Bucket test:
Place a dog treat or a favorite toy under one of three buckets placed next to each other. Let the dog know which bucket the treat is under, than turn the dog away for a few seconds.  Then, let her find the treat.  If she immediately goes to the correct bucket give her 3 points.  If she takes two attempts, score 2 points.  If your dog looks under the other two buckets first, score 1 point.

Barrier test:

Construct a barrier from cardboard that is 5 feet wide and taller than your dog when she’s on two legs, so she can’t see over it.  Attach two boxes to either side as support structures.  In the center of the cardboard, cut a 3 inch-wide rectangular aperture – it should run from about 4 inches from the top to about 4 inches from the bottom.  (This way, the dog can see through the barrier but cannot physically get through.)  Toss a toy or treat to the other side of the barrier, or have someone stand on the other side.  If your dog walks around the barrier within 30 seconds, give her 3 points.  If she goes around the barrier between 30 seconds and one minute, give 2 points.  If she gets her head stuck in the aperture trying to get through, give her 1 point for effort!

So, go on, find out: Is your dog a smart dog? Or is it all in your head?

More from Smithsonian.com:

Dogged
U.S. Military Wants to Recruit the Smartest Dogs by Scanning Their Brains

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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