If you have a pet dog, you might think Rover is bright, and you’d be right. The average dog has the intelligence of a 2-year-old human, and the most brilliant pooch is as smart as a 3-year-old, according to Stanley Coren, PhD.
Coren, of the University of British Columbia, said dogs’ intelligence can be measured in three ways: Language comprehension (how many words do they know?), adaptive intelligence (how long does it take for a dog to escape from under a towel?) and obedience intelligence (can they learn the tricks that impress their masters?).
“If the dog passes the test, then we have a valid indication that the dog has that particular ability,” Coren said in a popular session Friday called “Smarter Than You Think: Understanding the Mind of a Dog.” “But also, it allows us to convert those scores into a mental age. We can compare how the dog is performing relative to kids.” The 2-year-old comparison, he said, means the average dog can understand about 165 words, signs and signals. The “super dogs,” or canine prodigies, know more than 250 words and are no swifter mentally than a 3-year-old child.
Chaser, a border collie who knows more than 1,000 words, is one such super dog, Coren said. She can easily pick out a familiar stuffed animal from a pile of toys. More remarkably, she can pick out a strange toy by ruling out the ones she knows — and, about half the time, retain that new word for about four weeks. “The important thing is not the number of words she learns, but how she learns them,” Coren said.
It’s no coincidence that Chaser is a border collie. In a survey of 208 dog obedience judges across the United States and Canada, Coren found that the breed was consistently highly ranked for smartness. In fact, 199 of the judges put them in the top 10. Herding dogs and retrievers — including poodles — also tended to be teachers’ pets, he found. “Yes, the poodle is a retriever,” Coren said. “He didn’t ask for that stupid hair cut.”
There are several ways dogs can learn, including by imitating other dogs, Coren said. Saint Bernards that rescue people trapped in snow, for example, learn by trailing the expert dogs on missions. Domestic dogs learn from their more established household mates, too. “If you bring a new [dog] into the home, the young one learns the routine in a fraction of the time,” Coren said.
Watch a video Coren showed of a puppy learning from older dog how to go down some stairs.
Dogs can mimic humans as well. This can be a good thing when finding the way to a toy, for example, but a bad thing when learning how to open a door, or just a funny thing when grooving to music.
Watch a video Coren showed of a dog dancing like his master.
But dogs’ intelligence has its limits. Like people, some are dimwits. “Humans are smarter than cows, but I’m sure there’s some people where you have your doubts,” Coren said. There’s variation between and within breeds, and even smartest dogs have a scant emotional repertoire — they only experience the most basic feelings, he said.
Coren’s work is helpful because most people aren’t dog experts, but they have interacted with human toddlers. “We can take that information from just simply living our lives and we have a first approximation to understanding and predicting a dog’s behavior,” he said. “And that’s why it’s not just a game. It’s a practically applied trick and practically applied technique.”