What IS Dog Intelligence

There’s a lot of talk lately about dogs’ intelligence. Some researchers compare dogs’ intelligence to that of a 2-year-old child. I don’t think that makes sense. First of all, an intelligent 2-year-old grows up to be an intelligent adult, a less-intelligent 2-year-old grows up to be a less intelligent adult so, really, what IS the intelligence of a 2-year old? It varies as widely as the intelligence of people at any age.
But the real problem with the comparison is, I think, that human intelligence and dog intelligence are very different. A 2-year-old child is human and is learning to function in a human world. Human children are born preprogrammed for language and other things that equip them for life among humans.
A dog is, well, a dog (please, somebody, explain this to Jana — I have not been able to convince her of this fact yet!). Dogs are born preprogrammed to exist in a dog world. And the world of a domestic dog is weird — it is, of necessity, intertwined with the human world. We’ve played with their genetics so much that the domestic dog cannot function as a wild animal. Yet dogs retain some behaviors that are directly traceable to their wild ancestors. Their communication system — chiefly body language — mimics that of wild canines. Their vocalizations, their play style, their prey drive, and so much more. But in designing breeds and through the long process of domestication, much of this behavior has changed. Dogs have adapted to our world.
I think intelligence is figuring out how to not merely survive but to thrive in one’s environment. For a human 2-year-old, that is a human environment. For a dog, that is also a human environment — so not only must the dog learn dog stuff, the dog also has to learn to understand and make himself understood by members of another species. Much more difficult.
Think of it another way. People who use guide dogs put their lives and safety into the dog’s paws. How many of you would trust a 2-year-old, even a very bright one, to decide when it is safe for you to cross the street? How many 2-year-olds can understand sheep herding or search-and-rescue?
Dogs have mastered our world and learned to manipulate us (OK, many 2-year-olds are great manipulators too) and they’ve learned to partner us in dozens of ways that go far, far beyond the capabilities of any 2-year-old. It’s a very different sort of intelligence and, I argue, can’t be described or defined by comparison with humans’ intelligence at any age.
What do you think?

3 thoughts on “What IS Dog Intelligence

  1. That’s what I was trying to get at. ‘Happy’ for a human does not usually include wiggling his or her entire body, rolling on his/her back in the grass, etc., but dogs DO show this feeling in those ways.
    Example: our air has been out for a week. Every time a worker comes to the house to give an estimate, AJ looks like he’s about to kill the poor guy with kisses. He’s a big dog so it may scare people at first (One of the first things he learned when I adopted him was NOT to jump on people, as much for his safety as other people’s, mine especially. My bad balance couldn’t survive that for long.) but the wag tells me he’s just excited and happy to have a new potential playmate.


  2. Well… I think emotions and traits are not specific to humans so I disagree with people who say calling a dog “stubborn” or “happy” is anthropomorphic. I think mammals at the very least and probably some non-mammals can experience emotions. They absolutely do specific things for specific reasons. I agree with Marc Bekoff that “happy” for a dog or dolphin or bird might look and feel different from “happy” for a human, but then again, “happy” is different for each and every human…


  3. I THINK…..you’re on the right track. Human intelligence is not really comparable to canine intelligence as they are two different things. However, I’m going to assume (Always a dangerous thing to do!) that this would be similar to labeling dogs with human emotions or traits. I could say that AJ is stubborn as hell, but he is doing certain things for a reason. If a dog’s intelligence was translated into human intelligence, it may well fall into the realm comparable with that of a 2 year old; maturing and able to grasp new ideas, but not void of innocence. Then again, I know some 2-year olds, and dogs, that are more mature than adults.


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