Some dogs are smarter than others, but all dogs definitely possess intelligence. Studies by various scientists have shown that dogs clearly demonstrate the capacity for at least five types of intelligence: instinctive, obedience, communication, adaptive, and social.
- Instinctive intelligence – What the dog was bred to do
- Communication intelligence – Understanding both the tone and meaning of words
- Obedience intelligence – How well a dog will learn and perform commands
- Social intelligence – Relating to humans, and natural selection
Adaptive intelligence – Learning and problem solving – There is as much variability in this area among dogs as there is among humans
According to Their Masters’ Voices: Dogs Understand Tone And Meaning Of Words from PBS All Things Considered, dogs understand human language. They are capable of processing and responding to both words and intonation, albeit with a very limited vocabulary and sadly, no capacity for speech. They clearly identify approval as both tone and words, but their neural pathways show most pleasure when both tone and recognized terms of approval are used together.
Repetition and predictability matter a great deal, as dogs read context as well as words. As anyone whose dog has learned to spell T-R-E-A-T or W-A-L-K can attest, while they may not actually be able to spell, they can absolutely remember and recognize a sequence of letters, and identify it with food or fun.
While dogs do not speak in human words, their barking as communication seems to be a behavior that was developed for the purpose of interacting with humans. Tests on human subjects have shown that across cultures, people identify various dog barks similarly, ie for fear, aggression, happiness, etc.
On “How Smart Are Dogs?”, an episode of Nova Science Now with Neil Degrasse Tyson, we meet Chance, a Border Collie that knows over 1000 words. Chance can identify and retrieve on command, any one of his toys by name. Neil demonstrates how Chance can infer the name of a toy he has never seen before through what appears to be inductive reasoning.
In the same Nova episode, we also meet Brian Hare, a researcher of primate behavior who has done comparative work with dogs demonstrating in his view, a type of social intelligence more compatible with our own than that demonstrated by other primates.
Universally, dogs are better trained through collaborative, fun, and rewarding methods, than through aggression and punishment. That goes to their entire evolutionary history from wolf to companion animal. It is fundamental to their nature.
Consistency, repetition, reward, and praise are all components of clicker training, the practice of combining reward with a clicker noise, so that ultimately, the dog associates the clicker with a treat. The process of clicker training also serves to train the human companion in understanding their dog and its fundamental wants and needs.
Dogs that work, such as herding and seeing-eye dogs show clearly a great capacity for learning important skills and for applied reasoning. A herding dog responds to a series of commands, often in whistled form, and without harming or scaring the livestock, guides them through a course and to the intended destination. A seeing-eye dog is trained to be attuned to dangers and to protect their human companion from harm.
Often a herding dog will dart off to contain an errant cow or sheep, while a seeing-eye dog may perceive a danger that they were not specifically trained to respond to. As with Chance, identifying an unknown toy through inference, these dogs are showing a capacity for applied reasoning.
Canine intelligence study is still in its infancy, so there is much more to be discovered, and every reason to expect that we’ll be hearing about new discoveries frequently.
We’re probably never going to have an actual talking dog professor, like Dr. Peabody teaching us about human history, but we do have some very smart companions that know exactly when we need our hand licked.