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.
“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.)
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.”