Dogs Are Not "Exceptionally Intelligent" Compared to Other Animals, Study Reveals

Dogs are often portrayed as being exceptionally clever and able compared to other animals. But is this really the case?

In an attempt to answer the question, U.K. researchers from the University of Exeter and Canterbury Christ Church University reviewed more than 300 scientific studies on the cognitive abilities of dogs and other animals for a paper published in the journal Learning & Behavior. They found that in several cases, dogs' intelligence had been overstated.

"During our work it seemed to us that many studies in dog cognition research set out to 'prove' how clever dogs are," Stephen Lea, a professor of psychology from Exeter, said in a statement. "They are often compared to chimpanzees, and whenever dogs 'win,' this gets added to their reputation as something exceptional.”

In the latest study, the researchers argued that in order to assess dog cognition, it was necessary to regard them from three different perspectives: as carnivorans (an order including animals such as dogs, wolves, bears, lions and hyenas), as social hunters and as domestic animals.

They then contrasted various aspects of dog intelligence with other species that fit into those categories. They included wild dogs, spotted hyenas and wolves (carnivorans and social hunters); cats (carnivorans and domestic animals); bottlenose dolphins and chimpanzees (social hunters); and horses and pigeons (domestic animals).

The review focused on associative learning, sensory cognition, physical cognition, spatial cognition, social cognition and self-awareness.

“Dogs are special insofar as they occupy the intersection between domestic animals, social hunters and carnivorans,” Britta Osthaus, a psychologist from Canterbury, told Newsweek. “But their cognition is not fundamentally different from that of the comparison species. Dogs do not show any cognitive ability that could not be expected from any comparison species. Their cognition is not exceptional.”

In associative learning, the process by which ideas reinforce each other and can be linked to one another, the team found no evidence that dogs were particularly special. Meanwhile, for physical cognition, an animal’s capacity to operate effectively in the world of objects, dogs did not excel, and their performance was found to be equivalent to other members of all three comparison groups.

In spatial tasks, those which gauge an understanding of an animal’s immediate environment, dogs showed good performance—but again, the same was also true of other species.

When it comes to perceptual abilities, or sensory cognition, the situation is more complex. Dogs do have an excellent sense of smell, but similar abilities have been found in some other carnivorans and domestic animals.

Social cognition, the way an animal learns about and interacts with others, is the domain in which we have most information about dogs. While it’s clear they have an impressive ability to use the behavior of other animals (particularly that of humans) as a cue—a key marker of high levels of social cognition—other carnivorans are even better at these tasks.

“Some other domestic species may do as well as dogs, though no other social hunters (except for wolves) have been shown to do as well,” the authors wrote in the study. “Dogs also have impressive capacities for social learning, and they seem to do better at these tasks than any other carnivorans, except wolves. [Nevertheless], they have not demonstrated any capacities that have not also been shown in other social hunters.”

The researchers also looked at studies which examine the “theory of mind” concept. This is the idea that some animals have a degree of understanding of the minds of other animals.

“Can an animal understand what another animal can perceive, and predict what it will understand (perspective taking)?” the authors wrote. “And if so, can it use that information, either to mislead the other animal (deception) or to enter into the same state of mind (empathy)?”

GettyImages-1043716752 A Korthals on the opening day of France's hunting season in Melleray, France, on September 30. JEAN-FRANCOIS MONIER/AFP/Getty Images

While the data on that is limited, in experiments that have been carried out so far, chimpanzees were more likely than dogs to solve tasks requiring perspective-taking, although dogs may do better than chimps in cooperative situations. Furthermore, chimps were more likely than dogs to show evidence of deception or empathy.

Finally, we have no firm evidence of self-consciousness in dogs—they do not respond to their image in the mirror, for example. The same is true of other carnivorans, but two social hunters, chimps and dolphins, have demonstrated this ability.

So, in light of such evidence, why is the idea that dogs are exceptional so prevalent?

“Dogs are very prominent in many people's life, and they fulfill a wide range of roles for us, whether that is as assistant dogs, police dogs, search-and-rescue dogs etcetera,” Osthaus said. “They do possess amazing cognitive skills, especially in social interactions with humans. But, as we found, these skills are matched by other species, such as goats, pigs and pigeons. We are certain that in the future, science will find comparative cognitive feats in other species.

“We need to accept that dogs are dogs—special, but not exceptional,” Osthaus continued. “And therefore, we must not expect too much of them when training them and when sharing our homes with them. We must adjust our interaction with them to do them justice. They are domesticated, carnivoran social hunters, and we must provide them with appropriate mental stimulation, exercise and diet to ensure their welfare.”

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