Sci-Tech

Your Dog May Be Smart, but She’s Not Exceptional

A psychology professor (and self-described cat person) got so many reports about dogs’ purported brilliance that he decided to test the question: Are dogs super smart? The answer may not make him very popular.

Cat lovers of the world rejoice!

In the long-simmering dispute over whether dogs are smarter than cats, a recent study published in the journal Learning & Behavior suggests that dogs are no more exceptional than other animals when it comes to canniness and intelligence.

The news is sure to ignite debate (watch the fur fly!) among dog owners and scientists who study canine behavior. The authors reviewed existing studies and data on animal cognition and found that while dogs are smart and trainable, they are not “super smart,” despite what most dog owners will tell you.

The idea for the study came about when Stephen Lea, an emeritus professor in the psychology department at the University of Exeter in Britain, was editor of Animal Cognition, a journal that seeks to explain cognition among humans and animals in the context of evolution. Dog research, he said in an interview last week, was quite popular in the 1990s and continues to be so.

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“I was getting a number of papers showing how remarkable the things were that dogs could do,” he said. When it came to other animals, though, scientific studies on intelligence barely trickled in, despite evidence to suggest that horses, chimpanzees and cats had tricks of their own. “Almost everything a dog claimed to do, other animals could do too,” Lea said. “It made me quite wary that dogs were special.”

Sure, there is Chaser, a Border collie from Spartanburg, South Carolina, who was trained to understand 1,022 nouns. (His owner, John Pilley, a scientist who studied canine cognition, recently died.) Before that was a Border collie named Rico who learned to recognize the names of 200 items. But beyond those examples, Lea wondered: Had dog lovers (and scientists, for that matter) imbued their pets with extraordinary capabilities they did not possess?

To be fair, Lea said he is a cat person. Still, he and Britta Osthaus, a senior lecturer in the School of Psychology, Politics and Sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University in Britain, set out to test the hypothesis.

They compared dog cognition with members of three similar groups: carnivores, social hunters and domestic animals. Among the animals they studied were wolves, cats, chimpanzees, dolphins, horses and pigeons. What they found, Lea said, was that “dog cognition does not look exceptional.”

Lea said dogs cannot use tools, unlike dolphins, New Caledonian crows and chimpanzees, which have been observed using plant stems to fish for termites. Homing pigeons are trained to fly home, sometimes crossing hundreds of miles of unfamiliar terrain. “Far be it for me to suggest that pigeons are smarter than dogs; they are not intellectual giants,” Lea said. “But if you want to get 1,000 miles, I trust a pigeon over a dog.”
At the same time, domesticated animals share similar traits with their canine cohorts. Horses, like dogs, perform elaborate tasks. And cats? They have more in common with dogs than one might think. Still, he said, “It is much easier to show intelligence in dogs because they like to be trained.” Dogs, Lea added, “are not smarter than they are supposed to be, given what they are.”

Mieshelle Nagelschneider, a cat behaviorist in Portland, Oregon, who is known professionally as the Cat Whisperer, said she avoids saying which species is more intelligent.

“I have found throughout the years that my clients who are rocket scientists and neurosurgeons always have the most cats,” she said. “Thirteen to 15 cats usually.” She does not ignore animal instinct, which she says is separate from intelligence. “Cats have evolved over thousands of years,” she said. “They are intelligent in their own way.”

Besides, she said, “I’d rather have a loving companion than one considered to be the smartest.”

Where dogs stand out, according to Clive Wynne, director of the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, is their capacity for affection. He said there was merit in Lea’s study. “He’s not putting dogs down,” said Wynne, a dog lover. “He is putting them in context.”

“I was quoted once calling my dog a lovable idiot,” Wynne said, recalling a 2017 article in The New York Times. “A guy wrote a whole blog post about what an awful person I was.”

For his part, Lea is bracing for the inevitable backlash. “We are not trying to say dogs are stupid,” he said. “We just don’t think that they are extraordinary. And that is not a neutral thing to say.”

One thing is sure, though: They’re all good dogs.


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