Canine Intelligence and BehaviorFor years researchers and scientists have studied animal behaviors and there have been many discoveries by observing what animals do.

For a long time, it was never acknowledged that animals could have feelings. Although there were some that were convinced that animals could suffer and therefore have some kind of feelings, even if it wasn’t the same experience as ours. Animal welfare groups sprouted up to defend those who can’t speak for themselves. Then some researchers were able to observe certain behaviors that suggested animals have more than just instinctual behaviors. For example, scientists have learned that elephants form strong attachments to family members and experience grief, compassion, joy, and anger.

Extensive research went into studying primates, our closest relatives. But over the past decade, more and more studies have been done with man’s best friend, the dog. So much so that it is not just scientists, but psychologists, anthropologists, evolutionary biologists, and even linguists studying dogs.

Studying Dogs

Why all the interest?

Because the adaptability dogs have to live alongside humans has brought about certain tendencies that sometimes emulate us. According to an article from the American Psychological Association in 2009, Stanley Coren, PhD, of the University of British Columbia, has reviewed numerous studies to conclude that dogs have the ability to solve complex problems and are more like humans and other higher primates than previously thought. Coren says, dogs mental abilities are closer to a human child age 2 to 2.5 years old.” [1]

Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist of Duke University’s Canine Cognition Center and citizen science program Dognition, explains it like this, “…but there’s some nice evidence that dogs are using an inferential strategy, which takes advantage of what’s called the principle of exclusion. They know that a number of objects are named or labeled with a sound, and when a new one is introduced that they do not have a label for, and they hear a new sound that they’ve never heard before, they infer that the new sound must apply to this new object. That has only been observed in human children before. That was a big shocker, and it’s been replicated.

It even gets crazier than that – several Border Collies are using what’s called the principal of iconicity. You can show them a two-dimensional picture, and they will then go fetch the object in the picture. That’s something people thought only kids could do, and that it would only be in a linguistic species that that would be possible.” [2]

The smartest dog in the world is a Border Collie named Chaser. She not only demonstrates the principle of exclusion, she also knows over 1,000 words including verbs and modifiers. That is more than any other non-primate has been able to learn. John Pilley, a retired professor of psychology, is Chaser’s owner. They way he was able to teach so much to Chaser is through understanding “the specific needs and behaviors of the border collie breed, and adjusting the teaching method to best suit it.” [3]

Breed behavior does play a role in capabilities. Herding is a complex job that border collies were bred to do. It was noticed that the dogs were able to identify and herd specific sheep with no visual cue by the farmers. Pilley used that information to transfer Chaser’s training for everyday objects.

Evolution of Canine Intelligence

To think about canine intelligence broadly somehow dogs evolved from wolves. During this evolution, dogs have had to study human behavior to decide how to behave around us. They had to choose to act certain ways to get us to feed them, shelter them, and have a close relationship with them. You have to admit that’s a smart survival technique.

Nowadays, thinking there are “smart” dogs and “dumb” dogs is a misconception and forces a human construct on a dog. “There’s still this throwback to a uni-dimensional version of intelligence, as though there is only one type of intelligence that you either have more or less of.”[4]

Hare explains, “In reality there are different types of intelligence. Different dogs are good at different things. Unfortunately, the very clever strategies some dogs are using are not apparent without playing a cognitive game. This means people can often underestimate the intelligence of their best friend… Just because one individual dog isn’t particularly good at using gestures, for example, it doesn’t mean that they’re not absolutely remarkable in their memory, or that they can’t use your visual perspective to deceive you” [2]

Types of Canine Intelligence

There are many different areas of canine intelligence being studied. For Stanley Coren, PhD studies have shown that, “There are three types of dog intelligence: instinctive (what the dog is bred to do), adaptive (how well the dog learns from its environment to solve problems) and working and obedience (the equivalent of ‘school learning’).” [1]

While Brian Hare “…found dogs’ scores on various intelligence tests did not overlap; instead, each dog excelled in one of four unrelated cognitive domains: communication, understanding visual cues, memory, and reasoning.” [5]

Some interesting examples that Coren shows are: Dogs can learn about 165 words and even signals, and that there are even some dogs that can learn more than that. You can teach dogs to count, “And they have a basic understanding of arithmetic and will notice errors in simple computations, such as 1+1=1 or 1+1=3.” He remarks on individual studies where dogs “solve spatial problems” when there is some type of barrier. The dogs are able to observe humans and other dogs and then get through the barrier themselves. Dogs are also talented at deceiving other dogs and humans to get rewards. As many dog owners know, dogs are more likely to steal something when you are not looking!

A fascinating example of a dog using math is, “Mathematician Tim Pennings used his own Corgi to observe how dogs approached retrieving a ball in water (Peterson, 2006). When the ball was thrown at an angle to the beach, the dog did not swim straight to the ball, but ran down the beach for some distance before entering the water. Field trial competitors know this behavior well, and have to train their dogs to go directly to the bird to be retrieved. They’re complying with the rules of trialing, but actually forcing the dog to be less efficient. Running on the shore is faster than swimming in the water, and after repeated measurements, Pennings found that his dog was accurately choosing the optimal path to the ball to minimize travel time. Performing these calculations requires calculus, so it appears that dogs are natural mathematicians.” [6]

A Dog’s Ability To Read Communicative Gestures

Another impressive ability in dogs that you don’t see in other animals is their ability to read our communicative gestures. They are flexible and adept at this because it helps them solve problems and it can help them help us. From hunting to canine freestyle (people and their dogs doing a dance routine together) to a family companion, dogs partner with us and having some understanding of how they think can help us communicate better with them.

A notable study about gestures was done in Hungary, “At Eotvos University in Budapest, researchers have also looked at imitation in a variety of ways (Woodard, 2005). Though chimpanzees find it difficult to imitate humans, dogs excel at it. “This is not a little thing,” says Vilmos Csanyi, “because they must pay attention to the person’s actions, remember them, then apply them to their own body.” A dog taught the cue “You do it” (“csinal” in Hungarian) easily aped (copied) his owner spinning in a circle, raising an arm, taking a bow. Csanyi’s team found in dogs a natural tendency to attend to human visual cues. The dogs again far outperformed chimpanzees in following human gesturing or gaze to locate food.” [6]

Dog Emotions

Another area of study in canines is their emotions. Comparing a dog’s mind to that of a toddler, dogs have the same basic emotions of “joy, fear, anger, disgust, excitement, contentment, distress, and even love.” says Coren. He has ascertained that, “Dogs have the same brain structures that produce emotions in humans. They have the same hormones and undergo the same chemical changes that humans do during emotional states. Dogs even have the hormone oxytocin, which in humans is involved with love and affection. So it seems reasonable to suggest that dogs also have emotions similar to ours.” Though since more complex emotions develop in humans at a later stage, he believes that dogs cannot emotionally progress that far; emotions like “guilt, pride, contempt, and shame. [7]

Some of the different studies on canine emotion are, “recently, scientists at the Messerli Institute in Vienna have shown that dogs can discriminate between human faces that are expressing different emotions, even when they can only see half the face, and the person in the photo is completely unfamiliar to them.” [8] Dogs show “social eavesdropping” when they observe interactions. Dogs watched their owners receive help or be turned away. Most dogs then took treats from the helpers and refuse treats from the rude people. Dogs can pick up on our moods by noticing our behaviors. They know when you’re upset, happy, not feeling well, or even if you don’t like someone. They can even pick up on subtle changes in voice intonation. According to Dr. Gregory Berns, a leading neuroscientist in the field of canine cognition, dogs may actually feel their emotions “more intensely than we can imagine” since humans can cognitively look at their emotions from different angles to sort out our feelings. And doing that sometimes takes the edge off how deeply we feel. Dogs aren’t capable of that so your companion can really use your support when they are feeling down or going through a stressful transition. [9]

In a remarkable study in Hungary, Dr. Attila Andics and several others were able to train dogs to lie in a harness and lie still while in an MRI machine. They studied words with positive and neutral words with positive and neutral tones and how the brain acknowledged these words and tones. “dogs’ brains respond to the meaning of a word, and to how the word is said, much as human brains do.” And That doesn’t mean a dog won’t wag its tail and look happy when you say, “You stinky mess” in a happy voice. But the dog is looking at your body language and your eyes, and perhaps starting to infer that “stinky mess” is a word of praise. [10]

Some scientists think that the affection dog’s feel for their humans is mostly from the fact we take care of them. But depending on the individual dog and human, the bond can be extremely strong and many do believe they feel love. There is one study that shows that dogs would prefer to spend time with humans than their own species, which is unusual for an animal. And there are also studies showing that dogs and humans experience a rise in oxytocin, the “hug hormone” when we hug and pet them. [9]

Nicholas Dodman, a renowned Tufts University veterinarian and researcher, has studied pets for years to treat their behavior disorders and help owners. He has studied areas of health that we share with dogs. They can have some of the same medical and emotional issues we have, like diabetes and post-traumatic stress disorder. They can experience memory loss and cognitive decline as they age just like humans as well. Sometimes the behaviors are from a previous rough life, abusive owners, or sometimes the pet is just misunderstood. Dodman urges people to do some research before acquiring a pet to be prepared for the responsibility. He sees so many pets that end up with some behavioral issues because the owner didn’t understand how to properly care for, train, or even keep up with the health of their pet. [11]

Over the years there has been a shift in how we view our pets. Many people consider themselves pet parents today. With so much exploration into how dogs think, feel, and learn this is a great time for pet lovers to do their best to educate themselves in this area. It is an opportunity to provide emotional support and balance for your best friend. Keeping them happy and healthy can help you to stay happy and healthy too. And who knows, maybe with some practice you will have the next smartest dog in the world.


Works Cited
Bradshaw, John. “What is this dog thinking? Scientists now have some fascinating answers | John Bradshaw.” Guardian News and Media. N.p., 16 Feb. 2015. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. [8]

Cirino, Erica. “Can Dogs Help Us Understand the Link Between Intelligence and Health? – Facts So Romantic.” Nautilus. N.p., 27 Sept. 2016. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. [5]

Cook, Gareth. “The Brilliance of the Dog Mind.” Scientific American. N.p., 04 Feb. 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. [4]

Coren, Stanley. “What is You Dog Thinking.” Discover Magazine. N.p., 5 Sept. 2012. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. [7]

Crawford, Amy. “Why Dogs are More Like Humans Than Wolves.” Smithsonian Institution, 20 Feb. 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. [2]

Gorman, James. “With Dogs, It’s What You Say – and How You Say It.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 29 Aug. 2016. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. [10]

[email protected] “What’s My Dog Thinking? Getting Inside Fido’s Head.” Wharton University of Pennsylvania . Wharton Business Radio , 26 Sept. 2016. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. [11]

Moriarty, Kate. “Here’s How Your Dog Really Feels About You, According To Science.” The Huffington Post., 29 Dec. 2015. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. [9]
Nosowitz, Dan. “I Met The World’s Smartest Dog.” Popular Science. N.p., 26 Aug. 2013. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. [3]

“Smarter Than You Think: Renowned Canine Researcher Puts Dogs’ Intelligence on Par with 2-Year-Old Human.” American Psychological Association. N.p., 8 Aug. 2009. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. [1]

Smith, Cheryl. “A Survey of Research into Canine Cognition.” International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. N.p., 18 Aug. 2010. Web. 20 Feb. 2017. [6]