New research suggests dogs aren't exceptionally smart

Dogs owners brace yourself. While you may think your brilliant pooch stands out in a crowd, research suggests they aren't exceptionally intelligent compared to similar animals. Don't tell the cats.

'We're certainly not saying that dogs are dumb,' says Stephen Lea behind the study

When it comes to their place in the animal kingdom, recent research shows that dogs may not be as smart as we often give them credit for. (ivanovgood/Pixabay)
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New research on canine cognition suggests that dogs may not be exceptionally smart compared to other animals.

It's not that dogs are dumb, it's just that they aren't as exceptional as we may have thought.

After reviewing 300 studies on dog intelligence and doing his own study, Stephen Lea, an emeritus professor of psychology at Exeter University, found there's no scientific evidence to support dogs as super intelligent.

"We're certainly not saying that dogs are dumb," Lea told The Current's guest host Connie Walker.

 In a comparative context, dogs do things at about the same skill level as other animals.

"Our thrust is more on saying that we haven't realized that there are plenty of other animals out there that are actually very smart indeed."

Don't confuse impressive with smart

But what about the dogs on YouTube playing piano or going to the bathroom on toilets? Isn't this exceptional?

It's impressive, said Lea, but it's not the criteria for intelligence.

"A surprising variety of animals can be trained to do a surprising variety of things," he said.

A particular interest for Lea in the study was looking at whether a dog could spontaneously complete a task without prior training. He uses the fictional dog, Lassie as an example where the dog reacts to a person in need of help. 

While several experiments resulted in what Lea described as "not entirely consistent" results, he came to the conclusion that dogs don't quickly understand when an owner is in a predicament.

"I have no doubt that you could train a dog to react to a particular kind of owner difficulty," he added.

If a dog owner in a wheelchair falls over, for example, their dog could be trained to recognize the situation and take the appropriate action to find a human to help.

In comparison to other social hunter animals like chimpanzees and dolphins, dogs do solve some tasks, but chimpanzees solve these tasks too, according to the study.

"There's really very little evidence that dogs can manage  — even with a lot of training  — using tools whereas famously, chimpanzees use tools in the wild."

Dog smarts

Although it may be human nature to think of dogs as "smart," Daphna Buchsbaum​ urges people to risk the temptation.  

Buchsbaum, the principal investigator at the University of Toronto's Canine Cognition Lab, suggests there are other ways to measure a dog's intelligence beyond just focusing on their relationship to humans.

"We want to understand how dogs think like dogs, not just how dogs think like humans," said Buchsbaum.

Daphna Buchsbaum and her dog Pumpkin outside of the Canine Cognition Lab at the University of Toronto where she is the principal investigator. The lab explores how a dogs' overall cognitive capacities as a species. (Submitted by Daphna Buchsbaum )

She points to Lea's study as an example that highlights how research on dog behaviour is often very human-centric.

"We often ask questions about how dogs and other animals think like us, or the ways in which they're different from us, and his paper really broadens that perspective by asking, 'Well, how are animal minds like other animal minds?'" said Buchsbaum​.

Buchsbaum​ says a common challenge is to make sure dog owners understand if a dog doesn't accomplish a task, it's not a reflection of their individual dog's capabilities. 

Many dog owners feel their pets are emotionally intelligent. Professor Stephen Lea doesn't think dogs are exceptionally unique in comparison to other animals in this category either. (LUM3N/pixabay)

"As humans we have an understanding that you can succeed and be accomplished in different ways, right? That one person might have more empathy, while another person might have more problem-solving ability," Buchsbaum​ explained.

This premise is true for animals as well, she argued: "Animals can accomplish all sorts of tasks that we can't accomplish as humans, and maybe that's another kind of important intelligence."

Listen to the full discussion near the top of this page.


Produced by Alison Masemann and Ghalia Bdiwe. 

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