Are you smarter than your pooch?

November 5, 2009

 

I’ve always had a deep appreciation for service dogs. They’re amazing–not only do they provide companionship to those who need it most, they freakin’ save lives on the regular.

NYTimes.com
had an article last week about dogs’ intelligence. It opens with an introduction to Jet, a labradoodle service dog who can detect oncoming seizures, panic attacks, and even dropping blood sugar. He’s been trained to stare at his owner until she recognizes the problem. He’ll drop a toy in her lap to snap her out of a funk. He’ll put his body right under her head to cushion her if she has a seizure. He sounds pretty darn smart.

The article goes on to question our perception of doggie smarts, citing examples from both sides of the scientific research:

By giving dogs language learning and other tests devised for infants and toddlers, Dr. Coren [a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia] has come up with an intelligence ranking of 100 breeds, with border collies at No. 1. He says the most intelligent breeds (poodles, retrievers, Labradors and shepherds) can learn as many as 250 words, signs and signals, while the others can learn 165. The average dog is about as intellectually advanced as a 2- to 2-and-a-half-year-old child, he has concluded. [Emphasis mine.]

So there ya go! Border collie owners, congrats on having a wickedly smart pooch… Who is really only as smart as a 2 year old? Wait a minute, that doesn’t seem right…

Clive D. L. Wynne, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida […] argues that it is dogs’ deep sensitivity to the humans around them, their obedience under rigorous training, and their desire to please that can explain most of these capabilities. They may be deft at reading human cues — and teachable — but that doesn’t mean they are thinking like people, he says.

That makes a little more sense to me. Dogs will go to the ends of the earth for their owners, which is why we love them so very much, among other reasons… But is that all? Dogs are just eager to please and nothing else?

Reader Alice Laby sent in a letter to the editor that hits the nail on the head, as far as I’m concerned.

As we know, dogs are highly intelligent animals. But to compare their intelligence to human intelligence is to do dogs a disservice.

As we live in closer proximity to dogs than ever before, we are learning that they can be of service to humans in many ways, as your article mentions. But to say, as some researchers have, that a dog has the intelligence of an average 2-year-old child is missing the point and purpose of advanced service dog training.

I’m sure many 2-year-old children are smarter than dogs in human terms, but can a 2-year-old human child detect seizures or onset of depression in a family member? They cannot, and most adult humans cannot either.

Let research continue to promote ways that animals can help humans lead healthy lives, using the animals’ own brand of intelligence.

Right on, Alice! Dogs might work hard for their owners’ love and affection and praise, but to reduce their actions exclusively to that need just seems a little short-sighted.

But I’m a dog-lover, so I totally would say that, jeez…

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