Your dog's brain might not be so special
Our canine friends are not as exceptionally intelligent as we think, according to a newly published study that sought to place the brain power of our canine companions in the context of other members of the animal kingdom. The research involved an examination of over 300 scientific papers that detailed the intelligence of dogs and other animal species, including wolves, chimpanzees, and bottlenose dolphins.
In the animal kingdom, humans have few (if any) better friends than dogs. The bond we share with our canine companions is the result of thousands of years of domestication, during which time, we've gotten to know each other pretty well.
Many present-day dog owners would argue that their pup exhibits a surprising level of intelligence. This could be due to their ability to read our facial expressions, vocabulary, and tone of voice to understand our mood or intent (empathy), or simply because they can master rolling over (good boys and girls).
However, it isn't just dog-adoring owners that are arguing that our four-pawed friends are especially intelligent. From very early on scientists used dogs in psychological and behavioral experiments, and, according to the authors of the new paper, some recent studies have asserted that canines boast impressive cognitive capacities.
So just how smart are our loyal canine companions?
Researchers from the University of Exeter and Canterbury Christ Church University set out to find the answer to this pressing question by comparing the cognitive capabilities of dogs to those of other animals. To this end, the team examined hundreds of published scientific papers.
Specifically, the team focused on three comparison groups of animals: domestic animals (e.g. cats), social hunters (such as bottlenose dolphins) and other carnivorans (like bears, lions and hyenas). Dogs belong to all three of these groups.
To be considered "exceptional" under the study, the source material would need to show that the cognitive capabilities of dogs are significantly above what could reasonably be predicted in the context of the comparison groups listed above.
"During our work it seemed to us that many studies in dog cognition research set out to 'prove' how clever dogs are," said Professor Stephen Lea, of the University of Exeter. "They are often compared to chimpanzees and whenever dogs 'win,' this gets added to their reputation as something exceptional. Yet in each and every case we found other valid comparison species that do at least as well as dogs do in those tasks."
The results of the study suggest that there is currently no case for canine cognitive exceptionalism relative to the members of the animal kingdom included in the three comparison groups.
As an example, when assessing sensory cognition, the researchers found that dogs have an incredible sense of smell. However, other hunters in the domestic and carnivoran groups were equally impressive.
The same can be said of the social cognition of our furry companions. Whilst they have an impressive ability to use human and animal facial emotions as a social cue, other carnivorans are even more astute.
In short, the cognitive abilities of dogs were matched or surpassed by several species selected for context in each of the three groups.
"We are doing dogs no favor by expecting too much of them" said Dr Britta Osthaus of Canterbury Christ Church University. "Dogs are dogs, and we need to take their needs and true abilities into account when considering how we treat them."
The authors of the study note that their work does not represent a complete review of canine cognition. Furthermore, the team pointed out in the paper that further research on a number of species that currently lack sufficient study for canine comparison may change their views.
But for now, congratulations to the authors of the study, who may be the only researchers this year to receive hate mail signed off with paw prints.
The paper has been published in the journal Learning & Behavior.
Source: University of Exeter