Dogs - How intelligent are they really?Aug 07, 2023
Do you ever sit and look at your dog and think it’s a bit of a dum dum? I’ve been there many times, but how intelligent are they really?
It can be difficult to measure a dog’s intelligence as it doesn’t directly mirror a human’s intelligence. It’s believed that their intellectual abilities are similar to those of a 2-3-year-old human child.
There are a number of ways in which we study our dogs to get a measure of their actual intellect. Here are a few:
Dogs can learn and understand approximately 165 different words, commands, or gestures. Of course, there are some dogs we regard as being more intelligent, often these are working breeds like Border Collies or Poodles who can learn more than 200 words. In some cases, many more, like ‘Chaser’, the Border Collie who learnt over 1000 words.
Dogs exhibit their problem-solving skills in their everyday behaviours, like finding hidden toys, getting a ball that’s rolled under the couch or navigating obstacles to get to where they’re going. They can also be trained to perform more complex tasks, like sniffer dogs detecting certain substances (like drugs or explosives) or performing search-and-rescue operations in the mountains or in emergency situations.
Dogs are highly social animals. They have an amazing and unique ability to understand and communicate with humans more than we appreciate and maybe even better than any other species on the planet. They can pick up on our emotions, read our body language, and some can even follow where we’re looking or pointing gestures (although for most when you point the dog will look at your finger and NOT where you’re pointing).
Dogs display a wide range of emotions that we can see and study, they can also read human emotions very well. They can sense when their owners are upset and often act in a way to provide comfort, I’m sure most of us have experienced this.
Dogs have both short-term and long-term memory, although it's not as advanced as in humans. They can remember commands, people, and places, as well as some events.
Inference & Reasoning
Dogs can use inference (to infer something) in many situations. For example, if they see you put a toy in one of two hidden places and then show them that it's not in the first place, they can infer that it must be in the second place.
Although dogs are capable of basic inference, but it’s understood they can’t use complex reasoning that humans do. Dogs live much more in the present and don't show the same ability to plan for the future or consider abstract concepts.
Remember that like humans, every dog is different, and some will be stronger in some areas of intelligence than others.
One dog might be great at learning and following commands (a form of what we might call "academic intelligence", or “book smart”), while another might be great at reading and responding to human emotions (a form of "emotional intelligence", or “street smart”).
This is a complex area of study, I’m not exactly “book smart” myself so delving into neuroscience in relation to our dogs is a mind-blowing and VERY rewarding experience.
Dogs' minds don't work exactly like ours, and some behaviours that might seem like reasoning (i.e. ‘he’s doing that just to wind me up!!) could be better understood as simply learned responses to specific cues.