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How Smart Are Dogs? Facts About Canine Cognition

Quincy Miller

By Quincy Miller

dog reading book with glasses

If you’ve spent any amount of time around dog owners, you know that sooner or later, one will claim that their dog is the smartest pooch that ever lived.

While this claim may be dubious (after all, everyone knows that your dog is the smartest of all time), it’s enough to make you wonder: How smart are dogs, anyway?

It’s a simple question, but one that has a surprisingly complicated answer. With no real canine IQ tests that cover all dogs, the answer depends on what you measure. Divider 1

What Do We Mean by “Intelligence?”

german shepherd reading books
Photo Credit: Katrina S, Pixabay

Before we can determine how smart dogs are, we first need to decide what exactly we mean by “smart.”

After all, there are different types of intelligence, as you can tell just by looking at the human world. It’s like asking who’s smarter, Shakespeare or Einstein?

It can be even more difficult to define when you’re talking about dogs. It’s important to remember that many breeds were developed to perform a certain task, so it may be unfair to judge them by their ability to do other things besides that specific task.

For example, Bloodhounds were developed to track prey by their scent trails, and they’re fantastic at doing just that. Is it fair, then, to say that they’re less intelligent than a Border Collie because they’re not good at herding livestock?

Unfortunately, there’s not a great answer here — and there aren’t really any canine IQ tests that can cover all the various types of doggy intelligence. However, recent research has shown that regardless of how you measure it, dogs may just be smarter than most people give them credit for.

The Problem With Testing a Dog’s Intelligence

One of the biggest issues that you’ll find with the results of canine IQ tests (whether they’re looking at dogs in general or comparing different breeds to one another) is that many of them are unfairly skewed toward certain animals.

Let’s look at the Bloodhound vs. Border Collie example. Border Collies have been bred to be highly visual dogs, as they have to keep an eye on the herd while also watching their owners for cues. Bloodhounds, on the other hand, are happy to never lift their eyes from the ground, preferring to interact with the world primarily through their snouts.

With that in mind, if you were to perform an IQ test that relied heavily on watching a human for cues, which breed do you think would perform better? Do you think that truly makes the Border Collie “smarter?”

It’s hard to say, and ultimately, it’s not a question that holds much interest for most people. Rather, it’s understood that if you want a dog that will herd your cattle, you get a Border Collie, and if you want a dog for tracking possums, you get a Bloodhound.Divider 8

Dogs Read People Better Than Other Animals

a man hugging a dog
Photo Credit: Eric Ward, Unsplash

It makes sense, given how closely our evolutionary histories are intertwined, but dogs are fantastic at picking up on visual and verbal cues from humans. In fact, they may even be better at it than chimpanzees or babies.

Researchers at Duke University devised a series of tests in which they set out multiple cups and then placed a treat under one of them. They would then point at the cup with the treat under it. It sounds simple enough, but babies and chimps performed terribly on the test, while dogs were much more successful.

Dogs are also adept at reading our emotions. In another study, researchers opened two boxes but did not show the dogs what was in either box. They would react positively to one box and negatively to the other. Dogs went to investigate the “positive” box 81% of the time, which is about the same frequency as you find in 18-month-old babies.

Our pooches also have extensive vocabularies — they can learn hundreds of words, according to recent estimates. One Border Collie could distinguish between 1,022 different words, and they have the ability to recognize that new words correspond to new activities, a relatively advanced trait known as “fast-mapping.”

Dogs also pay attention to how humans interact with other humans. If they see two people and judge one to be helpful and the other unhelpful, they’ll innately favor the helpful person.

Dogs Have Rich Emotional Lives

Dogs experience certain high-level emotions that are generally thought to be considered indicators of extreme intelligence. Only a few animals — mainly humans and other primates — have shown anywhere near the same level of emotional depth that dogs have.

Among other things, that means dogs deeply connect with their owners. They show activity in the reward centers of their brains when they detect their owner’s scent, and they show less aggression when presented with pictures of their owner.

They’re also capable of feeling complex emotions, like jealousy. In one experiment, researchers asked two dogs to perform a simple task; one was rewarded for completing it and the other was not. The dog that wasn’t rewarded would eventually stop participating.

They also don’t like it when their owners lavish attention on other animals. One study had owners ignore their dogs in favor of either a book or a stuffed dog; the dogs showed much more aggression toward the stuffed animal than they did the book.

You may wonder how all this matters. As it turns out, scientists are learning that emotional IQ may be directly correlated to regular IQ.

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The Limits of Canine Intelligence

pit bull dogs sitting in chairs on a balcony
Image By: otsphoto, Shutterstock

While dogs are exceptional in some ways, they struggle in others, and there are certain areas where their IQ lags well behind other animals.

Dogs aren’t particularly good at cooperative problem solving, for example. In one study, when presented with a puzzle that required mutual effort to solve, one dog would work, while the other would sit there and watch (something that any human who’s ever been involved with a group project can deeply empathize with). Similar animals, such as wolves, perform much better at such tasks.

However, that may not be an entirely fair criticism. Humans rarely expect dogs to solve their own problems, preferring to do it for them, so it’s no surprise that those skills may have atrophied (if they ever existed).

They also fail at cognitive tests like being self-aware. One of the most basic tests of self-awareness involves being able to recognize one’s own reflection; dogs are terrible at this, while other animals (even some fish) can do it with ease.

Dogs also can’t count. Other animals, including chimps, bears, and even chickens and honeybees, have shown an ability to either count or at least recognize differences in sums.

Just How Smart Are Dogs?

At the end of the day, it’s hard to give a definitive answer to this question. Many researchers, however, would put a dog’s intelligence on par with that of a 2-year-old human.

This will vary from breed to breed and animal to animal, of course, but the overall skill set that the average dog possesses equates roughly to that of a toddler (and if you’ve spent any time at all around toddlers, that may make you rethink just how smart dogs really are).

Being that smart does make them one of the most intelligent animal species in the world, but they’re not necessarily exceptional. Other animals, like cats, pigs, horses, monkeys, and dolphins, can all lay claim to being as smart as your average dog, if not smarter.

Dogs may have a reputation for being smarter than they are simply because they’re so agreeable, which makes them easy to study. It’s much easier to convince a dog to jump through a bunch of (literal and figurative) hoops than a cat, for example.

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Does a Dog’s IQ Even Matter?

When considering a dog’s intelligence, you may eventually wonder if it really matters.

For the most part, we enjoy the company of dogs for reasons other than their intelligence. Also, many dog owners will tell you that their dumbest canine friend often ended up being one of their favorites.

Still, a smarter animal is easier to train, and if you’re looking to own an animal for reasons other than companionship, smarter may be better. It’s also worth examining a dog’s IQ relative to other animals to see if there might be better options for certain tasks that are usually assigned to canines.

For most people, though, any dog is a good dog, regardless of whether they graduated at the top of their class or ate their cap and gown before the ceremony.

See also:

Featured Image Credit: Kay Garuccio, Shutterstock

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