Canine Intelligence?

I chose canine cognition for my final thesis and I though I would share it with you. The complex studies of canine intelligence and behaviour are fascinating to myself and many others. They are also fundamental for understanding our sometimes strange, but very loyal furry friends.


Dogs happen to be man’s best friends. This common expression captures the reality of the long and interesting bond between the human being and the dogs. This bond has become an increasing area of interest from various researchers in various fields including canine researchers, anthropologists, and psychologists among others (Weir, 2010). The field of canine intelligence or canine cognition is becoming a major one among the other developed fields of research. More than ever, researchers and scientists are finding more reasons and motivations to explore the human-canine bond. This motivation is shaping the progress and achievements that are now emerging out of canine intelligence studies at different levels. Although there may not be a precise record showing the history of canine intelligence, there is some evidence to suggest that interest in understanding canine behavior is not very new.

Interest in canine behavior and canine intelligence can be traced many years back. The 1950s and 1960s marked a period of great development in canine research. However, this did not last long as there was a noticeable decline in studies until the turn of the century. Such interest has only started to peak again in the 21st century (2014). According to one of the most noticeable researchers in canine intelligence, Dr. Brian Hare, the last ten years have been a revolution in this area of scientific study. Within this 10-year period, Hare holds that more knowledge about canine intelligence has emerged than in the last century (Hare & Woods, 2013). Such a firm statement from an expert provides a clear picture of how interest in canine intelligence studies has evolved. One then wonders why this current revolution. Before going into the noticeable growing interest in canine intelligence in the last decade, it is important to consider how it all started.

Wolves and Dogs

The most appropriate part to start from with regard to our knowledge about canine intelligence and the scientific interest involved is the immediate ancestor of the dog, the wolves. Although it has been said in many fables with no particular scientific evidence to back it up, the relationship between wolves and dogs remains an important point of reference. Scientists have now established the connection between these two animals. Existing archaeological evidence is backed up by additional genetic evidence suggesting that dogs actually evolved from wolves. Scientists estimate that this evolutionary transformation probably began about 12,000 to 40,000 years back (Hare & Woods, 2013). This discovery was provided a keen interest from scientists to explore this wolves-dogs connection more.

Although there is no consensus among canine researchers, some early researchers hypothesized that if there were genetic similarities between the wolves and the dogs, then the differences in between them could be explained by their different environments. Specifically, they thought that the dog was different from the wolf because the former lived closer to humans than the latter (Hare & Woods, 2013).This triggered more research into the similarities and possibility of wolves ever becoming like dogs. This led people like Dr. Adam Mikiosi to embark on studying this link more closely. From his studies, he observed that wolves and dogs differed in aspects of emotional behavior, personality, thinking skills, communication skills, and attachment skills (Garratt, 2015).

Many more similar experiments followed this one with an attempt to understand why wolves and dogs had different mental, emotional, and behavioral characteristics. When the various studies proved that it the environmental differences was the reason behind these differences, interest shifted more to the dogs. This is probably because of the fact that wolves are not so friendly like the dogs.

Pavlov Dog Experiments and Classical Conditioning

One of the famous canine studies that have received significant attention from multiple scholars is the Pavlov dog experiments. Named after Ivan Pavlov, a physiologist, the experiments were conducted from 1849 to 1936. Through these experiments, Pavlov was able to prove the concept of classical conditioning. He observed that the dogs would salivate immediately after smelling food or heard noise on the door. He then noticed a similar behavior even there was no actual food but just the sound. From these, he concluded that dogs could be conditioned to behave in certain ways. Moreover, it was discovered that human beings too could be conditioned in a similar manner. This led to the emergence of the classical conditioning theory (Garratt, 2015).

The amazing findings from the Pavlov experiments were a major step towards the understanding of canine intelligence. Through those findings, some connection between the human being and the canine with regard to behavior responses and thought processes were implied. Classical conditioning became a theory that is widely applied in human psychology today. As much as it would appear bizarre that a dog could have similar behavior responses as a human being, these experiments proved otherwise and gave more impetus to further development in canine intelligence research. Finally, the experiments demonstrated the ability of dogs to learn new behaviors. Today, dogs are trained successfully on a wide variety of things including responding to commands and guiding blind people.

Motivations for Canine Intelligence and Science

Since the interest in canine intelligence emerged, various factors have emerged as the motivations behind these efforts. One of the main motivations must have been a growing realization that dogs were intelligent animals. From the numerous dog tests and studies, evidence was piling up to show that the dog could achieve things that other animals could not. This must have inspired scientists from various fields to want to know more about dogs in terms of cognition, intelligence, and behaviors. There was and there still is hope that through continued scientific studies, more could be revealed about these animals. The resources that are being invested in such canine research are increasing.

Another possible motivation for interest in canine intelligence is the very nature of the dogs. Dogs have become quite common in many homes and places. As illustrated in the graph below (diagram 1), dog ownership in America has grown from 68 million in 2000 to 77.8 million in 2015. This represents an increase of 9.8 million within a period of 15 years. This growing ownership of dogs could also be a significant motivation for increased canine intelligence research. Since dogs are almost in every American home, scientists must be interested in understanding whether this trend has anything to with the canine intelligence and cognition.

Achievements Made in Canine Cognition

From the past and recent scientific interests in canine cognition, significant achievements have been made. Before focusing on these achievements, it is important to emphasize the role that the scientific community has played so far. Through the continued efforts to canine cognition, the scientific community has demonstrated the great potential that science has in improving our understanding of dogs better. Now let us focus on what achievements in terms of knowledge about dog cognition have been made so far.

Genius Dogs

Perhaps one of the main achievements from canine cognition and research is the realization and appreciation that dogs are intelligent animals. Through the application of cognitive science, researchers have been able to prove that intelligent animals stand out because of their abilities to reproduce and survive under various conditions (Hare & Woods, 2013). Based on these criteria, the leading researchers in canine cognition have come to consider the dog as only second to human beings of all mammals. Apparently, they base their argument on several established factors. First, unlike most other mammals that tend to be confined to specific areas, dogs have been able to spread almost everywhere including in homes and on the streets. This can also be linked to the fact that dogs initially evolved from the wild wolves but have been survived domestication. Second, as the populations of most other mammals continue to decline, that of dogs has continued to grow. Apparently, there are more dogs in the world today than at any other time (Hare & Woods, 2013). For this to happen, the dogs must have a unique intelligence level that helps it to survive all the challenges and adapt to almost every situation.

Uses of Dogs

Because of their unique intelligence levels, dogs have continued to demonstrate their abilities to perform an ever-increasing number of tasks and responses. Initially, dogs were only used for security and other such tasks. However, today dogs are used in different places and for different purposes. Whether it is in the military, police, customs, conservation, or in our homes, the uses of dogs have grown. Within the uniformed services, police and military dogs are used in guarding and detecting various items including drugs, weapons, bombs, and contraband among others. At home, apart from being pets, service dogs assist the physically disabled or the mentally ill in their daily routines such as walking or picking things. In the health sector, cancer dogs are used to detect cancer while in hospitals and retirement homes dogs are often used to lift the spirits of people (Hare & Woods, 2013).It is difficult to find another animal that has been such successful in learning to survive and perform new tasks and responsibilities.

Dogs and Toddlers

A more recent development in the canine cognition that actually shocked many involved the comparison of dogs’ intelligence with that of two-year- old toddlers. According to the study report that was released by Stanley Cohen, a respected canine researcher, the mental abilities of dogs are close to that of the toddler. Cohen arrived at this conclusion after reviewing various behavioral measures (American Psychological Association, 2009). Such findings show the significant steps that have made in the area of canine cognition. It is one of the pioneer indications of the possibility of finding more similarities or differences between the dogs’ intelligence and the humans.

Additionally, Cohen also noted that canine intelligence differs. These differences are based on various factors including the dog breed. Apparently, there are three types of canine intelligence. First, instinctive intelligence relates to what dogs were bred to become or do. Second, adaptive intelligence involves the effectiveness of a dog to learn to solve problems from its environment. Finally, working and obedience intelligence is like school learning. In terms of the working and obedience canine intelligence, research has also shown that dog breed such as the Border collies, poodles, and German shepherds are among the most intelligent (American Psychological Association, 2009). Such recent findings clearly show that the high level that canine research has reached. This is quite comparable to human intelligence that also exhibits some of these characteristics.

Language and Counting

Canine cognition research has also shown that dogs have the ability to learn words and numbers. According to more recent research studies, an average dog is capable of learning up to 165 words and signals. The more intelligent dogs have an even greater capability to learn 250 words. In fact, in one border study that involved a border collie, the dog demonstrated knowledge of 200 words as well as ‘fast-track learning’. Scientists believe that this finding was rare considering that such learning ability is only found in humans and apes that learn languages. In terms of counting, canine researcher Cohen notes that dogs can count and even notice some errors in simple calculations. However, their capacity to count is much lower compared to that of learning words (American Psychological Association, 2009). This finding further strengthens the argument that canine research is revealing hitherto unknown and probably unexpected canine cognition capabilities.

Dog Morphological Features and Behaviour

There has also been a scientific research effort to understand how dog behavior through understanding their morphological features. One canine research that has focused on this area is Paul McGreevy. Through his works, he has demonstrated how the behaviors of dogs are influenced partly by their morphology. In one scientific study, McGreevy and other canine researchers observed how various morphological characteristics such skull length, dog height, and body weight were related to their behavioral features such as self-grooming, trainability, and behavioral problems. In their study, they made found strong correlations between these morphological features and the types of behavior shown by the dogs (McGreevy et al., 2013).


From the discussion in the paper, it is quite clear that knowledge on canine cognition has developed over the years. However, this has not been consistent. There have been periods where such interest in canine research has been high such as in the 1950s and 1960s. It was not until the turn of the century again that such interest peaked. For the last 15 years, significant volumes of new and advanced knowledge on canine cognitive have come up. Unlike any other time in history, knowledge on canine cognition based on scientific research is becoming widely available not only to the scientific community but to the public as well. Going by the current trends, the future looks promising as more research will lead to a constantly improving knowledge base on canine cognition. Such knowledge will be helpful in improving the relationship between man and the dog as well as our ability to take better care of them. Notably, Ivan Pavlov, a physiologist, conducted experiments from 1849 to 1936. Through these experiments, Pavlov was able to prove the concept of classical conditioning.