Most dog owners have a story or two that praise super-intelligent deeds their pet has performed. We have known for years that dogs are extremely loyal and highly trainable, but how smart are they when compared to humans?
Tiffany Howell and collaborators at Monash University in Australia recently performed an online survey of 559 dog owners. They used a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) to rate several dog behaviors regarding intelligence. About 45 percent of the owners thought their dog’s intelligence equal to that of a 3- to 5-year-old human, and another 25 percent rated it even higher. Dogs are smart but perhaps not quite as bright as some owners think.
According to Dr. Stanley Coren, an expert in canine intelligence, the mental abilities of a dog are close to those of a 2- to 2 ½ -year-old child. The average 2-year-old has a vocabulary of about 100 words. Another 100 words are added by age 3. So how do dogs compare?
Most dogs have a pretty good grasp of the English language. The average dog has a vocabulary of 165 words. With training, some learn many more. Dogs understand words they can associate with objects like “cookie,” “toy” or “car” or behaviors like “walk,” “sit” or “come.” Pet parents should stick to a single word for a given object or activity. Meal time should always be “dinner” or “supper”. Alternating between the two words will give pup a fuzzy picture.
Abstract concepts are more difficult for your dog to comprehend. He is more likely to respond to “cookie” than “I love you.” Your pup may feel your warmth when you sweet talk him, but he knows “cookie” will result in something tangible.
Some dogs have very large vocabularies. John W. Pilley, a psychologist at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., taught his border collie Chaser the names of up to two new toys each day for three years. In 2011, the Behavioural Processes Journal reported Chaser could identify 1,022 toys. That is pretty amazing and far beyond the vocabulary limits of most dogs.
It is clear that dogs understand simple words, but do they have math skills? Can they count? Data is sparse, but scientists are starting to investigate whether or not our clever pups have arithmetic skills as well as language aptitudes. Many 2-year-old children can count to 3. By age 3 most can count to 5. Do dogs compare with 2- to 2½-year-old children in math skills as they do in language abilities?
To dispel the myth held by some that dogs lack basic quantitative capabilities, Norton Milgram at the University of Toronto tested whether dogs could judge whether one thing was larger than another. He used a tray that contained two objects of different sizes. Dogs were taught to always pick the larger (or smaller) object. If a dog pushed the correct object, there was a food treat underneath. Dogs fairly easily learned to choose the correct sized object to get a treat. Obviously, dogs do have rudimentary quantitative skills.
Others tested whether dogs had number sense or the ability to distinguish quantities of relative sizes. In other words, we can tell which of two crowds has more people without counting the number of individuals in each. Two piles of kibble were used to determine if dogs can discriminate relative quantities. Dogs readily choose a pile of 10 pieces of kibble over one with just two pieces demonstrating that dogs can approximately estimate quantity and do have number sense.
Other researchers took the next step to see if dogs can count. Robert Young of the Pontifical Catholic University in Brazil, and Rebecca West of the University of Lincoln in the UK, modified a test that has been used to determine if 5-month-old infants have the ability to count. Research confirms that infants (just like adults) will stare at something unexpected or unusual for a longer time. In the test, a baby is shown a doll that is then placed behind a low screen. The child is then shown another doll that is also placed behind the screen. The screen is lifted, and the time the child spends looking at the dolls is determined.
Sometimes the investigator sneakily removes the second doll or inserts a third doll so 1 + 1 no longer equals 2 when the screen is lifted. If two dolls are not present, the child spends much more time looking at the results. Scientists conclude the confused child realizes an unexpected number of dolls is present and therefore has the basic math skills to distinguish numbers of items.
Researchers employed the same test with dogs using dog treats instead of dolls. Like the babies, pups spent much longer looking at an unexpected number of treats when the screen was raised. This suggests that like children dogs can not only count but can also do simple addition and subtraction.
A dog’s ability to count is confirmed in field trials of retrievers. At higher-level tasks in a competition, a dog must be able to count to at least three. If three birds are dropped, he must know that his task is not complete after retrieving two. He must understand that there is still one more bird to be located and brought to his owner.
It is clear that dogs rival the language and math skills of the average 2- to 2½-year-old child. We also know that our pups occasionally perform deeds that seem to far exceed those that could be accomplished by a 2- to 2½-year-old child. Animal behaviorists and scientists can tell us a lot. They cannot be present to see some of the amazing accomplishments of your pup. Only you know his true moments of brilliance.
C. Sue Furman, Ph.D. spent 40 years at several major universities including the University of Maryland, School of Medicine and Colorado State University, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biological Sciences teaching future physicians and veterinarians and conducting research involving nerve and muscle. Learn more about Dr. C. Sue Furman here.