Dog Smart


“I used to think my human was smart, but I now realize he only looks that way.

I know I shouldn’t be anthropomorphic about one I’m particularly fond of.”


Did you ever suspect that dogs often turn out looking like their owners—or the other way round?

…the portly owner of a British bulldog…the old lady with a blue rinse and a coiffed poodle in her arms…the greasy-haired young man in a leather jacket leading a pair of snarling pitbull terriers… Yes they are caricatures, but we have all seen them. And now there’s research to prove an association.

Lance Workman has been collaborating with the British Kennel Club to find out if there is any correlation between dogs and their owners for what psychologists call the “big five” personality traits—openness, conscientiousness, extroversion, agreeableness, and anxiety. After analyzing questionnaires returned by 1,000 pedigree dog owners Workman concluded, “We go for dogs that are a bit like us, just as we go for a romantic partner like us.” The breed predicted its owner’s personality: owners of working dogs were more extroverted, hound owners more emotionally stable, gun dog owners more affable, and toy dog owners were “an open and imaginative bunch.”

It makes sense if our dogs resemble us in some ways because either we chose the dog or it chose us. People domesticated them thousands of years ago because they are smart animals that can share a slice of our emotional lives. We sometimes overestimate them, treating our pets like cute little hairy people. I don’t think it’s wrong to hold that attitude because they are more likely to be the lucky ones showered with love and care from their owners. It is when we underestimate their intelligence and emotions that they are more likely to be treated shabbily. I used to visit an old farmer from New York who contradicted me when I explained the rich emotional life I have with our golden retriever. “It’s only a dog,” he’d say. But I still believe I am nearer the truth because I live closer to the animal.

Of course they have a wide range of abilities and personalities: smart ↔ dumb, placid↔aggressive, et cetera.  Dogs bred for working or hunting are generally at or near the top of the scale, except for poodles (no airheads). We like to be praised for owning a smart dog, as if it reflects on our own brains. It’s safer not to mix compliments like, “For a dumb breed he’s a magnificent specimen,” to a chow chow owner.

Some animal behaviorists used to deny that dogs have much emotional life. That seems ludicrously false to dog owners and is now contradicted by modern research (Ádám Miklósi, Dog Behaviour, Evolution, and Cognition). The controversy now centers on what emotions they can express. Love of their owner, joy at greeting a friendly face, and fear of punishment are all transparent emotions which they never conceal as we sometimes do. Expressions of love almost overwhelm some dogs, like the black lab greeting the soldier returning after six months deployment. If we say that a dog only loves when it is rewarded, is that so very different to the bonding of human hearts by more subtle rewards?

Perhaps the fame of Pavlov’s experiments gave some people the impression that dogs are little more than furry automatons. But we too learn automatic responses to coupled stimuli, including salivation to the sound of a dinner gong like the conditioned reflex in his dogs. Dog training and learning, and a good deal of human education, is owing to associations made between a voluntary behavior and a reward or punishment. The stock example is giving your pet a treat for returning a ball, which psychologists call ‘operant conditioning’.  That’s how working dogs, Grace and other smart dogs are trained to look so brilliant.

A really big brain isn’t needed to express the basic emotions like love, joy, and fear, but it helps build a larger repertoire. I carried out a simple experiment on my three-year-old golden retriever to test her learning ability, but she educated me.

dog intelligence
“Be patient, I’ll figure it out”

Taking advantage of her high motivation for food, I prepared three empty crème brûlée dishes. I wiped the insides with her favorite treat, peanut butter, so she couldn’t tell which concealed the reward. I turned each dish upside down, and stuck a US postage stamp on the one containing the blob of peanut butter. Then I lifted each in turn to show her where it was, and finally switched their positions in her plain sight. The experiment was repeated over and over ending up with different positions.

When I gave the release command she knew there was a reward at stake. We would have gone immediately to the dish labeled with the stamp, but she nosed each dish in turn again and again. Finally she came to the right answer. It is possible that despite my efforts the dish hiding the treat had a stronger odor than controls, but I think her strategy was to check her olfactory bulb first and hippocampus second.

Dogs trust their noses and ears more than their short-term memories which are not as sharp as ours. This is certainly a carry-over over from wolf ancestors, but dogs have a unique stock of behavior and an emotional intelligence that has been molded by domestication. Over the generations the two have been apart, gene expression in the hypothalamus has diverged which might explain differences in emotions and hormonal and autonomic responses.

Of the more complex emotions I’m sure dogs can express jealousy because ours proves it every time we walk together. She protests by jumping and barking when a neighbor’s dog pays me too much attention. Charles Darwin, a dog-lover, had no doubt “that a dog feels shame” (The Descent of Man, 1871). And when dog owners were polled recently, half of them believed their dogs can express grief and guilt. Judging by the viral video of Denver the dog who stole kitty cat treats guilt is written all over his expressive face video. But animal behaviorists look for other explanations, although none are as entertaining as guilt.

There is no doubt that dogs really care what we think of them, and they are amazingly sensitive to our body language. John Bradshaw, who studies dog behavior in Bristol, England, says that “at present, then, there has to be considerable doubt about whether dogs can actually experience an emotion similar to our guilt”. Perhaps we do misinterpret a low wagging tail and avoidance of eye contact, which may be conditioned by their anxiety to please us.

So they may be reacting to our behavior instead of an internal feeling. It is imponderable how much self-awareness a dog has, but perhaps not a great deal. They live very much in the present and we can confuse them by punishment after the fact.

If dogs have weak powers of reasoning and learn mainly by trial and error that doesn’t make them stupid. They have impressive powers of recall and skill retention. Theirs is a different kind of intelligence, and if we make much of the confusion we cause each other by sending misleading signals between the sexes we ought to admit greater misunderstanding of our pets.

Our golden was right. Her expectations of me were too high, because her owner is both smart and stupid. But he is trying to do better.

Next Post: Wings

The Wolf Sharing my Fire

Lilah by firesideThere is something incongruous about the notion that the golden warming herself by our fire is still mostly wolf. It doesn’t fit her doggy nature. But how much shaggy wolf is still inside her remains a moot point.

They are members of the same species, share a common ancestor and have nearly identical DNA. However there have been ~20,000 years of domestication in the making of modern Max and Molly, which offered plenty of generations for molding their behavior and appearance. It really does matter how much wolf still hangs on in dogs because it affects attitudes and how we train them.

We all know what wolves are like, or thought we did, and will never forget the Grimm story of Little Red Riding Hood.

Little Red Riding Hood by Grimm

It is paradoxical that the closest relative of our best friend is one of the most reviled

Little Red Riding Hood
“All the better to see you with” Walter Crane (1845-1915)

creatures, an arch-enemy of farmers and shepherds, and the fount of so many myths and scary stories about blood-thirsty wolves and chimeric werewolves.

Even biologists held hard views about wolf society until recently. The pack was regarded as a hierarchy topped by an alpha male and an alpha female which claimed first rights to a carcass and kept discipline in the lower ranks. Peace was preserved by a mien expressing threats of aggression towards subordinates who responded with submissive gestures. This fierce portrait reminds me of feudal societies in which royals and nobles used to rule vassals by accepting homage in exchange for privilege. So inured are we to old assumptions about these animals that attitudes can resist the challenge of research throwing fresh light on their behavior.

The TV celebrity Cesar Millan evidently bases his dog training program on an outdated picture of wolves (The Dog Whisperer/ Leader of the Pack). If it seems unfair to use him as an example I’m sure he knows that being picked on is the price of winning public attention. He certainly deserves admiration for a talent in handling difficult animals and his endeavors to save and rehabilitate abandoned dogs. But he makes no apology for the conflict between his philosophy and science: “Once your dogs see you as their pack leader, the dog on dog aggression will stop as they stop fighting for dominance because you will be their calm-assertive pack leader.” He believes we must become accepted as leaders of our pets’ “pack.” Since dogs strive for dominance, we must firmly lay down rules and boundaries for them, otherwise we lose control. This disciplinary style has sometimes gotten him into hot water with humane societies, despite so obviously being an animal lover. Nevertheless there is surely a risk that this thinking can be used to justify the harsh and cruel treatment that dogs have suffered down the ages. The victims may not even understand why they are being punished.

Another TV presenter Victoria Stillwell (It’s Me or the Dog) trains dogs in almost the opposite way, as her website name implies, Positively. Her policy is to shower them with love and treats to reward good behavior, which we might call positive reinforcement. According to Victoria most trouble with dogs is their owners’ (our) fault, so we need at least as much education as they do. Sometimes a cameraman on her show catches the expression of a dog looking on “sympathetically” at its owner being grilled by the bossy Englishwoman.

Of the two views, Millan’s is harder to reconcile with the new understanding of wolf society. Extrapolation wolf→dog is becoming blurry.

Gray wolf
Gray wolf. Courtesy US Fish & Wildlife Service

Until recently wildlife researchers had to fall back on zoos for studying these animals. But in captivity packs are loose associations of individuals that seldom share a family history and live in confined spaces. It is not surprising in an artificial environment that animals are anxious and find ways to adapt behavior to avoid injury from those famous fangs. But we have probably misread some of their gestures, like the lowered head which was interpreted as submission to a supposedly superior wolf. This posture is actually an excellent position for grabbing the “boss” by its throat, but perhaps it had a friendly meaning and was cementing a social bond. We can’t be sure.

The new picture of wolf society has emerged from studies under natural conditions by tracking wolves wearing radio-collars and with GPS technology. Blood samples revealed genetic relationships within packs (L. David Mech & Luigi Boitani, Wolves: Behavior, Ecology and Conservation, Univ. Chicago Press). Contrary to impressions of a band of bushwhackers banded together under feudal leaders, a pack turns out to be just a family party. Its members are usually close relatives, and often former cubs that never split away from their parents. Sometimes an animal adopts the solo life, but they benefit from sticking together when there is big game to be had, like moose and bison.

We expect more cooperation than competition within families. Members are more loyal and less aggressive to each other, and the greater harmony boosts success in hunting and breeding and avoids danger and injury. Consequently more genes are contributed to the next generation to shape evolution of the species, as predicted by kin selection theory. Besides, no dominance hierarchies have been found in wolf packs apart from the relationship between Dad, Mom, and their offspring. Nor should we expect to find them in dogs. When they go wild, they never become wolf-like in behavior or jostle to create a hierarchy, although they can form a fractious group. There appears therefore to be no teeth to Cesar Millan’s belief that successful dog training requires us to fill in for the tough alpha wolf depicted in old stories.

If we think we know dogs I suspect that familiarity often blinds us to the marvel and mystery of our furry companions. While their wolf cousins are afraid of us and terrified of fire, dogs are comfortable with both. Sociobiology theory rules out altruism in animals and caring for the welfare of others unless they are genetically related, but there are remarkable examples of untrained dogs that have saved lives at their own risk (see Hero dog drags another dog to safety).

John Bradshaw, a British biologist, explains Dog World by taking us back to the origin of the canine family about five million years ago (Dog Sense, Basic Books). The Swiss Army knife is his metaphor for the genome of “proto-dogs.” Flexibility enabled their descendants to spread across six continents and evolve into many species of jackals, foxes, coyotes, and wolves. Perhaps it was this adaptability, he argues, that made domestication from wolves possible, and the emergence of an animal with greater loyalty and willingness to please us than any other.

I was musing about dogs while Lilah was dozing at my feet and sharing heat from logs on the fire. She opened an eye to check I was still there. It wasn’t an anxious look waiting for instructions from her alpha male: she was only looking at her “dad.”

Next Post: Our Mutual Friend

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