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How Intelligent Are Our Pets?

Val Cairney April 28, 2023 47


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Hi everyone, and thank you for joining me on this episode of Val Talk’s Pets.  In this episode I’d like to begin by asking some questions.  Have you ever wondered if your pet knows that you love them?  Do you ever wonder how much they understand what we are saying?  Are they trying to communicate with us?  So let’s find out how intelligent are our pets.

These questions all lead to what many pet parents wonder, do dogs and cats have cognitive understanding?  According to apa.org, leading canine researcher Stanley Coren, PHD of the University of British Columbia, “reviewed numerous studies to conclude that dogs have the ability to solve complex problems and are more like humans and other higher primates than previously thought.”  Dr. Coren stated, “we all want insight into how our furry companions think, and we want to understand the silly, quirky and apparently irrational behaviors [that] Lassie or Rover demonstrate.”  “According to several behavioural measures, Coren says dogs’ mental abilities are close to a human child aged 2 to 2.5 years. The intelligence of various types of dogs does differ and the dogs’ breed determines some of these differences.”  For example, “data from 208 obedience judges from the United States and Canada, (rank) Border Collies (as) number one (in intelligence), poodles are second, followed by German Shepherds.  Fourth on the list are golden retrievers, fifth, Dobermans, sixth Shetland sheepdogs, and finally Labrador retrievers.  Now I have had two border collies and yes, they were very intelligent.  But, my beloved Rottweiler didn’t make the list and he was one of the easiest dogs to train, he was so intelligent.  And I do admit, my Samoyed was a chore. 

How Intelligent are dogs?

In terms of intelligence I was thinking the other day, how many words does Tundra know?  I know he reacts to hearing, “Do you want”.  This can be followed by, do you want a treat, or do you want to go out, or do you want dinner, but the initial reaction to hearing , do you want, makes me think he knows that he is to be given something or to make a decision like does he want to go outside?  So, if I add up all these words, he has a basic vocabulary.  But, we know he will react when we tell him our friend Bruce is coming for a visit.  We can interchange the name to someone else that he doesn’t know, and there will be no reaction.  So, if we say, is Tony coming, he has no reaction because we don’t have a friend named Tony.  But, if we say Bruce is coming, he will get excited and sometimes even go to the door looking out.  According to apa.org, “In terms of language the average dog can learn 165 words, including signals, and the “super dogs” (those in the top percent of dog intelligence) can learn 250 words.”  And Dr. Coren also says that dogs can count up to four or five.  When we really think about our dog’s vocabulary, it really does add up.  Beginning with their name, your name, commands or cues, like sit, come, lay down, get down, give a paw, stop that, kiss, it goes on doesn’t it?  Then we have the questions like, do you want to go out, would you like a treat?  All of these add up so before you know it, you can probably find that your dog has quite a vocabulary and is able to have cognitive thought as he decides whether he wants to go out or which toy to bring to you for play. 

Apa.org relates “four studies (Dr. Coren) examined  that looked (at) how dogs solve spatial problems by modeling human or other dogs’ behaviour using a barrier type problem.  Through observation, Coren said, dogs can learn the location of valued items (treats) better routes in the environment (the fastest way to a favourite chair), how to operate mechanisms (such as latches and simple machines) and the meaning of words and symbolic concepts (sometimes by simply listening to people speak and watching their actions).  If you accessed my last episode on why dogs eat poop, one of the reasons was to get a reaction from you.  This is a direct observation by the dog that sees the human reaction to their behaviour and this reaction is fun despite being told what they have just done was bad.  

So, to be more specific, dog intelligence or dog cognition according to Wikipedia “is the process in dogs of acquiring information and conceptual skills, storing them in memory, retrieving, combining and comparing them, and using them in new situations.”  Let’s look at some situations where dogs demonstrate this.  A dog can learn the do’s and don’ts as a family pet at a young age, remember and demonstrate this knowledge.  But, they can also learn new do’s and don’ts.  If you relocate to a new home and area, your dog will learn the new surroundings.  He will learn the new environment outside and inside.  Tundra came to us as a northern community dog.  He would have known vast areas within the community and forests that he roamed.  However, he learned boundaries at our house.  He can roam through the forest if he chooses, but he is not allowed past certain areas and certainly not down the driveway out to the road.  Through reinforcement and redirection we were able to create these boundaries on the property so that he can easily be outside alone without issue as he knows his boundaries.  To me, that is pretty intelligent and demonstrates the ability to learn skills, remember and retrieve information to use in new situations.  

Let’s look at service dogs.  Service dogs that are highly trained can do so many things to help humans.  Guide dogs help vision impaired humans to navigate a world that they cannot see.  Does the dog know the human is visually impaired? According to sciencefocus.com, it is highly doubtful that the dog would know or understand that the human cannot see.  But, “they can learn what things a blind person needs help with, and adjust their behaviour accordingly.”  And this is very interesting that, “studies show that guide dogs will still look to their master’s face for cues when begging for food, just as a sighted person’s dog would.” 

Other types of service for dog’s means that the dog must learn to “read” a situation.  If a person has a dog for seizure alert or diabetic response, for PTSD response as well as Autism, the dog must learn to know when to react based on what they are seeing, smelling or even intuitively sensing. Tapping into this intelligence has allowed humans to seek dog assistance to allow a more normal life and as we know service dogs change lives.  

In terms of how we can figure out dog intelligence, of course studies are done.  According to vcahospitals.com, several studies have been done to look into dog intelligence.  For example, a very simple exercise in pointing to a box with a treat in it, teaches the dog that if he responds to the pointing gesture he will get a treat.  And “interestingly, the dogs respond better when the human accompanies the pointing with a verbal message.  And they also respond better if the verbal message is given in a high pitched (baby talk, informative) tone rather than a deep (mama voice, imperative) tone.”  Many of us know that this pointing technique is used often, from, eat your dinner, pointing to the bowl, or go to your bed, pointing to the bed. Scientists believe this to be a form of communication between the dog and the human.  So, we know that dogs are extremely adept at learning cues and being trained to demonstrate many different tasks, but the question now is, do they have feelings?  

According to petmd.com, Dr. Jill Sackman a clinician in behavioral medicine believes dogs to have a cognition level of a three to five year old human, differing from Dr. Coren’s estimation.  So, that opens up more abilities for a dog to demonstrate.  Dr. JP McCue, a board-certified veterinary neurologist, stated when asked if dogs have feelings, said “Absolutely”.  “Dogs process sensation and emotion like we do.”  “Studies have shown they are capable of feeling optimism, anxiety, happiness, fear and depression.  They get jealous when another dog gets a bigger reward for the same behaviour, and their brains respond to dog anxiety medication like Prozac.  There is also evidence that dogs who experience traumatic events experience symptoms of PTSD, just like humans.”  

And the question we all have been waiting to be answered is, does my dog know I love him or her?  Well, according to Dr. Brian Hare who studies canine cognition the answer is yes!  As an article in People points out, “Dogs and humans have a very special relationship, where dogs have hijacked the human oxytocin bonding pathway normally reserved for our babies.  When you stare at your dog, both your oxytocin levels go up, the same as when you pet them and play with them.” Dr. Hare asks, “Does your dog ever stare at you for no reason? They are just “hugging you” with their eyes”. 

And that leads me to cats.  According to Basepaws.com, “cats have complex brains designed to help them navigate their environment and survive.  Their brains contain over 300 million neurons, but the number of connections within those neurons is nearly the same as ours, this means that cats can learn just as quickly as we do, if not faster! This gives cats the ability to process information quickly, remember things for short periods, recognize faces and sounds, and problem-solve when necessary.”  “Cats are like some primates-making them one of the smartest domesticated animals in existence”. 

Let’s go back to petmd.com where Dr. Sackman states that “cats can sense our emotions and distinguish information from our vocal patterns. They may also understand human pointing gestures, a 2005 study shows.”  This means that dogs and cats can be on par with the understanding of the pointing gesture. However, Dr. Sackman also points out one of the big differences between dogs and cats. “One of the big differences between the way cats and dogs interact with humans is that dogs expect us to help them. If there is food just out of reach, dogs look to their owners, as if expecting their humans to help them get the grub.  Cats, on the other hand, don’t seek out this eye contact, which means they don’t understand that we could help them out.” Pet md.com also explores some studies on cat cognition.  Studies for dogs far outweigh cats but some findings are apparent. Cats have a good sense of object permanence.  This means that if an object disappears or gets hidden out of sight, the cat still knows it’s there.  I can vouch for this, because I have put hair bands out of reach from Rory in a drawer or on top of a surface, and when he is in the mood to play, he goes back to those places looking for the hair band.  He knows, it is there.  And this also testifies to the fact that cats have a more highly developed long term memory than they do short term.  And cats also have some concept of different lengths of time.  This is why cats seem to know what time it is when they come meowing for their food at the same time every day.  Most of a cat’s cognition abilities seem to be connected to their strong hunting skills, so much of their strengths match to this ability.  

And that question that burns in all our minds, does my cat know I love him or her?  According to greenmatters.com the answer is yes.  “The truth is, cats understand affection just like any other animal, and domestic cats might actually see us as their real-life mommies or daddies.  A 2019 study revealed that kittens evince the same behaviour towards us as they do their biological parents.  This behaviour doesn’t end when the cat reaches adulthood either.” 

Cats communicate with us by meowing which they reserve for humans, by asking to sit in our laps, or purring at us.  They head butt us to share pheromones to let us know they love us and best of all is cat kisses.  When a cat slowly squints at you they are saying they trust you and in cases of a strong bond with your cat, that they love you.  Squinting back is a true two way communication between cat and human.  

So, our pet’s cognitive or intelligence level is actually quite good.  Dogs can master a good vocabulary, plus learn important tasks, demonstrate the ability to problem solve and experience emotion.  Cats as well experience emotion and problem solving and can be trained.  Their ability to amass a vocabulary is not as good as dogs, but they can recognize gestures and expressions.  As well, the voice levels in which words are expressed will give cats an indicator of the essence of what is being said.  Because both experience feelings, it has often been wondered whether we can hurt our pet’s feelings. The answer is absolutely yes.  For dogs, being ignored can easily bring on depression.  Antiquated training methods like rubbing their nose in pee or poop instills fear in the pup towards you! Also, telling a dog to “come” when they are going to be punished is again a fear instilling practice.  Dogs look to their parents as their protectors and caregivers, so laughing at a dog being fearful of say thunderstorms again makes the dog feel insecure and possibly fearful of the parent once again.  All of these hurt a dog’s feelings and can create a fearful, insecure dog that may go into depression or experience anxiety.  Cats too can become extremely fearful if they are yelled at or not nurtured.  But, the upside is that because they do have feelings, we can experience with them their happiness and contentment and relish in the knowing that they love us as we love them.  

And for me, I think animals have a way of understanding on a level higher than ourselves.  I think it is important to say the words to them regardless of whether we think the words are in their vocabulary.  If you are going away for a few days, I think you should tell your dog or cat that you will be going away for a few days, but you will be back and that so and so will be looking after them.  It sure can’t hurt.  So, if you would like to test your pet’s intelligence there are lots of games and puzzles and little fun tasks that you can look into to have some fun testing your pet’s cognitive ability.  Maybe you have a super dog on your hand.  See what you can find out, because as I say, knowing is caring. 

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Val Cairney

Hi everyone, and welcome to Val Talk’s Pets, the forum for pet parents and enthusiasts alike. So, I have been working in the pet industry now for almost 10 years and, on a daily basis, I handle a lot of issues and questions arising from pet parents. I am not a veterinarian but I do have certifications in Canine, Feline, Small Animal, Fish and Herptile and Avian Health and Nutrition from the University of California, Davis Extension, the Vet College.

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