Your Dog Is Not, In Fact, a Genius
We all know that every dog has its own unique personality and demeanor. And some certainly do appear to be smarter than others, often leading their proud owners to declare their dog is actually a genius. Well, according to new research published in the journal Learning and Behavior, your dog (or any dog, really) is definitely not a genius. In fact, there’s nothing particularly exceptional about a dog’s intelligence in the animal kingdom, the study concluded.
“We argue that in order to assess dog cognition, we need to regard dogs from three different perspectives: phylogenetically, as carnivoran; ecologically, as social, cursorial hunters; and anthropogenically, as a domestic animal,” the report reads, going on to outline that researchers hoped to understand if dogs had any exceptional cognition when compared to other carnivores, other domesticated animals, or other social pack animals. Essentially, they chose to compare man’s best friend to wolves, cats, spotted hyenas, chimpanzees, dolphins, horses, and pigeons…and they couldn't find anything special about them when examined against those animals.
The reason for this, according to authors Stephen E. G. Lea and Britta Osthaus is that past research on the cognitive abilities of dogs has failed to prove if dogs are exceptionally intelligent in a “comparative context” or “whether, instead, they are what we would expect when we put dogs alongside the appropriate comparison groups.” Dogs can spatially navigate through small areas…but so can other animals that were examined. Dogs have a sense of smell superior to our own, but then again, pigs, for example, may have an even stronger sense of smell than them. But perhaps what might come as the most upsetting discovery in Lea and Osthaus’ study — at least to dog lovers — is that canines were found to have no exceptional abilities to perceive and use communicative signals from people. Can dogs learn and be aware of hand signals and auditory cues from humans? Yes, but as the authors pointed out, this is in no way unique to the species. “The reigning champions of the ability to follow human hand signals are the bottlenose dolphin and the grey seal,” the authors said. In fact, the research pointed out that “social cognition” is the domain we actually have the greatest amount of information on when it comes to dogs and their intelligence. “Dogs perform as well as or better than other domestic animals on social learning tests. As regards tests inspired by theory-of-mind considerations (perspective taking, deception, and empathy), we have too little comparative data to draw many conclusions. In experiments carried out so far, chimpanzees are more likely than dogs to solve tasks requiring perspective taking, though the evidence base for dogs’ perspective taking is improving, and dogs may do better than chimpanzees in cooperative situations.“
So why do we favor dogs so easily in making the assumption that they are capable of being so exceptionally smart? The study eludes to what’s known as the domestication hypothesis, which suggests that during the domestication process, dogs have become “more socially tolerant and attentive than wolves.” In 2008, for example, one study examined the communicative skills domesticated dogs have with humans when compared to wolves. “Dogs across a range of breeds use human communicative cues such as pointing or physical markers to find food that is hidden in one of two hiding places,” the study reads. “The sophistication that dogs show in using human communicative cues led researchers to investigate the origins of these abilities and to conclude that these social skills are not simply inherited from wolves nor are they simply learned as a result of exposure to humans in ontogeny, but rather they have evolved as a result of domestication,” essentially proposing that dogs must in some way be smarter than wolves. Even as puppies, researchers found that domesticated dogs were adept at learning how to communicate with humans. But the study in itself suggests a certain bias that demonstrating an ability to execute human communication must equate to higher intelligence. The conclusion of that 2008 study was that dogs must have evolved their “superior” abilities to communicate with humans as a direct result of domestication.
Stephen Lea and Britta Osthaus reviewed studies of countless different species to cross-examine with dogs, from “object permanence” to “spatial awareness” to communication skills and many other abilities.
“Dog cognition may not be exceptional, but dogs are certainly exceptional cognitive research subjects,” they wrote. “Our knowledge of nonhumans’ understanding of pointing, gaze, and other human signals has been greatly expanded through studies on dogs. There are several fields of cognition—empathy, for example—where almost our only nonprimate evidence comes from dogs, and the number of these seems likely to grow because the cooperativeness of dogs means that more complex research designs can be carried through than could be contemplated with less obliging subjects (e.g., cats). And although dogs may not be typical carnivorans, or typical social hunters, or typical domestic animals, what we know about cognition in all those groups consists to a substantial extent of what we know about dog cognition.”
So why all the focus on how smart dogs are (or aren’t)? Well, according to Lea’s and Osthaus’ research paper, understanding the cognition of at least one species in which we are so close to can help us grow a deeper understanding of other animals as they become of greater interest to us as well. And who is man closer to — at least as far as affection and relationships go — than the one we call our best friend? “It is a highly valuable addition because as the unique combination as a carnivoran, a social hunter, and a domestic animal, it is unlike the other species whose cognition has been investigated extensively. As scientists whose interest is essentially in comparative cognition, we hope that we can now begin to use our knowledge of dog cognition to go beyond the study of dogs and look at more of the comparator species. And, of course, in doing so, we will also expand our understanding of what, fundamentally, a dog uniquely is.”
Sorry if this bursts your bubble, folks. The affection humans have toward dogs is certainly unique, but their intelligence amongst other animals isn’t. Ironically, that same affection is probably the exact reason we’re so easily swayed toward believing our very own pet is a “genius” to begin with.