“People think dogs are more intelligent than cats because they obey, but it’s not the same thing,” said Frans de Waal, a biologist and primatologist at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.
Dogs have lived in intimate proximity with people for about 30,000 years, evolving along the way to pick up human cues, while training us to feel obliged to feed and house them. As survival instincts go, that is pretty smart.
Canine cognition research is underway on campuses from Berkeley to Barnard, and at universities in England, Hungary and Japan. The field’s growth has coincided with a shift in how dog owners view their animals.
“This is the logical consequence of the ‘humanization of pets’ trend,” said Hal Herzog, an anthrozoologist and emeritus professor of psychology at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina.
Indeed, owners are often referred to as pet parents.
Like human parents who bought Baby Einstein CDs, hoping to enhance the intelligence of their offspring even in utero, many pet owners succumb to gadgets advertised as enhancing their dog’s brain function.
“What parent doesn’t want their child to have the best cognitive stimuli you can give?” asked David Lummis, senior pet market analyst with Packaged Facts, a market research firm. “Guilt is a big part of it.”
However, as some pet parents discover, a smart dog can seem less like an adorable toddler than a know-it-all teenager.
“Smart dogs are often a nuisance,” said Clive Wynne, a psychology professor who directs the canine science collaboratory at Arizona State University. “They get restless, bored and create trouble.”
Though enthusiasm for canine research is fevered, funding can be hard to come by.
Some researchers have locked arms with commerce, to attract citizen scientists (dog owners) to help collect data.
Adam Miklosi, a prominent Hungarian canine behavioral researcher, plans to connect scientists with pet owners who can gather information about their dogs’ habits. His venture, SensDog, uses an iPhone app to communicate with Apple Watch sensors in the animal’s collar.
Then there’s Dognition, whose Web site professes to “find the genius in your dog.”
It is a project led by Brian Hare of Duke University’s canine cognition center in partnership with Purina Pro Plan’s Bright Minds line of dog foods. For US$19, owners receive a questionnaire and video instructions to gather information about their dog, then submit the data on Dognition’s Web site. Dognition then sends back a cognitive profile of the pet, especially in comparison with other dogs. More than 25,000 owners have submitted data so far.
Of course, we are still generally talking about dogs as a species. While stereotypes of breeds are deeply rooted, Hare said, there is no evidence to show that one breed is cognitively superior to another.
However, in 1999, Stanley Coren, now an emeritus psychologist at the University of British Columbia, produced a list of 110 breeds ranked by intelligence, based on his survey of about 200 professional dog-obedience judges. The top three: border collie, poodle and German shepherd.
“Giorgio is one-third poodle, so he’s really smart a third of the time,” Giordano said.
(Skulking down at the bottom of the list: bulldog, basenji, Afghan hound. If it is any consolation, Hare said scientists did not consider surveys to be definitive proof.)