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Canine Intelligence Or "Who's A Clever Dog Then?"

Updated on September 28, 2013


To anyone who has spent any time around them, it is obvious that domestic dogs must be able to perform mental tasks more taxing than fetching a stick.

And so it has proved when researchers have studied canine intelligence. Man's best friends are indeed capable of rather impressive feats of memory, mathematics and logic.

Indeed, the are able to display levels of common sense and initiative that, frankly, put many humans to shame.

Dogs Don't Forget: Canine Memory

The scientific history books are filled with examples of dogs with supposedly prodigious abilities. Some actually turned out to be genuine.

The eminent Victorian naturalist John Lubbock carried out a demonstration with his poodle Van at the Royal Society in which the dog was shown various cards with written words on them. Van would receive whatever was written on the card he selected.

To the audience’s delight the dog almost always chose the card that read food. It didn’t, as Lubbock argued, prove that the dog could read. But it was early evidence of the dog’s excellent ability to remember associations between symbols and rewards.

Another famous dog with an ability to remember associations was Fellow, the pet of a Jacob Herbert from Detroit. Herbert had spoken to Fellow as if he was a child all his life and as a result he claimed to have trained the dog to remember 400 words. Scientists were skeptical but when they were given a demonstration they saw him respond correctly to a range of commands from “go and find the cook” to “look up high at the squirrel”. When Herbert said “I have lost my gloves” Fellow would start searching until he found them. Again this proved not that the dog understood English but that he had been able to memorize a sequence of sentences and associate each of them with the correct response.

The most remarkable dog of the early 21st century is undoubtedly a Border collie called Rico, the subject of extensive testing at the illustrious Max Planck Institute in Germany. Rico has been asked to perform many tests over the years. In one of the first he was asked to choose two toys from a choice of 10, each of which was given a unique word. Invited to do this on 20 occasions, Rico correctly fetched 37 of the 40 toys he was asked to collect. Even more impressively, he successfully completed the task a month later, correctly getting fifty per cent of the toys.

What made Rico exceptional, however, was that unlike other clever dogs like Van and Fellow he also demonstrated an ability to think his way into understanding unfamiliar phrases too. In a later test researchers placed a new toy that he had never seen before, a white bunny, in amongst his normal toys. When Rico was told to “fetch the bunny” - a phrase he had never heard before - he went through a process of elimination and worked out that since he knew the names of everything else, the “bunny” must be the one unfamiliar object. As with the earlier tests, he also remembered this for a long time. When he was again asked to fetch the bunny four weeks later, he picked it out of a group of nine toys, three times out of six attempts.

Dogs have better short term memories than cats, according to one test, at least.

Both are good at finding an object they have seen someone hide behind one of four boxes if they are allowed to find it straight away. Cats tend to get it right 75 per cent of the time. Both puppies and kittens can do this when they are as young as five or six weeks old.

Their relative ability to remember where the object has been hidden changes dramatically if they are made to wait, however. After waiting for just thirty seconds, cats choose the wrong box 70 per cent of the time. Dogs, on the other hand, can be made to wait for four minutes and still correctly identify which of the four boxes the object is hidden behind 60 per cent of the time.

Dogs remember their master’s voices - and their faces too.

Scientists think that when dogs hear their owner’s voice, they recall his or her face, in a similar way to how, if we were to hear a familiar voice, we would think of the person whose voice it was. When dogs in Japan were played a recording of their owner’s voice, and immediately shown a picture of a stranger on a monitor, they looked at the picture for significantly longer than if the picture was of their owner. The researchers think that this was because the dogs were surprised to see a stranger’s face in association with their owner’s voice. This also worked the other way around- if the voice was of a stranger and the picture of the owner, they also looked for longer than if the stranger’s picture was shown.

Canine Calculus: Dogs & Maths

Dogs can tell the time!

During his famous experiments, Pavlov trained dogs to expect to receive food every half an hour. But when he changed the rules of the experiment and failed to give them anything, they still started salivating after almost exactly thirty minutes. Consciously or unconsciously their internal clocks had told them to expect food.

Another Russian scientist, V S Rusinov, studied the brain waves of dogs, recording their patterns while they did a variety of tests and training exercises. The dogs did the same tests at the same time every day for a period of five days. When Rusinov popped into his lab one weekend, he discovered that the dog who had been tested at that precise time each day the previous week was displaying the same brain wave patterns as he had then. He concluded that the dogs were aware of time and started to think about their tests when their daily time slot arrived.

Dogs can count - up to three, at least!

In an experiment, researchers showed dogs an edible treat, then raised a screen so that the animal could no longer see it. In full view of the dog, they would then place another treat next to the first, also behind the small screen. When the screen was removed, if there were two treats there (as would be expected), the dog looked only briefly. If, however, there were three treats or one treat (because the experimenter had secretly added or removed one) then the dogs looked for longer. The researchers think that this is because they were expecting two, since 1+1=2, and were surprised when this was not the case.

Dogs know when they’re outnumbered!

A study of dogs in Italy observed that in a total of 13 aggressive confrontations between undomesticated dogs, the side with the numerical disadvantage always withdrew before the dispute escalated. This applied if there was one dog or a group of dogs in the smaller group. This suggests dogs can make judgments about numbers when they find themselves in these potentially aggressive situations.

Mathematician Dr. Tim Penning and his Welsh corgi
Mathematician Dr. Tim Penning and his Welsh corgi | Source

Dogs do calculus!

The discovery was made by a mathematician, Tim Pennings, while he was walking along the beach with his dog Elvis. Pennings noticed how when throwing a tennis ball into the sea for Elvis to retrieve, the dog would always carefully work out the optimal path needed to minimize the time it took him to reach the ball.

Sometimes Elvis would run along the beach until he was directly opposite the ball, then swim out to get it. Other times he would plunge into the water right away and swim out to the ball. His most common tactic, however, was to run part of the way along the beach then swim out to reach the ball.

When Pennings analyzed Elvis’ tactics over a period of time, he found that the dog was behaving in a way that matched a calculus-based mathematical model of the problem.

Top 11 Least Intelligent Breeds

Ranked, with most intelligent first, according to ability to understand new commands, even after hundreds of repetitions

1. Shih Tzu
2. Basset Hound
3. Mastiff
4. Beagle
5. Pekingese
6. Bloodhound
7. Borzoi
8. Chow Chow
9. Bulldog
10. Basenji
11. Afghan Hound

Top 10 Smart Breeds

Following are the list of world's smart breeds. Studies shows these dogs take least amount of time to understand and respond to new commands

  1. Border Collie
  2. Poodle
  3. German Shepherd
  4. Golden Retriever
  5. Doberman Pinscher
  6. Shetland Sheepdog
  7. Labrador Retriever
  8. Papillon
  9. Rottweiler
  10. Australian Cattle Dog

Canine Intelligence [Video]


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    • tirelesstraveler profile image

      Judy Specht 

      4 years ago from California

      LoL! My friend was a big part of our dogs puppy days. When they heard her voice last week (after a year or two)they broke every rule they ever learned to smother her with kisses and greet their long lost friend. Our Border Collies make me look like an amazing trainer which I am not, they are just smart.


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