Are dogs really as clever as we think?

Holidays4Dogs has covered the subject of canine intelligence in many of its articles previously, but a recent new study by researchers from the University of Exeter and Canterbury Christchurch University now call into question recent emerging ideas about the intelligence of dogs.

dog sitting, pet sittingTheir findings were published in the Journal ‘Learning and Behaviour’ – entitled; “In what sense are dogs special?  Canine Cognition in comparative context.”

Researchers from the two universities had not aimed to re-evaluate canine cognition in its entirety but, crucially, to set the subject of canine intelligence into context.  They wanted to establish whether the cognitive abilities of dogs are in fact as special as others have claimed in the past, or whether they are more on a par with what might be expected when they are compared with appropriate other groups.

Studies into canine psychology and behaviour have been carried out for as long as humans have been interested in experimentation and they have often been the model choice of candidate in biomedical and psychological research.

Many people with an interest in behaviour will have heard of Pavlov’s work which was carried out in 1927 involving research into the salivary response in dogs. Initially, Pavolov was looking into salivation in the dogs, but noticed that whenever he went into the room, even if he was not bringing the dogs food, they would salivate.  Then Pavoloc realised that the dogs learned to associate food with secondary things such as a lab assistant, he concluded he had made a significant scientific discovery which is now knows as classical conditioning.

dog sitting, pet sitting

However, studies such as Pavlov’s do not prove how clever dogs are and findings are more associated with evolutionary factors.  Other studies into canine cognition however, do aim to establish the intelligence of dogs, but are too often compared with that of a chimpanzee, for instance.  In comparisons such as these, when a dog is found to come out on top, it is concluded that the dog has exceptional cognitive qualities.  For example, in studies it has been found that while dogs are capable of following the track of a pointed finger, chimpanzees cannot.  But does this really mean that dogs are exceptionally intelligent?  Are pointing cues really so advance that they could only have evolved in highly intelligent creatures, like humans?

There are many studies that go further and do actually draw comparisons between dogs and human toddlers, but researchers from Exeter and Canterbury Christchurch universities claim that these sorts of comparisons do not truly put a dog’s intelligence in fair context.

Indeed, Dr Britta Osthaus of Canterbury Christchurch University states; “taking all three groups (domestic animals, social hunters and carnivorans) into account, dog cognition does not look exceptional”.

He goes on to point out; “we are doing dogs no favour by expecting too much of them. Dogs are dogs and we need to take their needs and true abilities into account when considering how we treat them”.

There is no doubt that dogs are certainly unique and many readers will insist their dogs are truly clever, for all sorts of anecdotal reasons.  Despite the question over comparisons and the intelligence of dogs themselves, research using dogs has meant that there has been a greater understanding of non-human animals in general, as well a great deal of insights into the impact that non-human species have on people.