A different kind of genius

When it comes to animal intelligence, your best friend may be smarter than you think. Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods explain.

Your dog is a genius.

You may wonder if I’m serious about this statement. Most dogs can do little more than sit and stay. They are baffled and circle the trunk when a squirrel disappears up a tree, and most will happily drink from the toilet bowl.

Well, I am serious, and hundreds of studies back me up. This is because in cognitive science we think about animal intelligence a little differently. For one thing, when judging the intelligence of animals, we measure their reproductive success. In some cases, like cockroaches, this doesn’t have much to do with intelligence: they are just very hardy and excellent reproducers. But with other animals, surviving takes a little more intellect, and a very specific kind of intellect.

With this as our starting point, dogs are arguably the most the successful mammals on the planet, besides us. They have spread to all corners of the world, including inside our homes and in some cases, onto our beds. While the populations of most mammals have declined steeply as a result of human activities, there have never been more dogs on the planet than today.

In the industrialised world, people are having fewer children than ever, but are providing a lavish lifestyle for a growing population of pet dogs. Meanwhile, dogs are increasingly assisting people with disabilities, finding bombs, doing guard duty, and detecting illegally imported goods, bed bugs and even some types of cancer.

I am fascinated with the kind of intelligence that has allowed dogs to be so successful. Whatever it is, this must be their genius.

The Cognitive Revolution changed the way we thought about intelligence.

So, what is genius? A cognitive approach tells us there are different kinds of intelligence. Someone can be gifted with one type of cognition while being average or below average in another.

Consider Steve Jobs. One biographer asked: “Was he smart?” No, not exceptionally. Jobs dropped out of college, went to find himself in India, and was forced out of Apple, the company he co-founded, when sales were slow in 1985. Few could have predicted the level of success he reached by the time he died in 2012. Jobs may have been average or unexceptional in many domains, but his vision and ability to think differently made him a genius.

The Cognitive Revolution changed the way we thought about intelligence. In the 1960s, rapid advances in computer technology allowed scientists to think differently about the brain and how it solves problems. Instead of the brain being more or less full of intelligence, like a glass of wine, it was seen more like a computer, where different parts work together and many parts are specialised for solving different types of problems.

Many definitions of intelligence compete for attention in popular culture. One of the best-studied cognitive abilities is memory. Someone having an extraordinary memory for facts and figures is what we usually think of as a genius, since these people often score off the charts in IQ tests. But just as there are different types of intelligence, there are different types of memory: for faces, navigating, events that occurred recently or long ago – the list goes on.

The definition of genius that has guided my research is a simple one. There are two criteria: first, a mental skill that is strong compared to others, within a species or in closely related species; and second, the ability to spontaneously make inferences.

Experiments by author Brian Hare (pictured) have demonstrated dogs’ ability to make inferences.

Genius is always relative.

Certain people are considered geniuses because they are better than others at solving a specific type of problem. In animals, researchers are usually more interested in what a species as a whole is capable of, rather than individual animals.

Arctic terns have a genius for navigation. Each year, they fly from the Arctic to Antarctica and back. Whales have an ingenious way of cooperating to catch fish. They create a massive wall of bubbles that traps schools of fish, netting a much heartier dinner than if they hunted alone (see ‘Animal smarts’, p44).

Even though animals cannot talk, we can pinpoint their particular genius by giving them puzzles. These can teach us about how they think: they need to make choices, and those choices reveal their cognitive abilities. By presenting the same puzzle to different species, we can identify different types of animal genius.

Since any bird would seem like a genius at navigation compared to an earthworm, it helps to compare closely-related species. That way, if one species has a special ability that a close relative does not, we can identify genius and also, more interestingly, ask why and how that genius exists.

By giving different types of memory puzzles to these closely-related species, scientists have been able to discern each species’ unique form of genius. And by observing the problems each species encounters in the wild, scientists have also been able to understand why two species show different types of genius.

As with people, just because a species looks like a genius in one area, doesn’t mean it is a genius in others. Ant species are impressive in how they cooperate, for instance. Army ants can form living bridges over water, enabling others to cross over on their back. But ants have one severe limitation – they are not always very flexible.

Most ants are programmed to follow the scent trails of the ants ahead of them. In the tropics, you can find what is called an ant mill where hundreds of thousands of ants walk in a perfect circle that resembles a crawling black hole. Ant mills have been observed up to 365 m in diameter, with a single lap taking up to 2.5 hours to complete. These ant mills are also known as ant death spirals, because often the ants mindlessly follow each other in tightening circles until they exhaust themselves and die.

This leads into the second definition of genius – the ability to make inferences. Humans make inferences constantly. Imagine speeding toward an intersection. Even without seeing the traffic light, you can infer it is red when you see cars entering the intersection from the cross street.

Nature is far less predictable than traffic. When an animal encounters a problem in the wild, there is not always time to slowly find a solution through trial and error. One mistake can mean life or death. Hence, animals need to make inferences – fast.

Even when animals can’t see the correct solution, they can imagine different solutions and choose between them. This leads to a lot of flexibility. They might solve a new version of a problem they have seen before, or they might solve new problems they’ve never seen before.

The process of making inferences is critical to understanding how dogs think.

Yoyo is a chimpanzee living at Ngamba Island Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Uganda. In an experiment, she watched as someone put a peanut through the opening of a long transparent tube. Yoyo’s fingers were too short to reach the peanut, there were no sticks to use as a tool to reach it, and the tube was fixed and could not be turned upside down. Undaunted, Yoyo made an inference. She collected water in her mouth from the drinking fountain and spit it into the tube. The peanut floated to the top and she happily gobbled it up. Yoyo realised she could make the peanut float even though no water was visible when she thought of her solution. In the wild, her ability to make an inference like this could mean the difference between a good meal and starvation.

John Pilley, a retired psychology professor, adopted an eight-week-old border collie named Chaser. Typical of the breed, Chaser loved to chase and herd, she had intense visual concentration, she loved to be petted and praised, and she had limitless energy. Pilley had read of Rico, a border collie who knew at least 200 German words, previously studied by Julianne Kaminski, and he was interested in whether there was a limit to the number of names a dog could learn. Or if the memory of some of the older objects would fade as Chaser learned the names of new objects.

Until recently, science hasn’t taken the genius of dogs very seriously.

Chaser learned the names of one or two toys a day. Pilley would hold up the toy and say: “Chaser, this is… Pop hide. Chaser find…” Pilley did not use food to motivate Chaser. Instead he used praise, hugs and play as rewards for finding the right toy.

Over three years, Chaser learned names for more than 1,000 objects: 800 stuffed toys, 116 balls, 26 Frisbees and more than 100 plastic objects. There were no duplicates, and the objects differed in size, weight, texture, design and material.

She was tested every day, and to be sure she wasn’t ‘cheating’ by getting hints from anyone, every month, she did a ‘blind’ test, where she had to fetch objects in a different room, out of sight of Pilley and her trainers.

Even after Chaser learned more than 1,000 words, there was no decrease in the rate at which she learned new words. Even more impressive, the objects Chaser had learned were organised in a variety of categories in her mind. The objects came in different shapes and sizes, but Chaser could distinguish between objects that were her toys and objects that were non-toys.

Chaser and Rico seemed to be learning words in a way similar to human infants. Dogs infer that a new word belongs to a new toy. Rico and Chaser knew the new word could not refer to their familiar toys since they already had names. That left only a toy without a name as the possible answer.

This process of making inferences is critical to understanding how dogs think. In an experimental game, dogs were shown two cups. Only one cup hid a toy and the dogs were only given one chance to find it. When the experimenter briefly showed the cup where the toy was not hidden, some dogs spontaneously inferred the toy must be in the other cup.

Instead of domestication making our best friends stupid, our relationship with dogs gave them an extraordinary kind of intelligence.

Until recently, science hasn’t taken the genius of dogs very seriously. Dogs’ abilities to learn new words could have been discovered as early as 1928. That year, C.J. Warden and L.H. Warner reported on a German shepherd named Fellow. Fellow was something of a film star, and his most memorable role was saving a child from drowning in the movie Chief of the Pack.

Fellow’s owner contacted the scientists and reported that Fellow had learned almost 400 words, and that he understood “these words in much the same manner as a child under the same circumstances would”. He had raised Fellow almost from birth and talked to him the way you would to a child.

Warden and Warner went to examine the dog. They had his owner give commands from another room, so he would not unwittingly give Fellow any extra cues. They found that Fellow knew at least 68 commands, (some of them helpful to a canine movie star) such as ‘speak’, ‘stand close to the lady’, ‘take a walk around the room’. Others were more impressive, such as ‘go into the other room and get my gloves’.

The scientists concluded that, although Fellow had nowhere near the abilities of a child, more research was needed to understand this type of intelligence in dogs. Unfortunately, this call was not answered until Kaminski undertook her research on Rico in 2004.

In the intervening 75 years, dogs were largely ignored. When scientists began studying animal cognition in the 1970s, they were more interested in our primate relatives. Eventually, enthusiasm extended to other animals, from dolphins to crows. Dogs were mostly left out because they were domesticated, and seen as artificial products of human breeding.

In 1995, I began testing dogs’ intelligence. I discovered that instead of domestication making our best friends stupid, our relationship with dogs gave them an extraordinary kind of intelligence. Almost simultaneously, on the other side of the world, Adam Miklosi conducted a study similar to ours and independently came to the same conclusion.

These studies caused an explosion in the field of dog cognition. Suddenly, people from all sorts of disciplines realised what had been under our noses the whole time – dogs are one of the most important species we can study. Not because they have become soft and complacent compared to their wild cousins, but because they were smart enough to come in from the cold and become part of the family.

This is an edited extract from The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think, published by Penguin, by evolutionary biologist Brian Hare and author Vanessa Woods, both from Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

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