Are Dogs Like Human 2-year-olds?

Children go through the “terrible 2s,” a developmental stage characterized by whining, misbehavior and perpetual inquisitiveness. Dogs do something similar, only they never grow out of it. Canines aren’t quite as terrible, however, because they can’t throw a decent temper tantrum.

Numerous recent studies compare dogs to human 2-year-olds, both in terms of intelligence and behavior. Consider the following:

Dogs Do Math
Did you know that your dog is able to count up to four or five? Dogs also notice errors in simple computations, such as 1 + 1 = 1 or 1 + 1 = 3, based on research published in the journal Animal Cognition. Such studies on dogs use images or actual objects, not words.

Canine researcher Dr. Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia, agrees that dogs are much smarter than we tend to think. “We all want insight into how our furry companions think, and we want to understand the silly, quirky and apparently irrational behaviors that Lassie or Rover demonstrate,” he says. “Their stunning flashes of brilliance and creativity are reminders that they may not be Einsteins but are sure closer to humans than we thought.”

Dogs Understand Words
The average dog can learn around 165 words. But canines in the top 20 percent of dog intelligence -- or “super dogs,” as Coren calls them -- can learn 250 words. Is your pet a super dog? Coren lists the seven smartest known breeds:

  1. Border collies
  2. Poodles
  3. German shepherds
  4. Golden retrievers
  5. Dobermans
  6. Shetland sheepdogs
  7. Labrador retrievers

Dogs Comprehend Our Complex Visual Signals
Another recent study in Animal Cognition tested dogs, as well as 2- and 3-year-old kids, on their ability to understand various pointing gestures. This was a workout for the scientific team, as they pointed with their elbows, legs, knees, arms and fingers. The dogs tied with the 2-year-olds.

Lead author Gabriella Lakatos, a research assistant at Eotvos Lorand University in Budapest, Hungary, says her team demonstrated “that dogs can understand pointing gestures if a body part protrudes from the body silhouette.” If you want your dog to understand your finger pointing, outstretch your entire arm and point as if you’re playing to the back row of a large theater.

Dogs Copy Us, for Good and Bad
Your pointing can be productive. Coren said multiple studies show that dogs can solve problems by copying your, or a dog’s, behavior. For example, dogs can:

  • learn the location of valued items, such as treats.
  • figure out the fastest routes, such as the quickest way to get to a favorite chair.
  • operate mechanisms, like door latches and simple machines.
  • learn the meaning of words and symbolic concepts, sometimes just by eavesdropping.

Dogs can also deliberately deceive other dogs and people, usually to get a food reward. “And they are nearly as successful in deceiving humans as humans are in deceiving dogs,” warns Coren.

Why Two and Not Three or Older?
If dogs are so capable and intelligent, why are they likened to a human 2-year-old and not a 3-year-old or even an adult? The answer appears to be, coincidentally, twofold.

First, Lakatos explains that for her study, older children may have a more complex ability to realize the intention behind the pointing gesture. This gets into being able to imagine the mindset of others, which sometimes allows for predicting behaviors and developing a deeper understanding of that individual’s actions and more.

Second, it is likely that interactions during language facilitate understanding. Lack of linguistic ability, therefore, is an IQ-limiting factor in dogs. We humans have a unique propensity for language that, coinciding with brain development, really begins to blossom when we’re around 3 years old; dogs go through no such stage.

Humans and Dogs: A Poor Comparison
Even though it can be interesting to see how dogs rate on human-centric tests, Lakatos believes it’s a conceptual mistake to judge dogs based on criteria developed for people. “Any behavioral similarity or similar performance between dogs and children should be investigated separately,” she says. “To give you an example for a reverse case, nobody has tried to herd a flock of sheep with 2-year-olds.”