Dogs: Not as smart as we think they are?

Sometimes, society seems obsessed with dogs. Canine companions are considered loving, cute and intelligent, and science seems to back all of these up.

Popular understandings of scientific research sum it up like this: Doggy intelligence is on par with that of a two-year-old child, and this is somewhat true, if you look at findings from language development tests. When analyzing simple math scores, dogs can even be compared to three- or four-year-old children.

That said, new research suggests dogs are not the Einsteins of the animal world. That’s not to say dogs are dumb, but compared to other domestic animals, they might not stand out as much as we think they do.

Researchers in the United Kingdom looked at hundreds of papers on animal intelligence and found many cases of what they call “over interpretation” of dog abilities.

“During our work, it seemed to us that many studies in dog cognition research set out to ‘prove’ how clever dogs are,” said researcher Stephen Lea. “They are often compared to chimpanzees, and whenever dogs ‘win,’ this gets added to their reputation as something exceptional. Yet in each and every case we found other valid comparison species that do at least as well as dogs do in those tasks.”

In their investigation, the researchers focused especially on animal categories that dogs belonged to (domestic animals, social hunters and carnivores), as well as other animals commonly considered to be above-average in terms of smarts (chimpanzees, dolphins, horses and pigeons).

Looking at sensory, physical, spatial, social and self-awareness abilities, dogs were found to be within norms established by other species.

“We are doing dogs no favor by expecting too much of them,” Lea said. “Dogs are dogs, and we need to take their needs and true abilities into account when considering how we treat them.”

So dogs might not be the geniuses we had imagined, but they’re still fairly smart. Just not when they empty out the bathroom trash can.

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