Dogs are smarter than we think, and some are downright brilliant

  • Pin It
"It's about time science has woken up to the fact that dogs are really smart," says evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare, co-author (with Vanessa Woods) of "The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think" (Penguin Random House, New York, NY, 2013, $17). "It's really quite remarkable that dogs ever became our buddies, since they evolved from wolves, our main competitor."

Actually, Hare says it's relatives of today's wolves who chose to hang around the outskirts of human settlements to grab scraps of garbage over 15,000 years ago. Eventually, bold individuals might have begged people for scraps.

"We didn't really domesticate dogs; dogs domesticated dogs," Hare says.

Over time, humans realized the value of these canines; for example, they could warn of approaching predators like saber-toothed tigers.

The long co-evolution between humans and wolves is unique on earth. Today, there's a genetic advantage for dogs to be friendly toward people and, moreover, to understand humans. As a result, dogs have arguably learned more about us than we have about them. Dogs are born being incredibly intuitive, quickly picking up on our emotions and even understanding our gestures.

"Dogs are absolute masters of living with humans, and being successful as a result," Hare notes.

Is a dog's hard-wired need to understand people the same as intelligence?

"Maybe and maybe not," says Hare, founder of the Duke (University) Canine Cognition Center, Durham, N.C. 'But now we can all see how smart dogs can be; just check it out on YouTube. Video after video shows dogs who've done amazing things, from pulling another dog from danger in the middle of the street to saving someone from a burning building. Then, there are the dogs who do amazing tricks. One dog in particular, Chaser, can identify over 1,000 toys."

Are these dogs darn brilliant individuals, or are all dogs capable of going viral, as they impress the world with their smarts?

"We know that most all dogs can learn a lot more than most of us think they're capable of," says Hare. "In fact, here's an efficient way dogs learn, which we don't do often enough; dogs can be taught by showing them solutions to problems. They can learn way faster this way -- by watching others ('doggy-see, doggy-do') -- in many contexts."

Hare continues, "Cognition is recognition that there are different types of intelligence, and that is as true for dogs as it is for people. You can be amazing at math and horrible at English. You can have a dog that's incredibly empathic and another one that's amazing in terms of memory or ability to reason, but terrible at understanding human communication. There are all types of intelligence, and all dogs are as individual as people are."

Still, most experts agree that wolves are more cunning than dogs.

"Well, it depends on what you are asking wolves to do," Hare says.

There are certainly many differences between dogs and wolves, so for all those trainers who suggest dogs are merely wolves with floppy ears, that's not the case. In fact, as dogs have become domesticated and changed their temperaments, they've also changed physiologically; floppy ears and varied coat colors are examples.

How about the differences in intelligence among various dog breeds?

"Most people think that Border Collies, German Shepherds, Retrievers and Poodles are among the smartest dogs," says Hare. "But there's little real data that evaluates between breed differences. One of the few studies is mine. I compared the ability of working and non-working breeds. While both groups of dogs performed well in reading human gestures, the working dogs were better at it."

Hare concludes, "In the end, even if you don't believe me, I suggest your dog is a genius."

(Steve Dale welcomes questions/comments from readers. Although he can't answer all of them individually, he'll answer those of general interest in his column Send e-mail to PETWORLD(at)STEVE DALE.TV. Include your name, city and state. Steve's website is; he also hosts the nationally syndicated "Steve Dale's Pet World" and "The Pet Minute." He's also a contributing editor to USA Weekend.)

  • Pin It

Local & National Video