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by Janet Spencer

It’s been estimated that a typical dog is about as smart as a two-year-old child. Come along with Tidbits as we test the intelligence of dogs!


• In a test, a white block indicated a place where there was food hidden, while black blocks showed places where there was no food. In a series of trials, it took Malamutes over 100 tries to figure out the meaning of the different blocks, to the point where they would made a beeline for the white block and ignore the black blocks. However, wolves learned in only fifty tries.

• In another test, dogs were placed in a maze that had a central point with eight arms radiating outwards. A treat was placed at the end of each of the eight arms. Would dogs be able to remember which arms they had already visited once? Or would they go down the same arms over and over again? It turned out that dogs were efficient at finding the treats 83% of the time. However, rats subjected to the same test were accurate 90% of the time.

•  Engineers constructing a natural gas pipeline were worried about persistent leaks that they could not locate because the pipe was buried up to 40 ft. deep. Trained dogs were called in, and they found and identified over 150 leaks.

•  John Pilley adopted a border collie puppy named Chaser and decided to see how many words she could learn. Every day he taught her one or two new words, mostly relating to various toys. Was there a limit to the number of words she could learn? Would she forget old words as new words crowded her brain? As a retired psychology professor, Pilley wanted to know.

•  He would hold up the object, name it, and then command Chaser to find it or to hide it. Over the course of three years, Chaser learned the names of over 800 stuffed toys, 116 different balls, 26 Frisbees, and over 100 various plastic objects. There were no duplicate items; each thing differed in size, weight, texture, design, and material. She was tested every day, often out of sight of Pilley, to be sure she wasn’t getting subconscious hints from him.

•  Even after learning the names of over 1,000 objects, she never forgot a word, and never slowed the rate at which she could learn new words. She could also tell the difference between items that were her toys and items that were not toys. At times he would tell Chaser to fetch an item that the dog had never before seen, and whose name was unknown to the dog. Chaser would use her powers of deduction to identify the correct item: “There’s only one item here that I don’t know the name of, so that must be what he wants.”

• Another researcher named Juliane Kaminski went one step further with her border collie, Rico. After Rico had learned the names of hundreds of toys and other objects, Kaminski showed the dog either a photo or a drawing of the specific item she wanted Rico to fetch for her. Rico understood the connection between the depiction of the item and the real thing and brought the correct item time after time.

• Dogs have different growls depending on the situation. A “don’t steal my food” growl is different from a “who is that stranger?” growl. Researchers recorded different kinds of growls, and then played them for other dogs under various circumstances. When dogs were approaching a juicy bone and heard the “don’t steal my food growl” they backed off far more regularly than when they heard the “who is that stranger?” growl.

• Similarly, they recorded the barking of a dog who was bored, then recorded barking when the dog was alarmed at a stranger. When these recordings were played for other dogs, they ignored the “I’m lonely” barks but reacted to the “stranger approaching” barks.

• Dogs were introduced to two boxes that were identical in all but one respect: one box had a string of bells attached to it that rang when jiggled. The other box had a string of bells whose clappers had been removed so they made no sound. The dogs were tested by watching a human put a treat under both boxes, and then the dogs were told they were not allowed to snitch the treats. As long as another human remained in the room, no dogs bothered the treats. But when the humans left the room, the dogs went to steal a treat, and all of them swiped the treat from the box with the silent bells, showing that they understood who was within hearing distance and how they might respond.

• Dogs were placed in a room with two people, both of whom had treats to share. One person had a gag over their mouth, while the other was blindfolded. Which person would the dogs go to in order to beg for a treat? Not surprisingly, they went to the person with a gag and ignored the person with a blindfold, demonstrating that they are aware they need eye contact for non-verbal communication. Seeing-eye dogs communicate with their blind masters by licking their hand.

• Most dogs are unable to pass a simple test where they were placed behind a barrier with a treat on the other side. There was a hole in the barrier they could pass through to get the treat, which they learned quite quickly. But when the hole in the barrier was shifted to a different place, dogs continued to return to the place where the hole had been previously, rather than go to the place where the hole currently appeared. It took several trials before they learned the new position of the hole. Wolves had no issue in seeing where the gap in the barrier was located.

• In a study, a man stood on a street corner, smiling at women, telling them they were pretty, and asking for their phone number. If he stood on the street corner alone, he was successful in getting their phone number 9% of the time. But if he had a dog with him on a leash, his success rate jumped to 28%. Then he tried it different ways: dressed nattily with the dog in a matching cute collar and leash, or dressed in rags with the dog in a spiked collar with only a frayed rope for a leash. The manner of dress didn’t make much of a difference, but further experiments showed that a cute golden retriever puppy increased the interaction level over a big full-grown Rottweiler.

• Experiments when people have reared wolf pups like dogs have shown that the wolves will bond with the human and even learn basic dog commands when they are young, but will revert to wolf-like behavior as adults, becoming difficult or impossible to control, while also threatening to kill other animals such as cats and chickens, threatening people outside of their “pack,” and often even stalking children as if they were stalking prey. When removed from human contact for even a short period, they will revert to their wolf-like ways almost immediately.