I know I'm biased, but I think my dog is brilliant. I've been bringing home animals all my life — from parakeets to ducks, cats to horses. But of all my feathered and furry pets, it's no contest: Dogs are by far the brainiest. They are quick learners and great communicators with an incredible ability to solve problems.
But a new paper in the journal Learning & Behavior finds dog intelligence is "not exceptional."
Although animal smarts have long been the subject of scientific research, recently there's been a lot of focus on canine cognition. And that's what triggered Stephen Lea, professor emeritus at the University of Exeter, to take a closer look. He was editor of the journal Animal Behavior, where he saw so many papers dealing with the mental abilities of dogs.
"Through the process of working as an editor [and] seeing all this research, I definitely got a sense that we as a collective had gotten a bit overexcited about dog intelligence," Lea told Popular Science.
History of studying dog smarts
Dogs and their brains have been studied for centuries (remember Pavlov and his bell?), but then were pushed aside for more popular studies with primates and other species. It wasn't until the 1990s when dogs came back into focus. Lea wondered whether humans were giving dogs too much credit.
Lea and his coauthor, Britta Osthaus of Canterbury Christ Church University, studied more than 300 papers on the intelligence of dogs and other animals. They looked at research that covered three groups: carnivorans (another name for carnivores), social hunters and domesticated animals. Dogs fall into all three groups.
They discovered that when it comes to brainpower, dogs don't particularly excel in any of the groups. There were species in each that were on par with or better than dogs in cognition comparisons. Raccoons, for example, seem to solve puzzles more easily, and hyenas seem to follow the cues of their pack more handily.
"Taking all three groups (domestic animals, social hunters and carnivorans) into account, dog cognition does not look exceptional," said Osthaus in a statement. "We are doing dogs no favor by expecting too much of them. Dogs are dogs, and we need to take their needs and true abilities into account when considering how we treat them."
Dogs do, however, stand out from their smart counterparts because they perform well in all three categories.
"Every species has unique intelligence," Lea told Popular Science. "Their intelligence is what you would expect of an animal that is ... recently descended from social hunters ... that are carnivores and that have [also] been domesticated ...There's no other animal that fits all three of those criteria."
Sounds pretty brilliant to me.