Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think
In the 1990s, Professor Stanley Coren began devising a definitive scale of dog intelligence. What he discovered in the process changed our scientific understanding of dog-human interactions forever.
Coren investigated the theory that different dog breeds, genetically distinct as they are, naturally possess difference levels of cognitive potential. He examined many types of intelligence—adaptive, working, instinctive, spatial, kinaesthetic, and interpersonal—to rank all dog breeds on a scale of intelligence.
In doing so, Coren laid the groundwork for modern canine studies. Twenty-five years later, we now know that dogs demonstrate forms of intelligence that are seen in no other animals except humans.
In other words, dogs have mental skills that not even our primate ancestors possess. How could this be?
It turns out that thousands of generations of domestication, starting between 20,000 and 40,000 years ago, have allowed dogs to evolve the capacity to understand human facial expressions, body language, and even social gestures.
These abilities rely on the development of a number of cognitive processes, such as inferential learning. And the only way this was possible was for man and dog to work together, in a stunning example of neurobiological symbiotic evolution.
Let's take a look at these rare forms of intelligence now, by examining the behaviour of some of the smartest dog breeds in the world.
#1 Border Collies with Social Inference
Chaser is a female Border Collie dubbed "the smartest dog in the world". She lives with retired psychology professor, John Pilley, who has taught her to recognise 1,022 words based on her toy collection of 800 stuffed animals, 116 balls, and 106 plastic toys. She also follows directions like "paw the doll", "nose the chicken", "find the circle" and "take it out".
But these aren't just cutesy dog tricks. Chaser is likely the most important dog in modern scientific research. What Chaser demonstrates goes way beyond psychological conditioning: she has developed the capacity to learn in the same way human toddlers learn, through social inference.
If I secretly hide a ball under one of three cups, a young child can infer hints like pointing or gesturing to choose the correct cup. Even bonobos, our closest genetic relatives, can't do that. Yet now, evidence shows that highly intelligent dog breeds like Border Collies can.
#2 Problem Solving Poodles
Right now there's a Poodle on board the International Space Station. This news got me way too excited until I discovered it's just a stuffed Poodle, belonging to one of the Russian cosmonauts. (It has a job, at least, to act as a zero-G indicator so that when the humans are strapped down, they can watch the pooch float and tell when they've reached the realm of microgravity.)
Detours aside, my dog intelligence research led me to Samantha, a three-year-old Poodle who, on a whim of her own, organises her toys in the living room in various sequences. She has phases of lining them up in order of most-to-least favourite, and phases of a most-recently-used (MRU) stack, making her an unofficial canine programmer.
At other times, she lines up her toys so she can lay with her leg contacting them all. Such a desire to repeatedly line up objects up is a relatable human trait, based on a love of systematic organisation.
Meanwhile, Louis is a one-year-old Poodle that uses his nose to bump open door handles and escape from doggy day care. And Inigo is a Poodle who opens the kitchen freezer and helps himself to frozen chicken while no-one's looking.
These are superb examples of problem solving—aka adaptive intelligence.
#3 Scent Detecting German Shepherds
Aside from working as police and security dogs, German Shepherds have more recently been employed to detect lung cancer in human breath samples. Studies have seen them successfully identify 71/100 (71%) of lung cancer patients and 372/400 (93%) of healthy patients.
This ability relies on three things: a powerful sense of smell, the extra brain capacity dedicated to processing this olfactory information, and the language processing ability to comprehend and respond to human instructions.
Of course, it took time to condition these dogs to perform the detection and reporting routine. And it's unclear if they comprehend the cancerous smells as signifying disease, or are just identifying which smells are different.
None of this means we'll ever see lovely hound dogs on the front line of cancer diagnosis. But it could help to identify the organic compounds associated with cancers, leading to better diagnostic technologies and earlier detection.
#4 Golden Retrievers with Social Intelligence
Golden Retrievers are fine examples of artificial selection. For hundreds of years, breeders choose to mate only Goldens with optimal attractiveness, temperament, and health status. We can see the result is in the personalities of Goldens today, famous for being so perfectly biddable and, well, nice.
But you better give the Golden Retriever a job to do, or he'll improvise one for himself. His brain contains more neurons than a cat, hyena, lion, or brown bear, even though the latter has a brain that's three times larger.
The behaviourist Celia Haddon explains this is due to sociability. Before domestication began, dogs descended from wolves, who showed complex social behaviours and co-operative skills of their own—including appeasement and reconciliation—as a result of their social pack-hunting nature.
Since cats and other animals don't pack hunt in this manner, they have far fewer neurons relative to their brain size. As a result, they rank lower on social intelligence tests. Poor kitty.
#5 Protective Doberman Pinschers
The terrifyingly beautiful Doberman Pinscher is a stable and friendly dog. That is, until you threaten his family. Descended from Germany in the 1880s, Dobermans came about when the tax collector Louis Dobermann wanted a dog to protect him from thieves. He crossbred various dog breeds to settle on the incredibly loyal and protective Doberman.
Unfortunately, modern backyard breeders and puppy mills have degraded this finely tuned beast. Today, there are many Doberman Pinschers who suffer from health and temperament problems.
But all is not lost. As the fifth most intelligent dog breed in the world, well-bred Dobermans are known for outsmarting their trainers and being easily bored. With the right temperament and socialisation, Dobermans can have soft squishy personalities and make super family dogs.
#6 Shetland Sheepdogs and Social Cues
It's 4.58pm and my Shetland Sheepdog, Howard Woofington Moon, has appeared by my side, his eyes burning into my head. He whimpers gently, not too forcefully of course, because he knows being polite is the best way to ask for something. He's telling me it's nearly 5 o'clock—Dinner Time—thanks to some incredible internal clock in his stomach, his brain, or both.
Howard's not even the smart one. That's his brother, Piper, who visibly reacts to my facial expressions, takes turns with the kids to play hide-and-seek, and reacts to social gestures like pointing (a skill that's beyond even chimpanzees).
Piper also barks at predators in nature documentaries, howls to summon us when he hears the answerphone go off, and regularly meets our eye contact, checking our faces for social cues. He also licks our wounds obsessively; it's hypothesised that dogs do this to keep their humans fit and healthy, so we can continue to feed them.
Howard does little of this, but he does very much like food.
#7 Inferential Leaning in Labrador Retrievers
Have you ever wondered why you see more Labrador Retrievers as guide dogs than any other breed? Aside from the fact that they're the seventh most intelligent dog breed, it's also thanks to a POMC gene deletion only found in Labradors.
The POMC mutation reduces production of the neuropeptides which switch off hunger cues after eating, making Labradors even more food-centric than other dogs. The upside is they're easier to train with food rewards, although a careless owner could easily see their Labrador become obese.
At two years old, Seesu the Labrador demonstrates some stunning social abilities in her interactions with humans. She can follow the direction you're pointing, which is something neurotypical children master at around two years old.
The gesture is an important marker of social intelligence: Seesu makes the connection that your perspective of the world is different from hers. It's a critical step in Theory of Mind (check out Theory of Mind in Computers for a deeper dive). Seesu recognises you can see something she can't, plus your gesture has meaning: "hey, look at that interesting thing over there".
This is inferential learning; a way of constructing new knowledge through thinking. It marks a meaningful jump in brain evolution, and it's all thanks to the unique relationship between humans and dogs.
Developing the capacity for inferential learning was a critical step in our own evolution too, thought to underpin the origins of human language and culture.