Certain dogs excel at tasks for which they have been bred for centuries. Bloodhounds have an astonishing sense of smell. Australian shepherds can keep a flock of sheep together as skillfully as a nursery-school teacher with a playground full of three-year-olds.
Distinctively, dogs seem to trust us for problem-solving help. When they are flummoxed (for example, the rubber ball becomes stuck under a bed, the kitchen door shuts), they turn to their humans, yipping, pawing, gazing dolefully. A wolf reared by a human, by contrast, would just keep trying to solve the problem on its own.
However, intelligence per se might not be the trait that truly sets dogs apart, at least in human-animal interaction, researchers say.
“There is something remarkable about dogs,” said Wynne, who is studying how to train dogs to sniff for bomb-making ingredients. “They have this kind of open hyper-sociability. The dog itself wants to give out love.”
“I think ‘smarts’ is a red herring,” he said. “What we really need in our dogs is affection. My own dog is an idiot, but she’s a lovable idiot.”
Hare said he believes that dogs, like humans, have multiple types of intelligence. With Dognition, owners test their dogs in areas of empathy, communication, cunning, memory and reasoning.
“If you want to train an agility dog or a show dog, you value certain traits, and if you have a stressful job and a family, you want a companion to cuddle, but they’re both ‘smart,’” she said.
Chaser, a border collie known for understanding more than 1,000 words, is often labeled the smartest dog in the world. She had some intriguing results on Dognition, Hare said.
Researchers placed 10 items that Chaser could already identify in a pile with an unfamiliar one. Then they asked her to fetch the one that she had not yet learned. She did so correctly because she inferred it was the only object she did not recognize, researchers said. A week later, when asked to retrieve the same item, Chaser remembered.
On Dognition, in areas of inference and memory, Chaser unsurprisingly scored off the charts, Hare said.
However, Chaser’s results in empathy and communication, qualities that owners do cherish in their dogs, were “totally uninteresting,” Hare said.
Still, while Hare endorses a complex view of canine intelligence, he could not resist a one-upmanship jab familiar to parents, both of humans and pets, who yearn to place their progeny at top-tier universities.
“You know about grade inflation in the Ivies,” he said, noting that at Duke “your dog has to come to our center at least four times to get an undergraduate degree, but only once to get a certificate at Yale.”