Harriet Woodhall (Vet News Small Animal News Editor)
The intelligence of domestic dogs has been a topic much in the news recently after the discovery of perhaps the “world’s cleverest dog”, Chaser the Border Collie.
One of the reasons this topic is a controversial one could be because of the limited means of testing a dog’s intelligence apart from the amount of words they are able to retain and respond to. One way scientists are trying to evaluate how intelligent the species is to look at its evolution.
It is well known that domestic dogs evolved from wolves, but how this transition came about is thought to be through humans. After a group of wolves took advantage of humans, they actually gained from the interaction and domesticated themselves naturally. It is now thought the increase in intelligence is down to their involvement with us.
Dogs have gained a social intelligence different from their wolf ancestors in which they are able to learn words in a similar way to a small child. One study has shown that dogs work things out with an inferential strategy based on the principle of exclusion: they have words that are attached to items, so when given a new word they know this belongs to a different, new item. Another quite shocking discovery was in several border collies who when shown a 2D picture were able to go and fetch the object in the picture – using something called the principle of iconicity. This was previously thought of as something that only children were able to do.
It is clear that we have much to learn about canine intelligence and are gradually uncovering new insights into their minds. One good example of a recent advance is Chaser the “world’s cleverest dog” who has been able to learn 1,200 words, more than any other non-primate and is estimated to have the intelligence of a 2 and a ½ year old child.
Even further into the field is Brian Hare from Duke University in North Carolina who has come up with a series of scientific tests covering more than just the amount of words learnt – they can also explore empathy, communication, cunning, memory and reasoning. The tests aim to prove that, like humans, dogs have different approaches to challenges. Researchers have created a profile that enables the owner to get a full overview of their dog’s traits and individual skills. The tests, through the website Dognition, are part of a study that aims to get a better understanding of how dogs think, not just for insight into dogs but also into our own intelligence evolution. As dogs learn words much like human babies it may help with our knowledge of our own learning.
Maybe the next controversial question that needs answering is: “which are smarter, dogs or cats?”