To Rate How Smart Dogs Are, Humans Learn New Tricks
By JAN HOFFMAN JAN. 7, 2017
… Suddenly how smart your dog is seems to matter — an aspiration that has also not gone unnoticed by the commercial pet industry. Walk into any pet supply chain, such as the aptly named PetSmart, and take in the toys, gadgets and foods advertised as optimizing a dog’s intelligence. Or just do an online search for “brain games to play with your dog.”
The swelling interest, eagerly amplified by the pet industry, has given a boost to the relatively new academic field of canine cognition, with research centers sprouting up on campuses across the country. In the fall, the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science devoted an issue to the topic.
I wrote last year about one of the articles in that issue, “A General Intelligence Factor in Dogs” by Rosalind Arden.
At Yale, the three-year-old canine cognition center has been barraged by humans eager to have their dogs’ intelligence evaluated, volunteering them for research exercises and puzzles. Some owners drive for hours.
“People like their kids to be smart, and they like their dogs to be smart,” said Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology who directs the center. “Some people will call and sound apologetic, saying, ‘I’d like to bring my dog in, but he might be too dumb.’”
Scientists define and measure a dog’s smarts differently from the way owners do. Over a decade ago, evolutionary anthropologists realized that in the dog, whose development has been so strongly shaped by humans, they had a star subject to observe. Unlike gorillas, dogs are fairly inexpensive to study — their numbers are plentiful, their room and board happily covered by owners.
Now some researchers are studying the dog’s brain. Others are trying to identify the dog’s cognitive abilities, debating about the extent to which dogs may be unique among animals. Comparative psychologists are looking at how those capacities stack up against those of children.
Experts agree that when owners discuss how smart their dogs are, they are imposing a human construct on an animal. A dog may seem “smarter” to its owner than the neighbor’s dog, but even the popular notion derived from some studies — that dogs are as intelligent as toddlers — is, practically speaking, meaningless.
Dogs have lived in intimate proximity with people for some 30,000 years, evolving along the way to pick up human cues and training us to feel obliged to feed and house them. As survival instincts go, that is pretty smart.
Canine cognition research is underway on campuses from Berkeley to Barnard, and at universities in England, Hungary and Japan. The field’s growth has coincided with a shift in how dog owners view their animals.
“This is the logical consequence of the ‘humanization of pets’ trend,” said Hal Herzog, an anthrozoologist and emeritus professor of psychology at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, N.C. Indeed, owners are often referred to as pet parents.
Like human parents who bought Baby Einstein CDs, hoping to enhance the intelligence of offspring even in utero, many pet owners succumb to gadgets advertised as enhancing their dog’s brain function. (See: IQ Treat Ball.)
“What parent doesn’t want their child to have the best cognitive stimuli you can give?” said David Lummis, senior pet market analyst with Packaged Facts, a market research firm. “Guilt is a big part of it.”
“Smart dogs are often a nuisance,” said Clive D. L. Wynne, a psychology professor who directs the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University. “They get restless, bored and create trouble.”
Of course, we are still generally talking about dogs as a species. While stereotypes of breeds are deeply rooted, Dr. Hare said, there is no evidence to show that one breed is cognitively superior to another. But in 1999, Stanley Coren, now an emeritus psychologist at the University of British Columbia, produced a list of 110 breeds ranked by intelligence, based on his survey of some 200 professional dog-obedience judges. The top three: Border collie, then poodle followed by German shepherd.
I don’t know if border collies are smarter, but they certainly want to be trained to do work more than the average breed. The small number of Afghan hounds I’ve met were just plain dumb, unable to keep a thought in their head for more than a few seconds at a time.
But that was back in the 1970s, so I don’t know about contemporary Afghans. Dog breeds can change pretty rapidly if breeders decide to make them change — collies are dumber than in the Lassie days, while Doberman pinschers aren’t so mean as when they were WWII guard dogs.
Certain dogs excel at tasks for which they have been bred for centuries. Bloodhounds have an astonishing sense of smell. Australian shepherds can keep a flock of sheep together as skillfully as a nursery school teacher with a playground full of 3-year-olds.
And, distinctively, dogs seem to trust us for problem-solving help. When they are flummoxed (for example, the rubber ball becomes stuck under a bed, the kitchen door shuts), they turn to their humans, yipping, pawing, gazing dolefully. A wolf reared by a human, by contrast, will just keep trying to solve the problem on its own.
Researchers placed 10 items that Chaser could already identify in a pile with an unfamiliar one. Then they asked her to fetch the one that she had not yet learned. She did so correctly because she inferred it was the only object she did not recognize, researchers said. A week later, when asked to retrieve the same item, Chaser remembered.