Dog Intelligence

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Natural Dog - dog training Calgary

How smart is a dog?

The problem with understanding the intelligence of dogs is our obsession with comparing it to something – our human brains struggle with a reference point for that intelligence when there really isn’t one.

There are a lot of dog owners who treat their dogs as if they are as smart as humans, and an equally large group that treats them as if they were imbeciles.  We must understand that Canids evolved and lived in different environments than humans resulting in differences in processing.  They do however learn like most mammals do: associative learning – avoiding unpleasant experiences while pursuing rewarding ones.

In an evolutionary context, dogs are not considered apex hunters: meaning they do not occupy the highest trophic level of the ecosystem in which they live.  That implies scavenging, and opportunistic hunting and feeding.  In other words, a more adaptable way of thinking and surviving.  If you have ever watched wild dogs or hyena’s try to gain access to a kill that is being protected by lions, it is really quite remarkable.  It employs a fairly sophisticated strategy of decoys and false lunges, all designed to distract the lion so another member of the group can get at the food and steal it.  This social interaction requires a lot of communication and coordination and intelligence.

The domestication process has contributed to a dog’s intelligence.  For example, a dog from a very young age can take pointing cues with a very high degree of success, even cross-pointing.  Hand-raised wolves will not take a pointing cue in any form – they simply do not understand it.  That is a function of close association with humans through domestication.  Conversely, wolves outscore dogs when it comes quick decisions, whereas a dog will simply try to repeat what the human has taught it, (generally).

When thinking about how smart a dog is, we insist on comparing them to the developmental stages of a human.  That is to say, the intellect of a dog must somehow line up with the intelligence of a human for us to quantify it.  I am sure you all have heard that dogs function at approximately the intellect of a 3 yr. old human, but yet that doesn’t explain how a Border Collie can bring 10 sheep 2km over rocky ground and put them in a pen, or detect bombs on scent alone – ostensibly things humans can’t do by themselves.

When we compare them to children, the temptation to treat them as such is too strong.  From the belief that dogs function like children comes the myth that dogs are always aware of their actions.  We overestimate their abilities, this then allows us to think that they understand their actions and can now be held accountable for those actions. In turn, this leads us to dominance based training theories and myths.

I think we need to appreciate a dogs intelligence mostly on the virtue of being a separate and distinct species.  Treating them like human children,  our actions and communications can become confusing for them resulting in distress, (and the arrival of some unwanted behaviours).

Recommended reading:

Mech, David “Whatever Happened to the Term Alpha Wolf” International Wolf Center publication Winter 2008

Virányi, Zs., Gácsi, M., Kubinyi, E., Topál, J., Belényi, B., Ujfalussy, D., Miklósi, Á. 2008. Comprehension of human pointing gestures in young human-reared wolves (Canis lupus) and dogs (Canis familiaris). Animal Cognition, 11: 373-387

Miklósi, Á., Kubinyi E., Topál, J., Gácsi, M., Virányi, Zs., Csányi, V. 2003. A simple reason for a big difference: wolves do not look back at humans but dogs do. Current Biology, 13: 763-766.