Humans and Dogs Share More Than Just a Special Bond — There's Also This

dogs toddlers social intelligence

Story at-a-glance -

  • A new study concludes that toddlers and dogs are much similar, socially speaking, than toddlers and their closest animal relative, the chimpanzee
  • Dogs and toddlers share similar patterns in social intelligence, which is the ability to form rewarding relationships
  • Dogs and toddlers, but not chimps, develop cooperative communication skills
  • The social similarities between dogs and people could be the result of “survival of the friendliest” for both species
  • Social intelligence is a very important aspect of human intelligence, and it seems our dogs also have it to an incredible extent

By Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

If you’re like many dog-savvy pet parents, you’ve long suspected that having a canine companion in the family is a lot like interacting with a toddler. So it will come as no surprise to learn that new research suggests dogs and toddlers share similar patterns in social intelligence, and are actually much more similar than toddlers and their closest evolutionary relative, the chimpanzee.

What Exactly Is Social Intelligence?

Just so we’re clear on what the term “social intelligence” means and how it differs from general intelligence, here are a few definitions:

  • From “The ability to form rewarding relationships with other people.”1
  • From “… [A]n individual's proficiency at social skills and behaviors. Colloquial terms for social intelligence include 'street smarts' and 'common sense.' This type of intelligence is different than the type measured by IQ tests. Social intelligence is mostly influenced by environmental factors and is developed from past experiences with other people in the environment.”2
  • From Psychology Today: “Intelligence, or IQ, is largely what you are born with. Genetics play a large part. Social intelligence (SI), on the other hand, is mostly learned. SI develops from experience with people and learning from success and failures in social settings.”3

For several years now scientists have been exploring how human psychology differs from other species, and have concluded that basic social communication skills that begin to develop at around nine months in babies is the first measurable point of difference between humans and other species.

Study Involved 552 Dogs, 105 Toddlers and 106 Chimpanzees

The dogs-and-toddlers study was conducted at the Arizona Canine Cognition Center at the University of Arizona (UA), and was published in the journal Animal Behaviour.4 Researchers led by center director, Evan MacLean, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the School of Anthropology in the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, evaluated how dogs, chimpanzees and 2-year-olds performed on tests to measure various types of cognition.

The study involved 552 dogs of various breeds, and included family dogs, assistance-dogs-in-training and military explosive detection dogs. Game-based tests were used to assess social cognition in the dogs. The games involved hiding treats and toys, and then communicating the hiding spots through nonverbal communi­ca­tion such as pointing or looking in the direction of the hiding place.

The dogs’ results were compared to data on 105 2-year-old children and 106 chimpanzees living at wildlife sanctuaries in Africa who had also completed similar cognitive tests.

Dogs Have Something Chimps Lack: ‘Cooperative Communi­ca­tion Skills’

Interestingly, the chimps performed well in experiments involving their physical environmental and spatial reasoning, but when it came to tests of “cooperative communication skills,” for example, following the direction of a pointing finger or a human’s gaze, they didn’t do as well.

Both the dogs and the toddlers did better than the chimpanzees on cooperative communication tests, and the researchers noted similar patterns of variation in performance from one dog to the next, and one child to the next. According to MacLean:

"There's been a lot of research showing that you don't really find those same social skills in chimpanzees, but you do find them in dogs, so that suggested something superficially similar between dogs and kids. The bigger, deeper question we wanted to explore is if that really is a superfi­cial similarity or if there is a distinct kind of social intelligence that we see in both species.

"What we found is that there's this pattern, where dogs who are good at one of these social things tend to be good at lots of the related social things, and that's the same thing you find in kids, but you don't find it in chimpanzees.”5

‘Survival of the Friendliest’

One theory to explain the similarities between dogs and people is “survival of the friendliest.” It’s possible both humans and canines evolved in situations in which cooperative social behavior delivered the most benefits and rewards.

"Our working hypothesis is that dogs and humans probably evolved some of these skills as a result of similar evolutionary processes, so probably some things that happened in human evolution were very similar to processes that happened in dog domestication," MacLean explained.

"So, potentially, by studying dogs and domestication we can learn something about human evolution." He believes this kind of research could at some point help scientists better understand human disabilities characterized by shortcomings in social skills, for example, autism.

Social Intelligence Is Very Important for Humans, and Dogs Have It in Spades

The study of dogs to help better understand humans is a relatively new area of research. Historically, scientists have looked to our closest animal relatives, such as chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas, for clues about the nature of humans. "There are different kinds of intelligence, and the kind of intelligence that we think is very important to humans is social in nature, and that's the kind of intelligence that dogs have to an incredible extent," MacLean said.

"But there are other aspects of cognition, like the way we reason about physical problems, where dogs are totally dissimilar to us. So we would never make the argument that dogs in general are a better model for the human mind — it’s really just this special set of social skills."

So the good news: Your dog is approximately as socially adept as an average 2-year-old child. And the even better news is that your dog will remain a perpetual toddler into his golden years, and who doesn’t love toddlers? No adolescent rebellion. No “can I have the car keys?” And no college tuition to worry about!