Every time your dog does that thing you’ve trained her to do, you pet her and praise her. “Clever girl,” you say. “Who’s the goodest and cleverest girl of all?”
Well – it’s probably not your dog. According to the latest research, the much-vaunted canine intelligence may not actually exist. Dog smarts, they have concluded, are simply “unexceptional”.
Recent research has found that when it comes to neuronal density, dogs have cats beat hand over fist. But that neuronal density doesn’t seem to translate into intelligence, according to the findings of psychologists from the University of Exeter and Canterbury Christ Church University.
They conducted a meta-analysis of more than 300 studies on animal intelligence, and found what they describe as several cases of “over interpretation” in favour of dogs, compared to other animals such as wolves, cats, chimpanzees, pigeons, hyenas, horses and dolphins.
“During our work it seemed to us that many studies in dog cognition research set out to ‘prove’ how clever dogs are,” said psychologist Stephen Lea of the University of Exeter.
“They are often compared to chimpanzees and whenever dogs ‘win’, this gets added to their reputation as something exceptional. Yet in each and every case we found other valid comparison species that do at least as well as dogs do in those tasks.”
The team looked at five key areas: sensory cognition, physical cognition, spatial cognition, social cognition, and self-awareness, comparing dogs to three other groups of animals to which dogs also belong: carnivorans (belonging to the order Carnivora), domesticated animals, and social hunters.
The meta-analysis does have gaps in it – mainly because for some aspects, there were no relevant comparison studies to be found.
For example, there were no comparable tests of olfactory ability in other carnivorans or social hunters – but other carnivorans and domesticated animals such as cats do have similar abilities, they noted.
But where they could find comparable tests, “dog cognition does not look exceptional,” the researchers wrote in their paper.
“Taking all three groups (domestic animals, social hunters and carnivorans) into account, dog cognition does not look exceptional,” said psychologist Britta Osthaus of Canterbury Christ Church University.
“We are doing dogs no favour by expecting too much of them. Dogs are dogs, and we need to take their needs and true abilities into account when considering how we treat them.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean dogs are dumb, mind you. Chimpanzees and dolphins, for instance, are regularly ranked among the smartest animals on Earth. You could do a lot worse than being compared to those two.
But it’s clear that other animals, including cats, are smarter than we’ve given them credit for, at least when compared to dogs.
For instance, a paper published in 2013 revealed that your cat absolutely knows when you’re calling it; it might just choose to ignore you if it’s enjoying the current situation more than what you have to offer.
And we know wolves are probably smarter than dogs, too – not to mention that some dog breeds are definitely smarter than others.
So, the science is not there to upset you. While your dog may not be the sharpest knife in the animal world’s drawer, she is still the absolute specialest at loving you.
The team’s research has been published in the journal Learning & Behavior.