How Stupid Are Dogs, Really?

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We tend to marvel at the abilities of our canine companions, but let’s face it: Dogs are basic beasts who depend on humans for pretty much everything. So instead of uncritically celebrating these good boys and girls during Gizmodo’s Dog Week, let’s explore all the things they suck at.

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I’m actually a huge dog person, so it brings me no joy to do this—to expose dogs for the dimwitted creatures that they really are. Anyone who’s been around dogs knows they can be brilliant at one moment and completely boneheaded the next.

Of course, as I disparage the intelligence of dogs, what I’m really doing is comparing dogs to humans in terms of their cognitive abilities, which is obviously a very apples-to-oranges thing to do. Scientists tend to avoid this mistake and instead compare domesticated dogs to similar creatures, such as wolves or dingos. If comparisons to humans must be made, scientists will limit this to infants and toddlers, which serves as a kind of measuring stick for assessing human development, as Stephen Lea, a professor of psychology at the University of Exeter and an expert on dogs, explained to Gizmodo.

“The process of domestication has radically altered the intelligence of dogs, what we call the ‘domestication hypothesis,’” Lea told Gizmodo. Comparisons of different types of dogs—such as working, companion, street, and shelter dogs—to wolves and similar creatures tends to be more helpful for scientists, he said.

Indeed, considerable variation exists among dogs, as their behavior can be influenced by breed, socialization, life experiences, and so on. Importantly, however, dogs are really good at being dogs, including stuff like playing fetch, barking at the neighbors, herding sheep, mooching for snacks, and, very importantly, providing companionship. There’s literally no reason for them to be more human-like when it comes to their intelligence, even if we sometimes mistakenly project more smarts onto them than they deserve.

“Dogs are very good at what they’re bred to do—they’re excellent at doing those things, and in some cases even better than other species we think are intelligent, such as chimps and bonobos,” Zachary Silver, a PhD student from the Comparative Cognitive Lab at Yale University, told Gizmodo. “But as soon as we step outside of that domain, we see a lot of failures in cognition, including a lack of flexibility and cognitive sophistication.”

And that brings us back to exposing areas in which doggie intelligence is somewhat lacking. Not coincidentally, these deficiencies, so to speak, aren’t things we require or expect from dogs, which is probably why they never developed in the first place or are being weeded out on account of breeding.

That Doggie in the Mirror

One area in which dogs appear to struggle is a sense of self-awareness. Humans, great apes, and even dolphins can recognize their reflection in the mirror, which is a classic test of self-awareness. Dogs are terrible at this, either ignoring their reflection or thinking it’s another dog.

Now that said, this is a very visual test, and dogs aren’t visual creatures. They actually smell the world more than anything else. Recognizing this, Alexandra Horowitz, a psychologist at Barnard College, conducted an experiment in which the smell of urine replaced the mirror. Results showed that dogs exhibited a heightened response to the scent of their own urine compared to the urine of other dogs, which Horowitz interpreted as a form of self-recognition. Not a hugely convincing result, but a result nonetheless.

Language Fakers

Dog owners often speak to their pets and even claim they’re being understood by their canine companions. Speaking to Gizmodo, Daphna Buchsbaum, a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, said “dogs can connect names with objects more than other animals,” but as for an ability to understand full sentences and grammar, “not so much.”

Indeed, dogs can possess a remarkable vocabulary, including Chaser, a border collie who recognizes 1,000 words. It’s grammar and the stringing of multiple words together that pose a problem for the canines. Yet, they often give us the impression of comprehension.

“Dogs are really sensitive to our communications and emotions, and sometimes they’re so good at reading what we want that they can really look like they’re understanding us, and it looks like they’re understanding the nuances of what we’re saying,” Angie Johnston, a psychologist at Boston College, told Gizmodo.

Johnston pointed to a notorious example known as Clever Hans—a horse that appeared to do arithmetic by stomping its hoof but in reality was very good at reading social cues from the audience. People need to “keep the idea of Clever Hans in mind,” said Johnston. “We have to take into account that dogs might be reading off us—they fake it until they make it.”

Silver said it’s important for dogs to respond to what we want them to do, “but a representation of language is not necessarily important to them.”

We’ve bred all sorts of traits into dogs, so it’s difficult to know which characteristics were retained from wolves and which are the result of us. One potent example of an ability acquired through the powers of artificial selection is the ability to understand human gestures, such as pointing or following an owner’s gaze off into the distance. Wolves cannot do this, nor can many supposedly intelligent animals such as chimps. This trait, it would appear, is something we bred into dogs.

But as Silver pointed out, they’re less flexible than humans in following more abstract visual cues. Research shows that dogs can be alerted to a hidden object, like a treat hidden by an overturned cup, via finger pointing, but the same is not true if the experimenter shakes the target cup with a string. Dogs “are very bad at this version” of the experiment, said Silver, who said 2-year-old human children grasp the concept. For dogs, however, it’s a leap of logic they simply can’t make, even if the answer seems simple to us.

Problematic Problem Solvers

Dogs are awful at solving problems, in what can only be described as the canine version of learned helplessness.

“How often does your pet dog have a problem you want them to solve for themselves?” asked Buchsbaum.

Fair point, as the answer to this question is basically never.

“Domestication has removed some innate capacities from their more wilder versions. In their lives, the solution is to look at the human. How do you get food? How do you get through the gate? The human does it. In some sense it’s the right response, but in another sense it’s the result of them not needing to understand those things,” she told Gizmodo.

Naturally, there will be outliers to the norm, as some dogs, either because of their breed, training, or other factors, are more capable than others, but for the most part, they tend to struggle when confronted with complications.

In the absence of a human helper, dogs become easily vexed in certain situations, particularly when they’re confronted with a static problem. Lea pointed to the classic detour problem, in which a visible object of desire, such as a treat, is blocked by an obstruction, like a fence or glass door. Dogs are typically befuddled by this particular problem, and they try to paw through the obstruction “when all they had to do was go around the edge of the barrier to gain easy access,” Lea told Gizmodo. Dogs “tend to be captured by the proximal” and “tend to go for responses that are physically nearby without seeing the structure of the situation, causing them to make the wrong response.” Lea said dogs can be taught to avoid these errors, but it’s not clear if they can generalize outside of familiar contexts or grok the basic principle.

Importantly, the ability to solve complex tasks isn’t exclusive to humans. Corvids, a family of birds that includes crows, display an uncanny ability to solve puzzles and navigate complex scenarios, plan ahead, and even build and use tools. Evolutionary necessity caused these traits to emerge in birds, but the same cannot be said for dogs.

Interestingly, shelter dogs do better than pet dogs when it comes to initiating problem solving, according to Lea. Pet dogs “just look back at their owners, whereas shelter dogs aren’t expecting help from humans,” he said. So while many cognitive limitations in dogs are genetically hardwired, some behaviors are learned.

Dogs and dingos share a common ancestor, but dingos, a species that returned to the wild after a brief period of domestication, spend less time exploring their environment, such as searching for food, than dogs do. But as Johnston explained, dogs are much less productive than dingos during their exploratory time. Sometimes, “dogs can be so social that it becomes an impediment to problem solving,” she said.

Dogs are also bad at cooperating with each other, added Johnston. Indeed, as research from 2017 found, when working on a complex puzzle that could be solved with mutual effort, one dog will try to solve the conundrum, while the other dog will simply stand and watch. They’re “not good at integrating their actions,” said Johnston, which is interesting, because they’re really good at cooperating with humans. It’s as if dogs have “lost the ability to do stuff with each other,” she said, but it’s possible the dogs are simply trying to avoid conflict.

Not as Emotionally Complex as You Think

In addition to projecting linguistic abilities onto our dogs, we also project emotional capacities onto them. The classic example is that supposedly guilty look when they’ve done something wrong, like tearing up the trash or pooping in the house. This would seem to indicate a form of emotional intelligence, among other complex traits tied to emotion, but dogs probably aren’t as sophisticated as we often make them out to be.

“It’s possible they experience guilt, but what we call them being guilty is not them being guilty,” said Buchsbaum.

A revealing study from 2015 showed that owners, when fooled into thinking their dog was disobedient, were more likely to interpret a guilty look on their pets. As Buchsbaum put it, “the determiner of guilt is whether the owner feels they’re guilty.” What dog owners interpret as a guilty look may actually be appeasement-like behaviors, she said. They’re simply responding to the situation, such as the owner’s verbal scorn and body language.

“They’re really good at making expressions that we interpret as them understanding,” said Johnston.

Dogs will sometimes give the impression that they’re jealous, a finding that was corroborated two years ago in an fMRI experiment that apparently documented jealousy in the canine brain. But Silver, along with his colleague Laurie Santos, also from Yale, reached a different conclusion, saying:

The use of fMRI in awake and unrestrained dogs is tremendously valuable for understanding canine emotionality. We worry, however, that it is too soon to conclude that the reported pattern of amygdala activation corresponds to a specific emotion. Further testing will be essential to determine whether this amygdala activation is indeed an expression of jealousy.

In conversation with Gizmodo, Silver said it’s “difficult to ask questions about high-level concepts,” such as emotions, as dogs “can’t verbally communicate with us,” he said. “We can fall victim to this and infer behavior.”

Fido Can’t Count

Dogs, according to Buchsbaum, can understand quantities, at least to a certain extent. As for numbers, that would require both an abstract sense of numbers and a language to describe and map those numbers, she said. It’s not clear that the canine brain can handle either of these things. Dogs can be sensitive to ratios, such as the difference between 10 things and 100 things, and they can compare relative quantities, but they cannot count numbers, nor can they perform exact addition and subtraction, Buchsbaum explained.

Silver said mathematics isn’t anything that dogs have ever needed in a human household, as it’s never been important to their survival alongside humans. Dogs “don’t really have a need to discriminate between quantities of three or four,” he said.

Research shows that some animals do possess numerical abilities, including gorillas, monkeys, lemurs, dolphins, and some birds. Certain insects also may be able to count, such as ants and even bees. These are super rudimentary forms of counting, of course, and certainly nothing that approximates human-level numeracy.

On the topic of abstract thinking, Buchsbaum said the evidence is still not clear on whether dogs can think about things that aren’t concrete, such as imagining a specific treat or thinking about dog treats in general. It’s also not clear, she said, if they can think about conceptual things, like freedom, rules, and so on.

“This remains an open question in human cognition,” said Buchsbaum, “about whether you can think about things without language, and how tightly correlated these things [abstract concepts and thoughts] are with language.”

Let Dogs Be Dogs

It’s fun to point out the cognitive deficiencies of dogs, but for scientists, these observations can yield insights into the effects of domestication. That said, dogs are really good at being dogs, and there’s no need for them to adopt human-like intelligence, at least in certain domains. Dogs are proficient at following our cues, engaging in cooperative tasks with us, and providing companionship.

“To break them out of that mould, that’s not such a good idea,” said Silver.

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