Are dogs the smartest mammals?

Our dogs can sometimes amaze us. Sure, we train them as puppies to follow typical commands and to behave in certain ways, which makes us proud pet parents when they get it. But sometimes they seem to go off script and behave in surprisingly intelligent ways or connect with us on an emotional level that indicates a deep relationship. For example, have you ever yawned and shortly afterward your dog yawns, too? Or how about the times when you feel like you really need a hug and your dog comes up and snuggles you?

In the smarts department, the average dog is capable of learning 165 words. That seems impressive unless your dog is a border collie named Chaser. In 2004, Chaser displayed a knowledge of 1,022 words, a feat that took his owner three years to establish through naming Chaser’s extensive collection of toys. Check out this video to see Chaser in action.

But what about more complex interactions, like when you accidentally step on your pup’s paw or tail? Do they actually know you didn’t mean to hurt them? A new study seems to support the fact that dogs can distinguish between intentional and unintentional action. In the study, researchers created a scenario where they intentionally held treats or accidentally dropped them to see how the dogs would react. What they found is that dogs reacted differently depending on the condition.

The more socialized a dog is, the better able they are to react to communicative cues in humans. Not only do they pay close attention to where we look or point, they’re also assessing how humans interact with each other, which means they can understand, to some degree, human perspectives. But to really unlock your pup’s cognitive abilities, realizing that a majority of their experiences are scent-based can be a big help. Dr. Alexandra Horowitz and Dr. Charlotte Duranton from the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College, Columbia University, published their findings from a study in a paper called “Let me sniff! Nosework induces positive judgement bias in pet dogs.” The highlights from their study show that practicing “nosework” (a dog sport used to mimic professional detection, aka scent work or scent detection) allows dogs to express natural behavior and be more autonomous, increase their optimism and their overall animal welfare.

 
Our dogs are empathetic and smart, but are there other animals equally or more impressive when it comes to intelligence? Check out the brains on these animals.

Crows

By some accounts, crows are intelligent as a seven-year-old human. They’ve been known to use traffic to help the open nuts and have even solved puzzles. One study on six wild crows investigated causal relationships. Scientists developed a series of tasks for the crows to manage, including one where the crows gained access to water in a pitcher by placing rocks in it until the water rose to a reachable level.

Crows can remember human faces and hold grudges against us, should we do something they perceive as a threat. They have the vocal capacity to tell other crows how threatening someone is. A 2019 BBC article found that crows might be smarter than some primates. Scientists at Oxford University studies a crow they named Betty and found that it was able to take a piece of wire, bend it so that it had a hooked tail and use it as a tool to gain access to a container of meat. Other evidence suggests that this type of tool-making behavior has been witnessed in crows in the wild quite extensively. 

Pigs
If you have known or heard of someone living with a domesticated pig and thought they’re crazy – think again. Bacon lovers are going to hate hearing this, but pigs are sentient beings that are capable of experiencing loneliness, frustration and joy. One researcher at Purdue found that pigs are fast learners and pick up “novel things quite quickly and quite well.” They can also display dog-like behavior, like when they are greeted by one of their family members, they will let out a happy squeal and roll over so they can receive a belly rub.

An article in Psychology Today addresses a study on pigs’ cognition, emotion and personality and found that they are “cognitively complex” and share traits with other animals that are considered intelligent. “They understand the use of pointing and other indicating actions by humans,” one researcher said.

Elephants

An elephant’s brain is roughly three times larger than a human brain. Considering that the average human weighs less than 2 percent of that of an African elephant, the size of the brain might seem a little trivial, but consider that elephants are known for their exceptional memories, empathy and expressing emotion. In 2012, an Asian elephant named Koshik matched the voice pitch of his Korean trainers and could be heard saying five words in Korean. While it’s not believed Koshik understood what the words meant, it is considered his way of bonding with his trainers.

They have been recorded “mourning” their deceased family and heard members, rocking back and forth, pushing at deceased elephants and later smelling and carrying their bones. A conservation biologist said in a National Geographic article that this behavior is “not based on survival or necessity, but based on some sort of emotion.”

Dolphins
Another big-brained mammal is the dolphin, which is actually in line with the brain-to-body ratio of humans. They communicate through a series of clicks and whistles and via body language. What’s interesting about the brains of dolphins is that they contain spindle neurons, which are associated with skills such as communication, reasoning, recognition, remembering and problem-solving. It’s not uncommon for lone dolphins to get incredibly close to human swimmers. There are tales of this happening around the globe – dolphins swimming under humans, jumping over them and taking belly rubs (which is not a recommended act). A dolphin in Ireland named Fungie by locals has drawn tourists to the town of Dingle for three decades, apparently living alone in the harbor and frequently interacting with humans.

If play is an expression of intelligence, dolphins certainly have it. Researchers have witnessed dolphins swimming in pods, doing back flips, leaping and tumbling, and believe this is behavior associated with pure social enjoyment. They’ve also witnessed them nudging other dolphins – a sign that one wants to play – at which point they will take to a game of high-speed pursuit and maybe even play catch with a sea turtle, fish or other food source.

At PetSoothe, we’re also focused on animal welfare – particularly the welfare of your dog. Our line of CBD dog treats is built on a recipe to help support animal health. Let us know what kind of blogs you’d like to see next and keep an eye out for new products from PetSoothe.  

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