Dogs are smart.
In fact, researchers have estimated the average dog is about as bright linguistically and mathematically as an average two-year-old human child.
They can understand up to 250 words and gestures, count to five and perform simple arithmetic. They can even be intentionally deceptive.
Testing for understanding words and gestures is pretty straight forward. I see it with my own dog, Lady MacBeth, daily. Newfs are in the mid-percentile intelligence-wise, but her vocabulary is pretty good.
If I say lie down, she’ll lie down where she is. If I say lie down on your blanket, she’ll go to her blanket.
Scientists believe some of dog intelligence has been conditioned by contact with humans. For example, when you point at something, dogs will look where you’re pointing. Wolves, dog’s wild counterparts, and other animals, such as cats, look at your finger.
Those are obvious signs of intelligence. How do you figure out, though, if a dog can do math or lie to you?
It is really fascinating the tests scientists come up with. In one, researchers would lower one treat then another behind a screen. They found that when they secretly took one away, or added a third, then took the screen away, the dog would stare at the treats longer confused that it wasn’t seeing the expected two.
Equally fascinating was a test for deceptive behaviour.
Scientists first determined whether a dog preferred a piece of sausage or a dog biscuit as a treat. They then introduced two women, a “generous” one and a “selfish” one. Each woman would take a dog’s preferred treat out of a bowl and call the dog over. The generous woman would give the dog the treat, while the selfish one would show it, then put it in her pocket.
Next, they used three boxes, one with the dog’s preferred treat, one with the other treat and one empty and taught the dogs the command “show me the food.”
Again, when a dog would pick the box with its favourite treat inside, the generous woman let the dog have it while the selfish one pocketed it.
Finally, the researchers repeated that process, but gave the dog two chances to get the treat. After the first chance, the generous or selfish woman would take the dog back to its owner who was waiting behind a screen. On the second chance, the owner would give the dog whatever was in the box it picked.
Once this was all established, the scientists noted the dogs would usually still lead the generous woman to the box with their treat in it, but would lead the selfish woman to the empty box, knowing it would get a second chance with their owner.
Deceptive, but smart.
Since reading about that study, I have become more suspicious of Lady MacBeth. For example, when she wants to go out, she will normally stand right in front of me and stare at me. Also, if she hears or sees or smells something outside, like a deer or moose or car, she will run to the door and bark.
I don’t always let her out when she stares at me, but I will almost always go and investigate if she gets excited and barks at the door, call it my natural curiosity. When there was nothing there, I would just assume she made an innocent mistake.
But I’ve been noticing recently the latter behaviour has become more common than the staring and that the likelihood of there being anything to investigate is even less common. I think my dog might be lying to me and sometimes I wonder who is training whom.
Another indication, I think, of her intelligence is laziness, as in, given the choice she would rather have me do things for her than do them herself. For example, sometimes when I’m walking her she gets her leash wrapped around a tree or a lamppost or something. She used to look at me helplessly with those droopy sad eyes and I would go over and untangle her.
Eventually, though, I decided to let her figure it out for herself. The first few times, she would feign helplessness, but eventually realized I wasn’t going to help and got herself out of it. Now, she doesn’t even bother trying to get me to do it or she realizes ahead of time and avoids getting tangled in the first place.
Dogs are smart.