My grandfather was fond of saying that many people had trouble training their dogs because the first requirement for success was that you had to be smarter than the dog. Some new research, reported in the Daily Telegraph, indicates that passing that test might be even harder than he thought.
The research, using techniques originally developed for assessing cognitive development in human children, shows that dogs are able to learn and understand a vocabulary of more than 150 words:
“The average dog is about as bright linguistically as a human two-year-old,” said Professor Stanley Coren, a leading expert on canine intelligence at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver who has carried out the work.
The smartest dogs in the group studied could learn about 250 different words. Having had dogs around for most of my life, this doesn’t really surprise me all that much, even though I was assured as a boy that the dog could only understand your tone of voice, and couldn’t possibly understand words. (I’ve mentioned this phenomenon before.) I doubt many other dog folks will be surprised, either.
The researchers also found that dogs are capable of counting. Once again, the tests used were originally developed for use on (small) people:
By lowering a dog treat behind a screen and then another, the dog would expect to see two dog treats, but if a treat is secretly removed or another one added, the researchers found dogs would stare for longer at the treats when the screen was removed.
The fact that dogs have been associated with humans for so long, and selectively bred, probably accounts for their sensitivity to human expression. If a person points at an object with his finger, for example, a wolf (the dog’s closest wild relative) will look at the person’s hand, but a dog will look where the finger is pointing.
As part of their work, the researchers have attempted to compile a list of the smartest dogs, and those who don’t always have both oars in the water. They suggest that the border collie is the smartest breed, while the Afghan hound brings up the bottom of the list. Predictably, of course, this has provoked a small row among human dog fanciers:
Allan Brooks, an Afghan Hound breeder from Co Durham and international show judge, said: “Afghan hounds are not at all stupid. They have got one hell of a long memory. They can act like a bit of clown and like to cause a riot, but they have got far more brains than a lot of breeds.”
This is probably just a piece of evidence for a new study, which will find that humans, as a species, are far more cantankerous than dogs.