Pam Giordano thinks her dog is quite intelligent and she has proof: Giorgio, an 11-year-old Havanese, has diplomas stating he has a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate from Yale. The bumper sticker on Giordano’s car announces: “My dog made it to the Ivy League.”
The honors were bestowed on Giorgio and Giuliana, his sibling, for participating in the university’s canine cognition center.
“I wanted to know how much they know and how smart they are,” said Giordano, a real-estate broker in Branford, Connecticut. “I think Giuliana really just goes for the treats, but Giorgio rises above it. He is very bright. I would say he knows over 100 words.”
The Yale researchers are on to something. They have figured out how to tap into the willingness of dogs’ human companions to support their studies. Enthusiastically.
Suddenly how smart your dog is seems to matter — an aspiration that has also not gone unnoticed by the commercial pet industry. Walk into any pet supply chain, such as the aptly named PetSmart, and take in the toys, gadgets and foods advertised as optimizing a dog’s intelligence, or just do an online search for “brain games to play with your dog.”
The swelling interest, eagerly amplified by the pet industry, has given a boost to the relatively new academic field of canine cognition, with research centers sprouting up on campuses across the US. In the fall, the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science devoted an issue to the topic.
At Yale, the three-year-old canine cognition center has been barraged by humans eager to have their dogs’ intelligence evaluated, volunteering them for research exercises and puzzles. Some owners drive for hours.
“People like their kids to be smart and they like their dogs to be smart,” said Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology who directs the center. “Some people will call and sound apologetic, saying: ‘I’d like to bring my dog in, but he might be too dumb.’”
(By the way, here is a bubble-bursting secret: Smart dogs often are not that great to live with, precisely because they are too smart.)
So when owners use “smart” and “dog” in the same sentence, what exactly do they mean? Smart compared with what? A cat? Another dog? A human?
Scientists define and measure a dog’s smarts differently from the way owners do. More than a decade ago, evolutionary anthropologists realized that in the dog, whose development has been so strongly shaped by humans, they had a star subject to observe. Unlike gorillas, dogs are fairly inexpensive to study — their numbers are plentiful, and their room and board happily covered by owners.
Now some researchers are studying the dog’s brain. Others are trying to identify the dog’s cognitive abilities, debating about the extent to which dogs might be unique among animals. Comparative psychologists are looking at how those capacities stack up against those of children.
Experts agree that when owners discuss how smart their dogs are, they are imposing a human construct on an animal. A dog might seem “smarter” to its owner than the neighbor’s dog, but even the popular notion derived from some studies — that dogs are as intelligent as toddlers — is, practically speaking, meaningless.
Many animal behaviorists say that what people really mean when they call a dog smart is that the dog is highly trainable.