Dogs Are Smart, But Not Exceptional

A new study has found that a host of similar animals match, or even exceed dogs’ intellectual abilities

Forgive us, we're just the messenger: When it comes to animal intelligence, canines are clever, but they're not at the top of the class. James Lowe/Alamy Stock Photo

Dog lovers will often extol the intelligence of their canine counterparts, and not without reason—dogs are indeed pretty smart. Man’s best friend can understand up to 250 words, interpret human emotions, and even pull off crafty tricks when trying to score a snack. But when researchers in the U.K. compared dog cognition to that of other animals, they found that while dogs are clever, their intelligence is not exceptional.

Psychologist Stephen Lea of the University of Exeter was inspired to take a more discerning look at dogs’ intellectual abilities while serving as the editor of the journal Animal Cognition, as Laura M. Holson reports for the New York Times. Lea tells Holson that he received plenty of papers seeking to demonstrate how smart dogs are, but there was relatively little interest in probing deeper into the minds of animals like cats, horses and pigs, which are also known to be quite intelligent.

So, as part of a new study published in Learning & Behavior, Lea and Britta Osthaus, an expert in animal cognition at Canterbury Christ Church University, looked at more than 300 papers on the intelligence of dogs and a host of other animals, with a special emphasis on dogs, cats, hyenas, chimps, horses, dolphins and pigeons. More generally, the animals they studied fell into at least one of three categories that also apply to dogs: they belong to the order Carnivora (which includes placental mammals that eat meat), they are social hunters, and they have been domesticated.

The study assessed the animals’ sensory cognition, physical cognition, spatial cognition, social cognition and self-awareness. “[I]n each and every case we found other valid comparison species that do at least as well as dogs do in those tasks,” Lea says in a University of Exeter statement.

And plenty of the animals seemed to do better. Dolphins and chimps, for instance, “show clearer evidence of motor imitation” than pooches, the study authors write. Raccoons do better on string-pulling problem tasks. Chimps are more likely to show evidence of deception or empathy, and unlike dogs, they can use tools. Pigeons may be better than dogs at recognizing patterns, and they definitely have better navigation skills.

What sets dogs apart, however, is their ability to perform well across different categories. And that makes sense, given dogs’ history. “[T]heir intelligence is what you would expect of an animal that is... recently descended from social hunters... that are carnivores and that have [also] been domesticated,” Lea tells Kat Eschner of Popular Science. “There’s no other animal that fits all three of those criteria.”

But if dogs aren’t much smarter than a host of similar animals, how did they acquire their brainiac reputation? For one thing, dogs are easy to study because they are so happy to perform tasks. Confirmation bias may also be at work in the scientific literature; we want our doggie buddies “to be very clever, and we like them to be appreciated,” Osthaus tells Jamie Ducharme of Time.

But understanding dog intelligence in relation to that of other species can help us have more realistic expectations of our canine companions. “Dogs are dogs, and we need to take their needs and true abilities into account when considering how we treat them,” Osthaus says in the University of Exeter statement.

The new study also suggests that there is reason to look more closely at the intellectual powers of many animals that are less present in our daily lives. They might be smarter than we think.

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