Dogs Are Not Exceptional

I’m just not sure I buy the premise of this opening. Who actually thinks their dog is a genius? A genius “for a dog” maybe, but a genius? Strawman maybe?

If you are convinced your dog is a genius, you may be disappointed in the conclusions of a study just published in the journal Learning and Behavior .The study finds that dogs are cognitively quite ordinary when compared to other carnivores, domestic animals, and social hunters. “There is no current case for canine exceptionalism,” the authors conclude.

That we think otherwise is not surprising. Claims of canine exceptionalism abound, from people’s anecdotes about their dogs’ ability to read their minds (“Sparky looked into my eyes and then at the refrigerator—he knew I wanted a beer!”), to books with titles such as My Dog is a Genius: How to Improve your Dog’s Intelligence, to a canine intelligence test that will let you “find the genius in your dog.”

The great increase in the study of dog cognition in the current century has yielded insights into canine cognition in a variety of domains. In this review, we seek to place our enhanced understanding of canine cognition into context. We argue that in order to assess dog cognition, we need to regard dogs from three different perspectives: phylogenetically, as carnivoran and specifically a canid; ecologically, as social, cursorial hunters; and anthropogenically, as a domestic animal. A principled understanding of canine cognition should therefore involve comparing dogs’ cognition with that of other carnivorans, other social hunters, and other domestic animals. This paper contrasts dog cognition with what is known about cognition in species that fit into these three categories, with a particular emphasis on wolves, cats, spotted hyenas, chimpanzees, dolphins, horses, and pigeons. We cover sensory cognition, physical cognition, spatial cognition, social cognition, and self-awareness. Although the comparisons are incomplete, because of the limited range of studies of some of the other relevant species, we conclude that dog cognition is influenced by the membership of all three of these groups, and taking all three groups into account, dog cognition does not look exceptional.

  • Except for a claim of episodic-like memory, we have no firm evidence of self-consciousness in dogs, either from analogues of the Gallop mark test or from tests of mental time travel. The same is true of other carnivorans and domestic animals, but two social hunters, chimpanzees and dolphins, have reliably shown such evidence.

Now that is interesting. They are referring to this:

Very few species have passed the MSR test. As of 2016, only great apes (including humans), a single Asiatic elephant, dolphins, orcas, and the Eurasian magpiehave passed the MSR test. A wide range of species have been reported to fail the test, including several species of monkey, giant pandas, sea lions, and dogs.[4][5]

Of note, humans pass the test reliably, in case you were wondering. It appears we have self-consciousness.


This surprised me as well.

I can say that on the typical farm, the smartest animal is not the dog. It is the hog. By miles.

I say that as a former cattle, hog, and sheep farmer who also had some very clever dogs. But none had the problem solving abilities of a hog.

Don’t even get me started on the intellectual shortcomings of a typical sheep.


I don’t know about dogs, but cats certainly are a bunch of narcissistic geniuses. :joy:

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I will second this one. We once had a pig that could open gates. That was a pain.

Add holsteins to the list.


As to pig intellectuals:

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My dogs are mega dumb, but I love them anyway.


Wwre dogs in on the study as part of diversity research policies? just kidding.
I agree all animals are intellectually the same and this irrelevant compared to people.
No creatures are smarter then others. i think they just use their memory in different ways.
any dog I knew was reflective and thinking of the future. They think like people but not being made in Gods image they have no motivation to use their memory as we do. i’m not sure they have inferior memory.
however we think with our soul/heart which is why we are all brilliant.
I’m sure my , now dead. dog was smarter then any pig/hog. Creationist too.
No primates were smarter.,

I disagree. I would say that my dog is smarter than an amoeba. Though not by much.

Like the old saying goes…

Dogs have owners. Cats have staff. :smiley:


It’s an illusion, I tell you!


That last sentence with the word “self-consciousness” is a great example of the kinds of difficulties Bible translators face—and why machine translation software often gets confused in such a context. (Is “self-consciousness” about having a consciousness about and recognition of the self or is it the trait of being socially awkward and “self-conscious”?)


I always remember, back in the 90s, putting our church’s sermon’s on the Book of Job up on the internet, and discovering Google Translate. I couldn’t resist the vainglory of seeing my own sermon written in French - and found Google had translated “Job” as “Métier” throughout.


That’s a great translation anecdote, Jon! I’m going to remember that one.

It’s also a great example of pronunciation ambiguities which ESL (English as a Second Language) students have to grasp. If the word starts with a capital letter, they must know that it is a proper noun (a person’s name in the case of “Job”) and pronounce the vowel as a long-O. If the word doesn’t start with a capital letter (a “job”, as in employment), they must pronounce the vowel as a short-O. Yet, there are many other proper nouns where the vowel doesn’t change: “chip” can be a fragment from a piece of wood or stone, but “Chip” is pronounced exactly the same but refers to a person, usually (but not always) a boy or young man. [I’ve rarely talked to a man in his eighties who goes by the name “Chip”. However, Chip Davis of Mannheim Steamroller, will probably be one of those rare exceptions in a few years. The name “Chip” is usually associated with the Baby Boomer generation.]

Meanwhile, back at the dogs…

Nobody seems to have remarked that we’ve been breeding dogs for centuries to behave like puppies, look nice, and not hunt the children. Genetically they’re a travesty of what they were as wolves.

So the question should really be how wolves compare to other animals (and how dogs compare to wolves).

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