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Your family dog may be smarter than your toddler

Posted by kayms99 on August 9, 2009

DSC07710art_smart_dogs_giBy Doug Gross

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(CNN) — Your dog may not actually be smarter than somebody’s honor student — popular bumper stickers aside. But your canine companion might well be smarter than their toddler, according to a growing body of research on how dogs think.

Breeds like hounds rank near the bottom of surveys on dog intelligence.

Breeds like hounds rank near the bottom of surveys on dog intelligence.

Using adapted tests designed for human children, psychologists have learned that average dogs can count, reason and recognize words and gestures on par with a human 2 -year-old.

“They may not be Einsteins, but are sure closer to humans than we thought,” said Stanley Coren, a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia and leading researcher on dog behavior.

Coren planned to present his research Saturday at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention in Toronto, Canada.

He said the average dog can understand about 165 words, including signs, signals and gestures. They can also count to about 5, he said.

“I mean, we’re not going to make them an accountant or something,” Coren said in an interview with CNN Radio.

The smartest dogs, he calls them the “super breeds,” are on par with a 2½-year-old, recognizing up to 250 words.

And, no, not all breeds are created equally.

For his book “The Intelligence of Dogs,” Coren asked more than 200 dog-obedience judges to rank 110 breeds based on their intelligence. Border collies, poodles, retrievers, German shepherds and Doberman pinschers were among the dogs at the head of the class.

The intellectual runts of the litter? The borzoi, chow chow, bulldog, basenji and — finishing dead last — the Afghan hound.

The dividing line, Coren said, tends to be the age of the breed. More recent breeds, like the collies and retrievers, have been bred for years to do what humans want them to do.

“We’ve been wiring into dogs the ability to communicate with us,” said Coren, author of several books on dogs’ thinking, most recently “The Modern Dog.” “If you will, we’ve been manipulating their intelligence.”

Meanwhile, breeds like hounds naturally did what humans wanted — i.e. chase tasty animals — and didn’t need to be fine-tuned, he said.

“They did the work all by themselves,” Coren said. “They didn’t have to cooperate with the human being, and all the human had to do was get there before the dogs ate it all.”

Included in the number of “words” dogs are believed to know are hand gestures, like pointing, and nonverbal sounds, like the whistles used to direct sheep dogs and retrievers.

Counting ability is tested in drills such as one in which treats are dropped, one at a time, behind a screen. When the researcher either sneaks away one of the treats or stealthily adds an extra before raising the screen, the dog will wait longer — appearing to puzzle over the bad math — before eating the treats.

That’s the same way toddlers respond when faced with a similar switch, said Coren.

Aubrey Fine, a psychologist and faculty member at California State Polytechnic University, said research like Coren’s could help dog owners better relate to their animals.

“Too often, many people look at dogs as four-legged people,” said Fine, who specializes in the use of dogs in treating patients with developmental disorders and other mental-health conditions. “We need to recognize what dogs cue in to. Once you understand better how to interact, it causes a better coexistence with your pet companion.”

Coren said the findings on dog intelligence showed they have more sense than some scientists may have thought, but that some in the general public may be surprised for different reasons that span a wide range of thought.

“There are some people who think that dogs are just little human beings running around in fur coats and there are other people who sort of think that they’re unfeeling biological mechanisms,” he said. “The truth of the matter is really that dogs are neither extreme.”


13 Responses to “Your family dog may be smarter than your toddler”

  1. dorian said

    nice post, kay!

    my dog rocky probably has the vocabulary of a 3 year old and has chores like picking up the paper, my shoes, his brush and leashes, knows right and left, etc.. he’s an australian cattle dog, a blue heeler http://www.dogbreedinfo.com/australiancattledog.htm .

    my other dog mack is a corgie/lab mix is not nearly as bright but sweet and loving to all, esp. kids.

    when i come home and they don’t come to greet me, i know they did something they weren’t supposed to, like get into the garbage can or something else. i see them at the top of the stairs with their ears back looking very guilty and scared. oh yeah, they have feelings.


  2. Princessxxx said

    your family dog could be smarter than your favorite televangelist.

    just kidding kay, this is a nice post.


  3. kay~ms said

    Thanks Dorian & P. There were two reasons why I posted this… I am of the group that does believe that dogs are “little humans in fur coats” and I also posted this because it supports my argument with Hors, that the mind (human or otherwise) does evolve. One example… my dog, a dachshund, sits up.. she’s done this since she was a puppy… I never taught her this and I can’t imagine what use it has from a survival perspective.
    I’m very observant of my dog’s actions and behaviours. While she’s of the hound family (the least brightest according to this author’s research) I find her very intelligent… I don’t know how many words she understands but I’m convinced that she’s so smart that she fakes being dumb so I don’t turn her into my “slave”. For example.. the first time I tried to get her to fetch her collar so we could go for a walk… (she’d just had a bath and her collar was in the bathroom), she understood and she went and got it! I was shocked and of course I praised her really well… but ever since that first time, she will not fetch anything including her collar, even if it means we won’t go for a walk until she does. I could and have spent hours trying to get her to do it again and she just won’t do it… she acts like she doesn’t understand… I am convinced she is “playing dumb”!
    She also understands the concept of time… “in a minute”, “later” or “tomorrow”. She has a better sense of humor than a lot of people I know. She knows when I’m “playing mad” and really mad. She actually corrects me when I am not nice to her… if she is trying to wake me up I have to be carefull to be nice to her when I tell her to leave my room… If I’m not, she’ll leave a little surprise for me in the living room. If I say “Brontie..get out of my room!”… I get the surprise. If I say (which I always do now) “Brontie, please go out of my room.. you’re making too much noise” she complies and I get no little “gifts” in the living room.

    And that link that you posted, Dorian.. is great! I looked up Dachshunds and they described my dog’s personality to a “T”. With some dogs you really do need a degree in psychology to be able to handle them properly. They do “read our minds” as far as our emotions go… and so they are aware of any weakness we have. When I am mad at her because she’s been in the garbage etc…. she actually wags her tail! She actually loves it when I get mad sometimes! And dogs are constantly “testing their boundries” just like children do.


  4. dorian said

    I don’t believe that certain breeds are’more intelligent’ than others.that’s being “breedist”. hehe. if I go out without saying goodbye to rocky that’s when he does notty things. like turning over his water dish. so I make sure I let him know i’m leaving. he’s master of the house. post a picture of your pup, kay!


  5. princessxxx said

    if i had a dog, it would be a great dane.
    ideal of beauty.

    yeah, kay, d9 showed us his doggies, let’s see yours.


  6. Hors Service said

    “I can’t imagine what use it has from a survival perspective.”

    Neither do I (except that being nice to humans is a selected caracter among dogs). You see, no purpose!

    I think that animals, and in particular, “human” animals, the ones that are very close to us and particularly members of the family, are more intelligent than we think. But it’s because they also feel different things from us, things that we can’t imagine (pheromones, ultraviolets…).

    Also, nice constatation: most of the animals are capable of feeling an earthquake, but the most domesticated ones can’t. They’re too “human”^^

    Also: all of the species of dog are in fact only one specie! I was very surprised to discover it. But it’s a different one from the wolf. Same for cats. They’re different from the wild cats.
    The domestic animals have natural predispostions in understanding humans and following their orders, they have been selected for that, since thousands of years.
    It’s species that have been created by man! Fantastic, isn’t it?


  7. princessxxx said

    it is fantastic
    and it shows how fast evolution really works.


  8. kayms99 said

    Hors, you said: “The domestic animals have natural predispostions in understanding humans and following their orders, they have been selected for that, since thousands of years.”

    but then how can you say that behavior / personality isn’t passed thru our genes?


  9. dorian said

    is that brontie, kay? what a cutie!!


  10. kayms99 said

    That’s my doggie Brontie.. she’s named after Bronte in the movie Green Card.. one of my favorite movies… everyone always asks which sister she’s named after. She’s the wirehaired variety… the most outgoing and clown like of the 3. I think the most stubborn of the 3 also :o)


  11. […] Your family dog may be smarter than your toddler « A Different … […]


  12. The following is an original pun by The Bicycling Guitarist from about thirty years or more ago. Share if you dare, but give credit where due (or due due, as the case may be):

    “I like chemistry so much even my dog is a Lab! Remember how the alchemists were always trying to turn lead into gold? Well, I’m trying to turn fleas into gold. Surely you’ve heard the legend of the Golden Fleas?”


  13. I am obviously not using the correct tags or whatever in posting graphics in order to make it show up in the post itself instead of just as a link. Darn! Princessxxx, HELP!


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