“There Is No Current Case for Canine Exceptionalism”

That is the conclusion of a paper just published in the current issue of the journal Learning and Behavior.

In other words, dogs are not as smart as people believe.

The researchers set out to study dogs from three different perspectives: phylogenetically, as carnivoran and specifically a canid; ecologically, as social, cursorial hunters; and anthropogenically, as a domestic animal. A principled understanding of canine cognition should therefore involve comparing dogs’ cognition with that of other carnivorans, other social hunters, and other domestic animals.

The study concluded that dogs are cognitively quite ordinary when compared to other carnivores, domestic animals, and social hunters.

In a summary of the research from Scientific American, dogs were found to be unremarkable in their cognitive capabilities compared to wolves, cats, dolphins, chimpanzees, pigeons, and several other species. For example, dogs seem no better at learning associations—such as between a behavior and a reward—than other species. Similarly, dogs can spatially navigate within small spaces, but other species can, too. And while dogs have an excellent sense of smell, the “pig’s olfactory abilities are outstanding and might even be better than the dog’s.”

Even more surprising, dogs do not appear to be exceptional in their ability to perceive and use communicative signals from humans. According to the domestication hypothesis, dogs have been bred to be especially sensitive to human cues such as hand signals. The researchers note that dogs can indeed use human cues. However, contrary to the domestication hypothesis, they are far from unique in this ability. For example, the reigning champions of the ability to follow human hand signals are the bottlenose dolphin and the grey seal.

But as the Scientific American writers note, despite this lack of any cognitive comparative advantage compared to other animals, dogs still offer their owners many benefits, from simple companionship to potential health improvements.

And at the end of the day, who really cares how smart a dog is?

I’m sure most of us don’t consider the relative intelligence of our human friends when we are hanging with them, so why should it be any different when we are hanging with our best friend?


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