With their outstanding memory (which some say is better than our own), dogs can be trained to suppress even the strongest of instincts. But they can also reason and think for themselves as seen most dramatically when they save lives, determining in an instant the best response to a crisis.
Acutely sensitive to changes in their environment, including not only those in the atmosphere but in our expression and moods as well, dogs have earned a reputation for telepathic thought. Although many questions remain about the possibility of a sixth sense in dogs, what we do know about their other five senses, and their ability to think, that they are remarkable.
Intelligence is often defined as an ability to comprehend the meaning and a capacity to understand; this is directly related to an animal’s cognitive power, its ability to perceive and interpret the signals it receives from the environment. In this respect, the dog is very well equipped.
The dog’s brain is a complex and extremely active organ which demands over 20% of the animal’s blood supply. Like our brain, it has three major parts: the cerebrum, which controls learning, emotions and behavior; the cerebellum controlling muscles; and the stem connecting the brain to the rest of the body’s nervous system.
Perhaps the most important point for humans to remember about the dog’s brain is that its functionality and even its size can be increased through greater sensory stimulation; more interaction with animals and other people, more games or toys to play with, new changes of scene to explore. All of these will stimulate the dog’s brain and make it more efficient and powerful.
Of all the dog’s senses which it uses to great effect in understanding its environment, the most important is its sense of smell. A dog can literally “read” its environment with its nose. Though different breeds have different levels of ability, dogs are generally so much better than we are that its even impossible to fathom.
Some people believe that pedigrees are generally cleverer because they are more refined or because intelligence can be enhanced through breeding. But many others believe that mongrels are brighter, inheriting certain “street-smarts” that purebred dogs do not have access to. In fact, a dog’s intelligence is more profoundly affected by its training and by its contact with people than it is by its instinctive knowledge.
“Whilst a mongrel is just as friendly, intelligent and delightful canine as a dog with a pedigree, it has no advantages over its pedigreed brother. Intelligence is matter of individuality and of association with humankind (Edward C. Ash).”
Solving A Means-end Task
Humans, as well as non-human animals, often encounter problems that force them to progress through a series of mediating actions to reach a certain goal at the end. When performing a goal-directed behavior, understanding this series of progressing steps as the means to an end can be of great advantage for any individual.
Consequently, means-end understanding is considered to be a key step in the cognitive development of humans. Dogs, although very skilled in social-communicative tasks, have shown limited abilities in the domain of physical cognition. Usually, means-end understanding is studied by offering a choice of two options, one of which is in physical connection to an out-of-reach object of desire.
Examples include the “string-pulling task”, where a string within reach of the subject is attached to a piece of food out of reach of the subject as well as the “support problem” that involves a goal object (toy or food) that is out of a subject’s reach, but is resting on a support (a blanket) that is within the subject’s reach. The question is whether the subject appreciates that the goal object can be obtained by pulling on the support.
Both tasks – the string-pulling as well as the support problem – are based on the assumption that subjects that do not understand that pulling the string or the cloth is the “means” for achieving the desired “ends” of bringing the toy or food within reach, will only be able to succeed through repeated exposure allowing for associative learning. For instance, dogs failed to demonstrate means-end understanding, an important form of relying on physical causal connection, when tested in a string-pulling task.
Object Choice Tasks
On the other hand, dogs perform exceptionally well in object-choice tasks if they can locate the hidden food based on social cues, e.g. human communicate signals. They can comprehend the referential nature of human pointing, as well as recognize and follow social rules. Based on these advanced cognitive abilities in the social domain and the poor performance in the physical domain, it has been proposed that the domestication process might have increased the social-cognitive skills of dogs but had a detrimental effect on their physical cognition. Since in dogs (and in other domesticated species) environmental effects on feeding and mating are buffered by humans, natural selection might have relaxed in these species. The fact that dogs have smaller relative brain sizes than wolves may support this conclusion.1
- Range et al. – Dogs Are Able To Solve A Means-end Task