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How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?
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(Photo: Josh/Flickr)

(Photo: Josh/Flickr)

Canine researchers have been investigating dogs’ cognitive abilities—whether they can solve puzzles, recognize our emotions, and so on. But are ordinary people aware of these findings, and do they have a realistic view of dogs? A paper by a research team led by Tiffani Howell of Monash University investigates owner’s beliefs about their dog’s intelligence.

The research, published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, involved a Web survey that was aimed at both dog owners and non-dog owners. However, because the overwhelming majority of answers came from people who did own dogs, the analysis was restricted to this group. Although respondents were perhaps not typical of the average dog owner—they were mostly female (90 percent) and educated at the post-secondary level (63 percent)—they may be typical of people who take part in dog forums and discussion groups on the Internet.

The results showed that the closer the relationship someone has with their dog, the higher they rate the dog’s cognitive abilities.

The questionnaire was completed by 565 dog owners, most of whom (73 percent) reported that they were knowledgeable about dogs. The largest group came from Australia, with the United States and U.K. also making up a sizable number of participants. The questions asked about perceptions of canine intelligence and also about people’s relationship with their dog.

The results showed that owners think dogs have a range of cognitive abilities, including being able to recognize people’s emotions, and awareness of human attention. One interesting finding is that many of these fell into two categories—an instinctive ability and a learned ability. For example, people thought that dogs have an instinctive ability to be able to solve problems, and that they are also able to learn how to solve a problem.

"The participants scored dogs very highly in terms of the possession of complex cognitive skills," the researchers write. "Respondents generally seem to agree that dogs possess extensive social cognitive skills, many of which have been established experimentally." At the same time, owners typically also believe dogs have abilities that have not yet been shown by researchers, such as deception. It would be interesting to know more about how people form their opinions about dogs.

In general, the results also showed that the closer the relationship someone has with their dog, the higher they rate the dog’s cognitive abilities. Similarly, people who said they knew more about dogs were more likely to give high ratings for canine intelligence (except for instinctive problem-solving, on which they gave lower ratings).

And so just how intelligent do most people think their dog is? The average result was equivalent to a three- to five-year-old child, with the next most common result being the same as a one- to two-year-old human baby. A few people said their dog was as clever as a human aged 16 years or older. (Do you think this was a tongue-in-cheek reply?)

It’s important to gain a better understanding of what shapes people’s beliefs about their dogs. "It is possible that, in some cases, dog owners believe that dogs are cognitively capable of more than they actually are and misconstrue normal dog behavior as an attempt at 'dominance' or a stubborn lack of obedience," the researchers write. This is especially important, they say, given that behavior is a common reason for dogs being given up to shelters or euthanized.

I think many people who train their dogs experience a point at which they think the dog already "gets" a command, when actually the dog doesn’t get it yet. This can be frustrating for both the dog (who doesn’t know what to do) and the owner (who thinks the dog is being willfully disobedient). This research is a welcome step in gaining a better understanding of what owners believe about their dogs.