How Smart Is the Average Dog?
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. Dogs 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 Can Do Math
Did you know that your dog can 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.
Dog 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 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 Can Understand Words
The average dog can learn around 165 words. But dogs 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?
Most Intelligent Dogs
Coren lists the seven smartest known breeds:
Dogs Can 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 study 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 older children may have a more sophisticated ability to realize the intention behind the pointing gesture for her study. Understanding intent is like being able to imagine others’ mindset, 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 three 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 in 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.”
How Smart Is My Dog?
Most dogs behave in ways that may seem downright dumb. Drinking water from the toilet bowl. Eating grass. Sniffing the waste of other canines. But there are reasons for these behaviors: Dogs prefer cold water over stagnant water that’s been sitting in a dish, the grass is natural roughage and may induce vomiting if they have a stomachache, and urine and poop are the newspapers of the dog world, communicating who did what where and when.
Dogs may be far more intelligent than we think. Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and a best-selling author of books on dogs, including The Intelligence of Dogs (Free Press), thinks so. He says that dogs display intelligence in various ways, reading social cues, learning new tasks, understanding language, solving problems, and more. He even argues that you can measure your dog’s smarts.
Dog Smarts Debate
The theory that canine intelligence can be tested is still controversial. “We can’t measure their intelligence,” says Dr. Bonnie Beaver, DVM, a former president of the American Veterinary Medicine Association and a professor of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University. “They will do things that are programmed into their genetic makeup because they’re dogs or because they are a certain breed of dog. There is no doubt that there is a difference between how one German Shepherd reacts to another, but is one smarter than another? I don’t know that there’s any proof.”
Other experts agree with Coren that there can be a dog equivalent of the IQ test. “You might be excellent verbally and weaker at math, and someone else might be good at music but not at logic. Dogs are no different in so far as they share some of our domains,” says Jean Donaldson, author of Oh, Behave!: Dogs from Pavlov to Premack to Pinker (2008) and director of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal’s Academy for Dog Trainers. “One dog may be good at problem-solving, and another may be a quick study at learning new tasks.”
How Can You Tell If Your Dog Is Intelligent?
How do you find out your dog’s strengths and weaknesses? How can you assess what they need to work on? And where does your pet stand on the overall intelligence spectrum?
Here are some simple tests, suggested by various experts, that you can give your furry friend to find out if its brain is sharper than its bark:
1. Problem Solving
Donaldson suggests that you hide something your dog loves, (a toy or ball or biscuit) underneath a sofa, and see if it can figure out how to retrieve it. She says dogs may go through several strategies, including digging with paws or using snouts.
- Five points for getting the item with its paws in less than 30 seconds
- Four points if it uses paws and takes more than 30 seconds
- Three if it uses paws but fails
- Two if it uses its head but doesn’t try paws
- One point for dogs that try to use their head but then give up.
- It gets no points if it does nothing.
2. Learning Rate
How often do you have to repeat a task with your dog before your pal masters it? Donaldson recommends a test involving detour taking. You need a fence that your dog can see through with a gate open at one end. With you on the other side of the fence, call your dog and see whether it can figure out how to get around to the other side.
- Five points if it goes around the fence in a minute or less
- Four points if it succeeds right away after you take a few steps in that direction and gesture
- Three if it succeeds in 30 seconds after the prompts
- Two if it succeeds between 30-60 seconds after prompts
- One if it succeeds but requires even more prompting and time than that.
3. Social Cues
Coren developed the “smile” test for an Australian TV program to see how smart your dog is at picking up social cues from humans. Start with your pet sitting a few yards away from you. Stare at your dogs face. Once you make eye contact, count to three, and then smile very broadly.
- Five points for coming to you with its tail wagging
- Four points for coming part way
- Three points for standing or rising
- Two points for moving
- One if your doggie dunce pays no attention at all.
4. Inference Challenge
A dog version of the shell game. With your dog on a leash or in the stay position, use treats and two different bowls set a few feet apart, Donaldson says. Smear the treat on both dishes. Then very dramatically, put the treat underneath one bowl. Release your dog and see what happens. Repeat this ten times, changing which bowl you put the treat under. Repeat another ten times without letting your dog see where you’re stashing the treat, but DO let the dog see you enthusiastically lift the other bowl each time.
- Five points if the dog goes to the correct bowl and gets the treat each time
- Four points if it masters the first ten and improves throughout the second ten
- Three if the first set is perfect but not the second set
- Two if the dog improves during the first and second rounds
- One if the dog is initially not very good but improves over the first round and completes the second round by going to the bowl you lifted.
5. Language Comprehension
Coren developed this test to determine how well your dog understands what you are saying. Start with your dog sitting in front of you. Using the tone of voice you use to call your dog’s name, call “refrigerator.” Try this again, calling “movies.”
- Five points if the dog doesn’t respond to those words but comes after you call its name
- Four points if the dog comes the second time you call its name
- Three if the dog starts to come
- Two if the dog comes to “movies” but not “refrigerator.”
- One if the dog simply doesn’t come to any of the calls.
Your Dog’s Score
Gifted and Talented (25-31) Consider your dog brilliant and then watch out! Smarter dogs are often harder to live with because as soon as you teach them new skills, they try to get around following your orders. You may also inadvertently teach them bad behaviors.
Clever Canine (18-25) On the higher end of the intellectual spectrum, these are good listeners who will likely perform tricks well at parties or in obedience class.
Sharp, But Slow (10-18) You will find them trainable – even if it takes numerous repetitions to master a skill.
Doggie Dropout (Less than 10) Let’s hope you selected your dog for its beauty as opposed to its brains, but since anyone can have an off day, give your furry pal a good pat on the head, maybe try the tests again at a later date.
Article written by Author: Elizabeth Wasserman, and the Dog Daily Expert