Dog Cognition

Have you ever wondered how “man’s best friend” got to be regarded so differently from its closest relative, the one who ate Little Red Riding Hood, or blew down the Little Piggys’ houses, or the one people want “to keep from the door?” Have you ever wondered which is smarter, a dog or a chimpanzee, or a dolphin? How is it that some dogs seem to be able to understand our feelings and desires while others seem to constantly try to get away with all the mischief they can dream up? Are some breeds of dogs smarter than others?

In recent years, scientists have begun to seriously examine these questions and, in some cases, developed surprising answers. Although examination of brain function and hormones has been somewhat helpful, a cognitive approach, which hypothesizes that flexible strategies to solve problems can and probably do have more than one path of development, is yielding the best results. Cognition is an animal’s ability to use its knowledge of the world to imagine possible solutions to new problems. This is a very powerful concept because it allows for many animals to have “cognition” about a problem that other animals can’t solve and yet not have the ability to solve problems that some other animal can easily conquer. The result is that there are many definitions of smart behavior.  It makes no sense to ask which is smarter, a chimpanzee or a dolphin because it depends on where you are asking the question. In the ocean, I would go with the dolphin. Likewise, a manta ray is able to understand the concept of its own reflection in a mirror while dogs regard reflections of themselves as other dogs.

The cognitive method has provided evidence that the dog began as a species after it split from its ancestor, the wolf through a process called self-domestication. When early humans first encountered wolves about 50,000 years ago, they met as competitive predators. It is highly unlikely that they would have adopted these animals as pets because wolf behavior is so different from dogs’. Wolves cooperate within but not outside of their pack, they are cooperative pair breeders, they are long term nurturing parents to their puppies and likely to kill the pups of strangers, and their pack is led by an alpha pair, while dogs are cooperative with strange dogs and not nearly as rigidly pack dependent as their cousins. People would be no more likely to leave their young with a wolf than they would with a bear.

However, when people became more agricultural instead of hunter gatherer, they produced enough food that there was garbage. A sub population of wolves, which was slightly less fearful to approach this easy source of food and slightly less aggressive towards people, began to thrive. Through the process of self-domestication, which produces specific physical changes including ia feminizing of the shape of the skull, variation in color and pattern of the hair coat, and smaller brain size, these less aggressive wolves became more recognizable as not dangerous and so, were more easily tolerated. Self-domestication has been shown to cause similar changes in various species including bonobos, foxes (experimentally), and people (whom you might be surprised to learn have smaller brains than their Neanderthal cousins). Dogs developed over the next 10,000 years, and it was not until the last couple of centuries when people began to purposely to attempt to reproduce certain traits, that breeds of dogs developed.

Cognitive science has shown that dogs are not very capable in some problem solving areas. They have a poorer understanding of connectedness than some birds who can infer how to select and pull a longer rather than a shorter string to which a treat is attached despite the end of the shorter string being physically closer to the treat. Walking a dog on a leash past a tree demonstrates his lack of ability to understand a potential problem and infer that if he walks on the other side of the tree, you both will become entangled because you are connected to each other.  Similarly, many species can use and even fashion tools, but dogs do not.

Dogs excel, however, at using social cues to solve problems. They are capable of taking spatial direction given by a variety of body language and speech. They can also find ways to direct their owners to a location or activity where they would like to interact. Some can learn the meanings of words for many objects or actions as well as a two year old child, and amazingly, they are able to use inference in their understanding. For instance, many dogs can fetch one object among several when the name of that object is called, and some can infer that when a new object is placed in a set, and the dog is asked to retrieve an object by a name he has not previously heard, he will fetch the new object. Some dogs can also infer that although they can see an object, it might be hidden from the human partner’s view and communicate this fact by retrieving the object seen by both partners preferentially over the identical object visible only to the dog.

There are many stories about dog’s abilities. For many of these, there is insufficient scientific evidence to judge their veracity. A Scientific American article asks whether dogs can feel guilty. Although most dog owners will attest to observing guilty behavior at one time or another in their own dogs, the conclusion in the article is that there may be other ways to explain this behavior such as fear of punishment. The evidence is inconclusive. Stories like this may soon be resolved. A citizen science project is using data from thousands of dogs worldwide to gather evidence. The study is called Dognition. People who perform the 12 simple tests with their own dog and submit the results receive a detailed report of how their dogs fit in with the average in terms of five categories of dog cognition. Remember that there are many types of cognition, and all dogs have varying abilities in each. So there is no such thing as the smartest dog. There are just several personality types. From the submissions to Dognition made at Apple Valley Veterinarians, we have found that the results do not fit with our intuitive assessments. But when examining the reports, we gained a deeper understanding of what is really true about our  dogs’ personality types.  Although Dognition is not free, (it has a nominal fee for analysis), it is something that we highly recommend, and you will definitely find interesting and worthwhile. A link is provided for those who would like to help scientists get answers to many questions, such as are there differences among different groups of dogs or breeds of dogs? One statistically significant result has shown a difference between purebred and mixed breed dogs. Purebred dogs are more sensitive to their owners’ signals, but mixed breed dogs rely more on their memory. There is so much to learn.

Most of the information in this blog came from a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) given at by Professor Brian Hare of Duke University. The course is open to everyone and is taken at your own pace. You will find it enthusiastically taught, well presented, and really fun. Best of all, it is free unless you would like a personal certificate of completion. I hope my readers give it a try. All dog owners will love it. The name of the course is Dog Emotion and Cognition.



Dog Emotion and Cognition, Brian Hare,

The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think Paperback – October 29, 2013

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