You Think Your Dog is Smart? You Don’t Know the Half of it

Smart Dog

According to a New York Times article, your average dog “is about as intellectually advanced as a 2- to 2-and-a-half-year-old-child.”  The article goes on to say:

Dr. Coren 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.

But Clive D. L. Wynne, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida who specializes in canine cognition…takes issue with efforts to compare human and canine brains.

He 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. A dog’s entire world revolves around its primary owner, and it will respond to that person to get what it wants, usually food, treats or affection.

“I take the view that dogs have their own unique way of thinking,” Dr. Wynne said. “It’s a happy accident that doggie thinking and human thinking overlap enough that we can have these relationships with dogs, but we shouldn’t kid ourselves that dogs are viewing the world the way we do.”

What is Intelligence, Anyway?

Apparently the conclusion we are meant to draw is that dogs look pretty smart, but it’s really just behavioral training—good old stimulus and response stuff, hooking them in by bribes to get their food, treats and affection. (If I read it wrong, please correct me).

Most of us dog-owners, I suspect, find this treatment unpersuasive. But don’t believe us. Consider the far more striking information from earlier in the same article. Consider Jet:

Jet is both a seizure alert dog and a psychiatric service dog whose owner has epilepsy, severe anxiety, depression, various phobias and hypoglycemia. Jet has been trained to anticipate seizures, panic attacks and plunging blood sugar and will alert his owner to these things by staring intently at her until she does something about the problem. He will drop a toy in her lap to snap her out of a dissociative state. If she has a seizure, he will position himself so that his body is under her head to cushion a fall.

Jet is not unique. Other dogs are trained to deal with suicidal tendencies, turning on lights for trauma victims, reminding owners to take medication, and so forth.

The Fallacy of Reducing Motives to Behavioral Indicators

I don’t know about you, but I don’t find it useful to describe Jet’s behavior solely in terms of fulfilling a desire for affection, much less food. It’s precisely the same discomfort I get when I hear economists describe unselfish behavior among humans.

In an attempt to preserve an elegant theoretical model about how self-serving behaviors lie at the heart of all human action, I have heard economists ascribe unselfish behavior to longer term self-aggrandizement, or to advancing the species’ interests by occasionally sacrificing the good of an individual.

But sometimes devotion to others, unselfishness, an inclination to collaborate, is best described as simply what it appears to be.

As ee cummings put it, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

I trust my dog with my life—but not with my ham sandwich. Which suggests it’s highly doubtful that my dog would save my life in order to get a deferred-gratification ham sandwich. Something else is going on.

So is Jet smart? If you measure by human vocabulary, as smart as a 2 year old. Personally I’m not blown away by two-year olds’ intelligence, except in comparison to 1-year olds. That’s not what I mean when I say wow, my dog is really smart.

What I mean when I call a dog smart is that empathy thing, the ability to not hold a grudge, to reach out and touch someone.

To elevate the word “smart” (as in vocabulary breadth) to a higher level than “smart” (as in save a life and mend a heart) is to waste a good word.

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