Saturday, October 8, 2011

How Smart are Dogs?

How smart are dogs?
Author, Bob McMillan

It’s a question we’re pretty smug about since we can drive to the store, read
labels, plunk the correct currency down, find our way home and open a can of dog food without breaking a sweat.

The dog just sprawls there on the couch.
He may drool when he hears the can opener. We don’t expect him to pass the time calculating quantum physics. We don’t expect a lot, really. He’s a dog, for goodness sakes. If he sits, heels, spits out your shoe on command and goes outside to use the bathroom, we figure we’ve got ourselves a keeper.

Truth is, we just don’t think about it much. When we do, “how smart” usually means: how good is my dog at keeping out of trouble and doing what I say? If we have a lot of time on our hands, we might wonder, can Bowser fetch me a beer from the fridge like that dog on television. Can he learn tricks?

But, have you ever wanted to know a little more about what’s going on inside that shaggy skull? Does he or she like us just because of our opposable thumbs and our taste in couches?

You’re in luck. Researchers these days are releasing new findings about our canine pals. Turns out, there’s a lot more going on in Fido’s mind than you might think. The trick is figuring out what it means to you and your dog.

Stanley Coren, a Canadian psychology professor and researcher with a series of books on dog intelligence and behavior, caused a stir in 1994 when he surveyed dog trainers and rated dog breeds onto how well they understand new commands and obey on the first command.

I wasn’t floored that my beagle landed at the bottom of the list. I was a
little miffed that my Irish wolfhound and Scottish deerhounds rated dead
average. A lot of other readers squawked at the results too. There was nothing “average” or sub-par about their Bull terrier, Pug or Borzoi, they protested.

But again, what was being tested? How well dogs obey us. Humans devised the test. I wonder how well we’d perform on a test, say, given by...dogs. Can we catch a whiff of a bacon sandwich dropped on the sidewalk last week? Can we hear a coin drop a quarter mile away? Can we see that cat hiding in the tree? At night? Are we stupid because we can’t? Luckily, most dogs are too gracious to snicker at us.

We’re different species. “Intelligence” is a slippery question. We have different but complimentary strengths and weaknesses. We’ve chosen to live together. It’s not the dog’s IQ that’s important to us, it’s the bond. How well do we like and understand each other from across the divide?

I didn’t seriously grapple with the intelligence question until ten years ago
when I got a giant hound. Bonding became more than academic when I realized if we didn’t connect fast, telling him to “come” or “heel” would be about as effective as telling a glacier to turn left. At ten weeks old, Cuchulain, my Scottish deerhound, was bigger than many adult dogs. I read. Voraciously.

But the real education came when I decided to let him live indoors with me. If I was going to have a dog, I wanted to get to know him well. We learned each other’s moods and habits. I learned to read his subtle changes in his
expressions and body language and he learned mine. He picked up a vocabulary of dozens of words like “no!” which he preferred to ignore, and “food” which made him dance.

Living with Cuchulain, I learned he was slyly manipulative, he learned fast what worked and what didn’t, and he had a sense of humor. He’d do things just to get a rise out of me ... and then grin. Friendship happened.

But light bulbs really came on for me with Finn, my Irish wolfhound, when I learned about reward-based training. Finn was even bigger than Cuchulain and solid as pile of ore. I took a tip from SeaWorld, where they train killer whales and dolphins. You can’t jerk the leash of a killer whale, at least not more than once.

Trainers use a toy clicker to precisely signal when the animal does what they want and reward it with food. Clicker training is now widely used in the dog world too.
What fascinates me about clicker training isn’t simply that the dog will sit
for a piece of cheese. It’s watching their intellect come alive.

One training clicker: $1.50. A bag of cheese cubes: $3. Watching your dog think: Priceless.

I now have three giant dogs who pay very close attention to me. If I’m not
fast enough giving a command, they’ll try something, anything, to show me
they’re thrilled to work for food. Want me to sit over here? How ‘bout if I
stand on three legs? Can I carry that bag of cheese for you?

It spills over from training to everyday companionship. Giant Finn cocks his head and listens when I talk to him. He doesn’t understand all the words, but he knows I’m communicating with him, and I’m the guy who makes fun things happen.

It worked so well on hunting dogs with a reputation for being “independent” that I tried reward-based training on the beagle. Beagles are not known as the rocket scientists of the canine crowd.

Bingo. Instant communication. I learned Sully’s not foggy. He’s merely overwhelmed by a world of exciting smells. But get his attention with something he likes (Sully would walk through fire for cheese), and the wheels turn. When I understood him, I respected him more and he thrived on the rapport.

How smart are dogs? The question, really, is: How smart are we? How much are we really seeing?

Bob McMillan is an editor and columnist with the Cookeville Herald-Citizen
newspaper and lives on a mountain with several giant hounds and wary cats.

This column was originally printed in the Herald-Citizen
in Cookeville, Tennessee.
Please visit for more information on the
newspaper. We thank the Herald-Citizen
staff for allowing FFBF
to re-print this piece.

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