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

Bee Intelligent

I remember a biology lesson when our schoolteacher laid out a row of pickled brains.  The lids of some jars were leaking formaldehyde vapor into the classroom, an irritating odor that I had to get used to after I started working along the corridor from the anatomy dissecting room at the Edinburgh Medical School.  But that day we only saw brains from a sheep, rabbit, dog, and mouse, and nothing as mesmerizing as a human brain or as minute as a bee’s.

Honey bee brain
Honey bee brain

The class was asked to place the brains in order from the smartest to the dumbest. Everyone voted for dogs at the top spot, even though their brains are only half the size of a sheep’s. Dogs are quick learners and can round up a stupid flock: it’s never the other way round!  Evidently a larger brain is not always gain.

One of my classmates piped up trying to impress our teacher, “Sir, isn’t intelligence hard to define and measure?”

“Not at all…”, he replied.

I can’t remember now the definition he gave except it was so anthropocentric I found it hard to relate to animals. And he believed the only reliable way to measure intelligence was using an I.Q. test. In those days, boys were still slightly in awe of teachers so no one dared ask the impertinent question: what does an I.Q. test for a Border Collie look like?

After graduating from high school, the boy who asked the question went on to a roaring success, as we expected, but not all the bright students who performed well in examinations in our boys’ school fared as well at college or afterwards. I wondered why. Now I know there’s more than one kind of intelligence – at least nine, so they say, but I shall add another. My classmate was right after all – intelligence isn’t simple, and sometimes “simple” is smart.

Our species doesn’t always get straight A’s in tests: sometimes animals are streaks ahead of us. Chimpanzees have better short-term memories for numbers and their positions on a screen test, and my Golden Retriever beats me in emotional intelligence (call it what you will). Like others of her kind she has an amazing ability to anticipate my actions even before they come into my mind, presumably having learned subtle cues of which I am unconscious before, say, taking her for a walk or feeding her. Owning a pet gave me more respect for animals than anything I ever learned in a biology class.

Bees too are intelligent – really? A honey bee “brain” is merely a string of ganglia containing fewer than a million nerve cells. The average canine brain contains thousands of times more cells. But many people claim that bees are intelligent, and as a new beekeeper they certainly fill me with awe. I wonder what my classmate would think now: would he say their nervous system is capable of anything more than instinctive behavior?

Routine inspection
Routine inspection

When a guard bee attacks my bee-suit like a kamikaze pilot while I am inspecting its hive, it is obeying an instinct that has been honed during millions of years of evolution. Since it didn’t have to learn this behavior I can’t call it “intelligent” any more than a military drone, except when there’s a human controller behind it. To call bees smart there must be evidence that they can learn from experience, and they can – collectively. They have a social intelligence based on the thousands of workers, a few hundred drones, and the single queen in a colony. I like to compare a colony with a body in which all the necessary functions for health and survival are divided between organs – brain, heart, liver, et cetera. In a hive or swarm, the responsibilities are split between guards, nurses, foragers, and an egg-layer.

If you watch an active hive you will soon be impressed by its orderly life, like a healthy body at work. Such smooth running requires a lot of communication through smell, touch, and sight, of which the most famous example is the waggle dance. Bees returning from foraging for food pass information to others by “dancing” for them, which is a kind of sign language conveying information about the direction, distance, and even the quality of a source of nectar or pollen.  This behavior increases foraging efficiency for the whole colony which would otherwise have to search randomly for food. And when bees go out again to forage a cognitive map in their tiny brain remembers where the good stuff can be found, and the best time of day to go. As impressed as I am with my smart phone, no manufactured mobile device I will ever own will be as clever.

The latest buzz is that bees can use the waggle dance as coded information to advise the colony where to relocate. When accommodation in a hive or a natural nest has been fully occupied the colony swarms to search for a new home, taking lots of honey with them. This is a beekeeper’s nightmare at this time of year after we recently celebrated the survival of our hives through the winter.

Checking for queen cells (peanut-shaped cells at base of frame) before "splitting" a hive to discourage  swarming
Checking for queen cells (peanut-shaped cells at base of frame) before “splitting” a hive to discourage swarming

Tom Seeley of Cornell University wondered how a swarm decides where to hive off to.  He chose for his study an island several miles offshore from Boston where there were no existing bee colonies or natural nest sites (no trees). His research team marked hundreds of bees with a colored ink spot on the thorax so the peregrinations of scouts from several swarms could be traced around the island. Then he set up hives, but some of them were much more hospitable sites than others.

Scout bees, being the oldest and “wisest” workers, searched for nest sites all over the island. When they returned they started dancing a coded message for the swarm, but how did it decide which scout had found the best home for them? The researchers noticed that the scouts that danced the longest were proposing the best quality nest sites, and they almost always rendered honest advice.  The colony reached its decision where to nest by vox populi or “interviewing” all the scouts: it seems an incredible blow to our pride that bees invented democracy millions of years ahead of us. The upshot of the study was that 19 times out of 20 they wisely chose the best site.

Swarm intelligence enables honey bees to make the life-or-death decision of finding a home that is safe from critters and the elements. So bees are bright. A swarm weighs about the same as a human brain, but humans can be rather lacking in collective intelligence, and often in trying to make a decision our judgment is poor and we create chaos and strife.

Next Post: Drive and Text, and Let Die

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