We love to brag about the intelligence of our canine companions. But a recent survey suggests that many of us are grossly overestimating the cognitive capacities of our dogs — and that our emotional attachment to them has a lot to do with it.
Realizing that few studies have examined people's perceptions of specific cognitive abilities in dogs, researcher Tiffani J. Howell and her team developed an online questionnaire and analyzed the results from over 560 dog owners. The ensuing study appeared last year in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior.
Results showed that most dog owners generally believe their dogs are socially intelligent and possess the capacity to learn social and general cognitive skills. About 25% of dog owners agreed or strongly agreed that dogs were smarter than most people. Nearly half (45.7%) believed that their dog's mental ability is equal to "3-5 year old human children."
Astoundingly, one in every 20 dog owners believe that dogs have the mental ability of humans who are 16 years of age or older.
Not surprisingly, and in the words of the researchers: "Perceived emotional owner-dog closeness correlated with all cognition ratings." In other words, the closer you are to your dog, the more intelligent you think he or she is.
So how do these assessments of dog owners compare to the actual scientific data on the mental abilities of dogs? Writing in Psychology Today, dog expert Stanley Coren explains:
So how do these judgments of dog owners compare to the actual scientific data on the mental abilities of dogs? Well, dog owners feel that their pets can judge human emotions and there is a lot of data which shows that they are right about this (click here or here for examples). Dog owners feel that their dogs can learn to solve problems, often by just observing the behavior of humans or other dogs who know the solution and again they are right about this (click here for an example). However, when it comes to comparing the equivalent mental abilities of dogs to that of humans of various ages, it appears that the dog owners tend to overestimate the cognitive ability of dogs relative to what the scientific data seems to be showing us. The research findings are that dogs' mental abilities are most similar to that of human children between the age of two and three (click here for an example). In the current study the dog owners most commonly placed the intelligence of dogs in the 3 to 5-year-old human range and nearly 25 percent of them rated it a lot higher than that.
So dogs may be smart, says Coren, but perhaps not as smart as we seem to perceive them to be.
Read the entire article at Psychology Today. And check out the study at the Journal of Veterinary Behavior: "The Perceptions of Dog Intelligence and Cognitive Skills (PoDIaCS) Survey".