Dogs aren’t as smart as we think they are

A new study says dogs – though not dumb – are not the brain­boxes they’re made out to be

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Laura M Hol­son

In the long- sim­mer­ing dis­pute over whether dogs are smarter than cats, a re­cent study pub­lished in the jour­nal Learn­ing & Be­hav­ior sug­gests that dogs are no more ex­cep­tional than other an­i­mals when it comes to can­ni­ness and in­tel­li­gence.

The news is sure to ig­nite de­bate (watch the fur fly!) among dog own­ers and sci­en­tists who study ca­nine be­hav­iour. The au­thors re­viewed ex­ist­ing stud­ies and data on an­i­mal cog­ni­tion and found that while dogs are smart and train­able, they are not “su­per smart,” de­spite what most dog own­ers will tell you.

The idea for the study came about when Stephen Lea, an emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor in the psy­chol­ogy de­part­ment at the Univer­sity of Ex­eter in Bri­tain, was edi­tor of An­i­mal Cog­ni­tion, a jour­nal that seeks to ex­plain cog­ni­tion among hu­mans and an­i­mals in the con­text of evo­lu­tion. Dog re­search, he said in an in­ter­view last week, was quite pop­u­lar in the 1990s and con­tin­ues to be so.

“I was get­ting a num­ber of pa­pers show­ing how re­mark­able the things were that dogs could do,” he said. When i t came to other an­i­mals, though, sci­en­tific stud­ies on in­tel­li­gence barely trick­led in, de­spite ev­i­dence to sug­gest that horses, chim­panzees and cats had tricks of their own.

“Al­most ev­ery­thing a dog claimed to do, other an­i­mals could do too,” Dr Lea said. “It made me quite wary that dogs were spe­cial.”

Sure, there are ex­cep­tions such as Chaser, a Bor­der col­lie from South Carolina in the US, who was trained to un­der­stand 1,022 nouns. Be­fore that was a Bor­der col­lie named Rico who learned to recog­nise the names of 200 items.

Ex­tra­or­di­nary ca­pa­bil­i­ties

But beyond those ex­am­ples, Dr Lea won­dered: Had dog lovers (and sci­en­tists, for that mat­ter) im­bued their pets with ex­tra­or­di­nary ca­pa­bil­i­ties they did not pos­sess?

To be fair, Dr Lea said he was a cat per­son. Still, he and Britta Osthaus, a se­nior lec­turer in the School of Psy­chol­ogy, Pol­i­tics and So­ci­ol­ogy at Can­ter­bury Christ Church Univer­sity in Bri­tain, set out to test the hy­poth­e­sis.

They com­pared dog cog­ni­tion with mem­bers of three sim­i­lar groups: car­ni­vores, so­cial hun­ters and do­mes­tic an­i­mals. Among the an­i­mals they stud­ied were wolves, cats, chim­panzees, dol­phins, horses and pi­geons. They found that “dog cog­ni­tion does not look ex­cep­tional”.

Dr Lea said dogs can­not use tools, un­like dol­phins, New Cale­do­nian crows and chim­panzees, which have been ob­served us­ing plant stems to fish for ter­mites. Hom­ing pi­geons are trained to fly home, some­times cross­ing hun­dreds of miles of un­fa­mil­iar ter­rain. “Far be it for me to sug­gest that pi­geons are smarter than dogs; they are not in­tel­lec­tual gi­ants,” Dr Lea said. “But if you want to get 1,000 miles, I trust a pi­geon over a dog.”

(Per­haps that ex­plains the plot of the 1996 feel- good an­i­mal buddy movie Home­ward Bound 2: Lost in San Fran­cisco, fea­tur­ing the odyssey of Shadow, a golden retriever; Sassy, a Hi­malayan cat; and Chance, an Amer­i­can bull­dog.)

Sim­i­lar traits

At the same time, do­mes­ti­cated an­i­mals share sim­i­lar traits with their ca­nine co­horts. Horses, like dogs, per­form elab­o­rate tasks. And cats? They have more in com­mon with dogs than one might think. Still, he said, “it is much eas­ier to show in­tel­li­gence in dogs be­cause they like to be trained.” Dogs, Dr Lea added, “are not smarter than they are sup­posed to be, given what they are.”

Mieshelle Nagelschnei­der, a cat be­haviourist in Port­land, Ore­gon, who is known pro­fes­sion­ally as the Cat Whis­perer, said she avoided say­ing which species is more in­tel­li­gent.

“I have found through­out the years that my clients who are rocket sci­en­tists and neu­ro­sur­geons al­ways have the most cats,” she said. “Thir­teen to 15 cats usu­ally.”

Dr Lea said dogs can­not use tools, un­like dol­phins, New Cale­do­nian crows and chim­panzees, which have been ob­served us­ing plant stems to fish for ter­mites

She does not ig­nore an­i­mal in­stinct, which she says is sep­a­rate f rom i ntel­li­gence. “Cats have evolved over thou­sands of years,” she said. “They are in­tel­li­gent in their own way.”

Be­sides, she said, “I’d rather have a lov­ing com­pan­ion than one con­sid­ered to be the smartest.”

Where dogs stand out, ac­cord­ing to Clive Wynne, the di­rec­tor of the Ca­nine Science Col­lab­o­ra­tory at Ari­zona State Univer­sity, is their ca­pac­ity for af­fec­tion. He said there was merit in Dr Lea’s study. “He’s not putting dogs down,” said Dr Wynne, a dog lover. “He is putting them in con­text.”

“I was quoted once call­ing my dog a lov­able id­iot,” Dr Wynne said, re­call­ing a 2017 ar­ti­cle in The New York Times. “A guy wrote a whole blog post about what an aw­ful per­son I was.”

For his part, Dr Lea is brac­ing for the in­evitable back­lash. “We are not try­ing to say dogs are stupid,” he said. “We just don’t think that they are ex­tra­or­di­nary. And that is not a neu­tral thing to say.”

One thing is sure, though: They’re all good dogs. – New York Times

Sci­en­tists com­pared dogs with mem­bers of three sim­i­lar groups: car­ni­vores, so­cial hun­ters and do­mes­tic an­i­mals – they found that “dog cog­ni­tion does not look ex­cep­tional”. PHO­TO­GRAPH: GETTY

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