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How Smart Are Dogs?

Updated on September 7, 2012

How Do Dogs Naturally Understand Humans?

Dogology: Dogs Uncanny Intelligence and Social Behavior

In this article:

  • · Dogs behavior and their natural social instinct
  • · Apes vs Dogs
  • · Dogs sensitivity towards people
  • · Evolutionary Explanations
  • · What people can learn from dogs

One day my dog walking friend rang the doorbell and my male golden retriever, Clyde, darted out of the front door. I leaned over to grab his collar, he lurched forward with his 90 pounds of enthusiasm, and I started to fall. My female golden, Bonnie, ran in front of me and when I fell, I landed on her. Don’t worry, neither of us got hurt, in fact she very much saved me. Whenever I think of this story, three things come to mind… my kids laughing at how humorous I looked (because believe me, it was a funny sight), my adoration and gratitude for Bonnie’s selfless act to protect me, and how in the world did she know to run in front of me, after all everything happened so fast. I am sure you have interesting pet stories also and I hope you will share them with me. But even the ordinary act of our dogs sitting on command, doing tricks, or the countless duties companion and guide dogs do every day is something of a wonder. How do they know what to do, and why do they do this for us?


Dogs behavior


People and dogs share a level of communication with each other


Pet dogs became domesticated thousands of years ago, and have remained our faithful companions ever since. Dogs possess a kind of social intelligence in their behavior and relationship with us.  Humans and dogs share a level of communication with each other that is unmatched with any other pet and person.  How are dogs so smart?  How is their behavior towards us so endearing that dogs are members of our family, and a big part of the economy is made up of purchases for our pooches?

A dog’s ability to take our cues from physical gestures, tone of voice, facial features, or pure observation, gives them a special social skill.  Dogs can relate to us better than primates do. So what is the explanation?  Scientists believe these special skills dogs exhibit in their behavior is a result of  “convergent evolution”.  Which means that 2 non related species developed somewhat the same abilities or behavioral traits.  Dogs have similar social skills to humans, yet our genetic ancestry is not the same at all, so it probably developed from environmental situations, rather than from inherited genes.

What's evolution got to do with it?


A study was done by Brian Hare and Michael Tomasello to discover why dogs are able to cue into human behavior better than chimpanzees and other apes. It would be natural to think that these primates would respond as well, or better to our cues than dogs do.  Apes are our closest relative genetically, they are highly intelligent, and they have many characteristics that are human-like.  Yet in this research, they found dogs were superior in reading people’s facial cues, hand gestures, and eye gazing, than chimpanzees.  When a person in the study, pointed their finger towards a hidden object, dogs of all breeds and ages knew where to look based solely on the human cues. When a person stared at the ceiling, the dogs did not look for anything.  Puppies as young as 9 weeks old could do follow the cues as well as an adult dog.  The researchers tested dogs from an obedience class who had a lot of human contact, and they tested dogs who were litter trained, and had minimal human contact.  All the dogs, performed equally well, which led the researchers to conclude that this social intelligence is not from behavior training, that it must be an innate ability of canines.  When chimpanzees were given the same task  they were not able to do it unless they were taught by the research team, and even then there was great inconsistency in the results.  Yet, chimps were able to do other things dogs couldn’t do.

Now it was clear that dogs and people have similar skills, but primates don’t share these same abilities. How would wolves perform, since they are dogs closest relative, and dogs evolved from the grey wolf?  Wolves are known to be very bright, and can do some things dogs don’t do as well.  So does this mean, the grey wolf would be able to pick up human cues also?  In the study, even when wolves were taught what to do, their behavior could not compare to our canine companions.  So this infers, that dogs did inherit this characteristic from wolves. So let’s look at this: human being’s closest relative, the ape is not able to read our cues.  Dog’s closest relative, the grey wolf, does not have this ability either. It is obvious it is not genetic.  How could 2 distinct species share a close skill like this?  Researchers observed a special breed of foxes who were less aggressive, and friendlier towards humans.  Their approachability was used in this study, and the same cues were given to these foxes.  Amazingly the foxes performed  just as well as dogs. and exhibited the same behavioral traits of being able to read a person’s cues.  There is no genetic lineage from foxes to dogs, so now the researchers needed to see what do  these 2 species have in common.  Their conclusion is their tameness.  It is believed that dogs and these foxes survived better when they could co-exist with humans. Cooperating and learning a level of communication benefitted the domesticated animals by rewards of easier access to food and shelter.  Humans benefitted from the dogs protection, and hunting skills. Through nature’s selection process, these dogs and foxes survived better than their relatives who were forced to hunt on their own, and who couldn’t live in the human communities.

Evolutionary theorists  believe socialization played a role in human’s survival.  Those among the species who cooperated better survived better, and this became true for people, dogs, and the unique type of foxes.  The ability to accurately read cues, sensitivity towards others, and a natural instinct to help is part of our behavior from evolutionary history that we share with dogs.  This makes some researchers wonder if people who are more cooperative are more socialble.  The more we learn about dogs, the more we can learn about ourselves.

Share your dog story and what do you think of this research.

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    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      7 years ago from Florida

      I have a miniature Schnauzer named Baby, and she is my baby! She is so smart; we communicate very well. We each know the other's feelings at all times. Good Hub!

    • profile image 

      8 years ago

      great Hub - we have been blessed with many four legged friends, including a wolf. And I would have to agree with the research, dogs are great at reading body language - be careful about watching a sad movie with then around -

      thanks for this great HUB


    • toknowinfo profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Hi Celebritie, Thanks for stopping by. Dogology is my term for the study of dogs. (lol)

    • celebritie profile image


      8 years ago

      I never heard of dogology, interesting!

    • toknowinfo profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Hi Dolores and Jaye, TO know a dog is to love a dog. I love to hear stories of dogs showing us how intelligent they are. I am glad this hub made for such an enjoyable read.

    • JayeWisdom profile image

      Jaye Denman 

      8 years ago from Deep South, USA

      toknowinfo: I enjoyed this hub so much! I read a lot of books about dogs' intelligence and how they relate to and react to people. My interest in and love for dogs only began six years ago when I got my very first pet at age 61. When I think of all the years I wasted not loving and being loved by a dog, it makes me so sad. My female mini Schnauzer is truly a wonderful friend and companion, and I love her dearly. I know she is smart and that she's learned things I didn't teach her, so her own intelligence and instincts must be the answer. JAYE

    • Dolores Monet profile image

      Dolores Monet 

      8 years ago from East Coast, United States

      I don't have a dog but certainly appreciate their ability to understand and respond to humans. What a beautiful relationship that is. My sister used to have a dog. Every time someone picked up a camera and aimed for a shot, the dog would run into the picture, perk up and pose. Now how could a dog possibly understand photography? She just did what the rest of her people did!

    • toknowinfo profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Hi Peg, I am glad you found this article interesting. Dogs are fascinating and there is so much more to learn about them.

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 

      8 years ago from Northeast of Dallas, Texas

      Dogs really do have an uncanny intelligence. At times it is mind boggling the way they seem to anticipate events and even know what time it is. Ours love a routine and become agitated when we fail to follow the normal pattern. This was a very interesting article.

    • toknowinfo profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Hi Tom, I feel the same way. The pictures above are 2 of my 4 dogs. I lost Clyde 2 years ago, and I still miss him. Not only are they good friends, they are loving members of our family. By the way, my dogs are named for wanted criminals. Besides Bonnie and Clyde, (Golden Retrievers) I have Pretty Boy Floyd (a Japanese Chin) and Al Capone (a Pug). My joke is, even though they are named for wanted criminals, the only thing they will steal is your heart. I am sure you feel the same way about Tanya.

    • kashmir56 profile image

      Thomas Silvia 

      8 years ago from Massachusetts

      Hi toknowinfo, I have always own dogs all my life,and think they are very smart and amazing, their loyal friendship last till their last breath and i have had better dog friends than some people friends. And they are full of unconditional love, always happy to see you even if you come home late .

      Awesome hub and vote up !!!

    • toknowinfo profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Hi Hugh,

      Thanks for stopping by and for the nice comments.

    • Hugh Williamson profile image

      Hugh Williamson 

      8 years ago from Northeast USA

      Loved the Hub and I learned a lot. Nicely researched.

      I'm looking forward to reading more.

    • toknowinfo profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Hi Clark,

      Ohhh... I love your Ola story. I saw that picture, and she is a sweetie. Maybe next year you can buy her the birthday present and lets see what happens. Thanks for sharing, your story made me smile.

    • toknowinfo profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Hi Pastella,

      Dogs are awesome and the connection they have with us goes beyond the explanation of words. The things dogs can do are wonderful and amazing. Thanks for tweeting this story.

    • clark farley profile image

      clark farley 

      8 years ago

      I would like to submit an "Ola story" (the dog pictured in my 'Seasons Greetings Hub').

      I work as a Real Estate Broker, so I am in and out of the house throughout the day, no set schedule. My wife, has a very set schedule, leave and return at the same time each workday.

      Every year, for at least a week after her birthday, when Ola saw my wife's car coming up the driveway, she would go and get her (most recent) birthday present (stuffed toy) and stand at the top of the stairs as my wife opened the door.

      Throughout the day, I would be in and out and Ola never once bothered with the presents, only upon my wife's return, as in "I love your gift"!! (wag...wag...wag!!)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      A great hub. I just love dogs - any dog. They show so much love and compassion. They feel emotions and know when we're hurting, they comfort us and love us unconditionally. They even save us (dogs are trained to notice when a diabetic hypo is coming on). Dogs are just wonderful - I love them. Tweeted.

    • toknowinfo profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Hi Suzanne,

      Thanks for stopping by. The interesting thing about dogs is that they were not bred to please us. The study shows it is an innate part of the dog. You are right about primates need for autonomy, but the study used them because, being our closest relative it reflected a level of intelligence on the dogs part. Animals are amazing and there is much to learn about them and from them.

    • justmesuzanne profile image


      8 years ago from Texas

      Dogs have been specifically bred for their desire to please and cooperate. The great apes have the same need for autonomy and sense of self as humans, so they would not be as likely to want to please us as dogs - especially considering that the circumstances under which their responses would be tested would be prison-like! To compare the two is apples to oranges.

    • toknowinfo profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      I find it so fascinating to watch dogs. They have their own personalities and it is wonderful to have them be part of our lives.

    • vocalcoach profile image

      Audrey Hunt 

      8 years ago from Idyllwild Ca.

      I love dogs more than people! This hub certainly deserved a hubnugget nomination. Clyde sounds like such a love. My dog is clancey and is in the photo with me. Talk about undconditional love!! Thanks you for such an interesting hub.

    • Les Trois Chenes profile image

      Les Trois Chenes 

      8 years ago from Videix, Limousin, South West France

      Very interesting hub. I know that my dog can do all these things but didn't know why. Thanks

    • toknowinfo profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      I think dogs are a gift to man. They just add so much good to our lives. They give us companionship, they entertain us, and they are good for our overall well being. They have the ability to bring out the best in all of us. Do you smile when you think of your dogs?

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 

      8 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      up and useful. I've always been a dog lover and have owned dogs over several years, mostly mixed breeds. It seems that I am just now beginning to learn about hem in a way.One dog we had was aprt border collie and had a tendencey to play trick like putting things in my shoes.Presently we have a Siberian Husky mix That is smart enough but a breed that tends to do things there own way.Each dog has been different.

    • Barbara Kay profile image

      Barbara Badder 

      8 years ago from USA

      I've noticed from the dogs we have that the ones that were brought up in our home from a puppy understand us much better than the ones we rescued when they were older dogs. We had a Springer that understood a vocabulary of about 500 words. When we started spelling things like "treat" and "walk", she began to understand what the spelling also meant. The intelligence of some dogs is amazing.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Congratulations on the Hubnuggets nomination. You certainly deserve it. The dogs we have had in our lives certainly understand things from our looks, tone of voice, language, etc. They truly do have uncanny intelligence! Voted up!

    • ReuVera profile image


      8 years ago from USA

      I am glad to follow you and I love your hubs about dogs. Dog are very intelligent. My friend had an elder terrier who was very obedient. Whenever my friend would call the dog, he would appear in no time. Once in the house the dog didn't come when she called him. Surprised, my friend went looking for the dog. She found the dog in a living room standing close to the couch. My friend's 5-year-old son probably fell asleep on the couch while watching TV and almost rolled down on the floor, but the dog put his back as a support, so the boy was laying half on the couch, half on the dog's back. The dog chose to disobey than to let the boy fall.

    • MPG Narratives profile image

      Marie Giunta 

      8 years ago from Sydney, Australia

      What a lovely hub on beautiful dogs, you are blessed to own to very smart animals. Congrats on your nomination too. Welcome to HP and hope you enjoy our community.

    • Ipeoney profile image


      8 years ago from USA

      Congratulations for a very good hub!

    • elayne001 profile image


      8 years ago from Rocky Mountains

      My granddaughter has a miniature schnauzer - she is so cute, but very active - hard to settle her down. Her name is Sprinkles. Great hub.

    • evvy_09 profile image


      8 years ago from Athens, AL

      Great hub and congratulations! My dogs have never had any real training but their ability to take cues from a simple look or gesture can leave me stunned. Example, Im in the kitchen, trying to cook (trying is the key word here) and my sweet puppy keeps getting in my way. All I need to do is look at her, jerk my head toward the living room and she tucks her tail down and slinks out. It does seem as if they are born knowing

    • profile image

      Amie Warren 

      8 years ago

      Very informative. Congrats on your Hubnuggets nomination! Good luck!

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 

      8 years ago from North Carolina

      Interesting information. Enjoyed reading this hub. Congratulations on your hubnugget award and welcome to the Hubpages Community. Looking forward to reading more from you. :)

    • ripplemaker profile image

      Michelle Simtoco 

      8 years ago from Cebu, Philippines

      I am saying this word aloud "dogology" hehehe I wonder if your dogs had an inkling that today your hub has been nominated on the Hubnuggets! See this lovely surprise right here:


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