Unraveling the Mysteries of Dog Intelligence

intelligent dog

Story at-a-glance -

  • Dognition is “the largest scientific study ever on dog behavior and cognition;” it’s a citizen science project relying on pet owners to complete online assessments of their dogs
  • Each profile that’s created helps the researchers unravel more about the way dogs’ minds work, with the hope that increased understanding will help uncover which dogs are best at certain tasks and more
  • While it’s often assumed that a dog’s breed influences his personality and intellectual abilities, the study is revealing that this many not always be the case, with individual dogs having individual abilities

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Dog owners know their furry family members are intuitive, intelligent and carry a sometimes-uncanny ability to respond to our moods. Scientists, however, are trying to understand how dog intelligence works in order to help owners bond more closely with their canine friends while at the same time unraveling mysteries about dogs’ many cognitive accomplishments.

Dogs, for instance, work alongside military and police personnel, sniffing out bombs and contraband. They can also be trained to detect the scent of allergens, like peanuts, or even gluten in food and alert a rescue team to a person's location in an avalanche. Technology known as FIDO, or Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations, has even developed wearable technology that is integrated into assistance dog vests in the form of sensors.

Dogs are then trained to activate the sensors (by biting, tugging or using nose gestures) to communicate different messages or even call for help. Dogs can also sniff out cancer with incredible accuracy, raising hopes that they could help with early detection. Aside from their potential abilities in furthering the human medical field and acting as service dogs, dogs are capable of mimicking their owners’ facial expressions and likely understanding what the expression means, emotionally.

Dognition Sheds Light on Dog Intelligence

Brian Hare, Ph.D., a Duke University professor of cognitive neuroscience, co-developed a website called Dognition, which asks participants to play games (created by scientists, trainers and behaviorists) with their dog in order to complete a Dognition assessment. If you’re interested in finding out how your dog stacks up intellectually and otherwise, you can conduct an online assessment of your own dog using the Dognition site (there is a fee for this service).

After you play the games with your dog and report his results, he’ll be assigned a profile, such as charmer, expert, renaissance dog or Einstein, based on a combination of characteristics that shape the way he approaches daily life.

Each profile that’s created helps the researchers unravel more about the way dogs’ minds work, with the hope that increased understanding will help uncover which dogs are best at certain tasks and more. In an interview with CNBC, Hare described Dognition as “the largest scientific study ever on dog behavior and cognition,” adding:

“We're getting the evidence we need to ask questions like: What are the abilities that a dog needs to be a really good service dog? Or, what does a dog need to help in any other working area that dogs might need to help humans with?"1

Further, while it’s often assumed that a dog’s breed influences his personality and intellectual abilities, the study is revealing that this may not always be the case. Hare continued:

“[D]og intelligence does not map onto a linear scale. Each breed, and perhaps individual, has its own strengths and weaknesses when solving problems. Because there is so much variation between different dogs, this means that every dog can contribute to improving our understanding of dog psychology …

For the first time ever, we can look at whether there really are any breed differences in cognition. Now, the surprise is that there likely will not be the massive differences that people might predict. The answer is that breed definitely communicates what your dog looks like. Beyond that, if you ask me as a scientist, it's unclear it communicates much more than that."2

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Is the Data Provided to Dognition Really Accurate?

Researchers are increasingly calling on pet owners to act as citizen scientists to gather data about their animals. But you may be wondering if this data is really accurate. Researchers did too, so in 2015 they conducted a study to find out if dog owners acting as citizen scientists could help in the scientific process via Dognition, and it turns out they produced quality data. According to the PLOS One study:3

Results from citizen scientists and their dogs replicated a number of previously described phenomena from conventional lab-based research. There was little evidence that citizen scientists manipulated their results … This analysis suggests that in the future, citizen scientists will generate useful datasets that test hypotheses and answer questions as a complement to conventional laboratory techniques used to study dog psychology.”

Beyond canine cognition, researchers with Darwin’s Dogs are also depending on citizen scientists, gathering data from thousands of dogs to uncover genetic factors that may influence whether a dog has a certain physical or behavioral trait or disease. Owners answer detailed questionnaires and send in a saliva sample, which will be used to collect the dog’s DNA.

The researchers then plan to analyze the DNA samples and compare each dog’s genetics to its behaviors. The data may help unlock genetic links to human diseases, too, since dogs and humans share many genes and suffer from similar diseases.

Do You Want to Figure Out How Your Dog’s Mind Works?

For dog lovers, perhaps the greatest allure of Dognition is learning more about your own pet and how his mind works. Some dogs are problem solvers, others excel at being attentive, while still others are spontaneous, independent or have strong memories. Some dogs, of course, are a mix of these traits.

If you want to know where your dog fits into the mix, you can give Dognition a try, but you may also be able to figure it out just by paying careful attention to your dog and taking steps to strengthen your bond. The more bonded you are with your dog, the more you’ll be able to pick up on his subtle, and not-so-subtle, communicatory cues.

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