Introduction to Canine Cognition
Raising Puppy Loki was difficult. He had (indeed, still has) what I call “ninja” skills. He had a knack for getting things off shelves without me noticing…until it was too late. I needed a way to prevent this.
(Note: This was before I had learned a whole lot about dog training. I would do things so much differently now. So don’t try this at home.)
Utilizing my much bigger brain, I realized that if I put things in front of the forbidden things, then they would act as decoys. That would enable me catch him before he actually stole the more valuable item.
Lo and behold, it worked!
Out of the corner of my eye, I would see Puppy Loki snatch the decoy and prance off with it. I then chased him down and asked for a “drop it”. (Note: He really liked the chasing part. See a problem here?) Once I retrieved the decoy, I replaced it for the next round, which was sure to come.
I don’t know how many times we did this. I was happy with the way things were going. And, truth be told, I confess I was also a bit proud of the way I outfoxed him.
But then, the pattern suddenly changed.
One day (as usual), Loki snagged the decoy and took off with it. I chased him. But, before I could reach him (about halfway usually), he dropped it and trotted away. I continued and picked up the item, not even noticing the change in the pattern.
As I turned around to replace the decoy, I saw Loki over at the shelf with the now-unprotected valuable! Yes, he grabbed it, and away he went. Once again, the chase was on. (Note: Still see a problem here?)
For better or worse, the game had changed…for good. This became the norm until I decided to finally put everything out of reach that he was not supposed to have.
I admit that I was extremely frustrated with my boy. But a part of me was also quite proud. He had learned how to use the decoy against me in order to get what he wanted. Does this mean that Puppy Loki was smart, because he was able to pull one over on me? Or was he…um… “less-than-smart” because he wasn’t able to learn to leave things alone?
When we ask whether our canine companions are “smart” we’re really asking a couple of things. First, does my dog have a high IQ (because that’s what we think of when we think of smart)? And second, does my dog have the ability to figure things out?
What is Intelligence?
Intelligence is relative to species. Ultimately, intelligence is the ability to adapt and survive in whatever environment the individual finds itself. So, it’s no surprise that there is a high correlation between IQ scores and success in the human world.
For example, let’s ask: How intelligent am I?
Well, that depends on where I find myself. My natural surrounding is a moderate-sized city. In this environment, my vehicle gets me to and from places. I have easy access to groceries. The roof over my head is stable. I have internet, so if I need to look something up, I can. I am a bookworm, have a lot of books, and learn a lot from them. This is an environment to which I’ve adapted well and can thrive.
But what if I were suddenly transplanted to England in 1325 BCE? I would surely be a peasant, who would have to work the land. Unfortunately, I know nothing of gardening, hunting, or foraging. I have a terrible sense of direction. I don’t know how to start a fire from scratch. I wonder how well I would adapt? In that environment, I would probably only be able to get a job as the village idiot.
Sometimes, I think my dogs are convinced that I really am the village idiot. Quite frankly, if my IQ score were measured according to the standards of the dog world, they would be right. But luckily for me, they tolerate me while I bounce around on all fours with them on the ground, not knowing what I’m doing.
So, if you are wondering whether your dog has a high intelligence, please do not hold them to human standards. Consider who your dogs are and the world they live in each and every day. Consider that they are color blind, but their noses are forty times stronger than ours. Consider that they have to navigate through a human-dominated world, over which they have little control. Overall, I think dogs are quite intelligent, with some being above average and others being below average, depending on how well they learn to survive in the systems they live.
What is Canine Cognition?
For better or worse, it appears that intelligence–as a measure of our potential to learn and adapt–doesn’t change. But cognition is different. It’s how we process information. This is something we can strengthen for ourselves. So too for our dogs.
It’s often difficult to understand the difference between intelligence and cognition, because they are similar and entwined, but also separate.
Think of it this way. If we represent intelligence with a glass of water, we see two things: the glass that limits the amount of water, and the water that is in the glass for use. Cognition, then, would be how we get the water into the glass in the first place.
Brian Hare, author of The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter Than You Think, is the researcher behind Dognition. They have a series of tests to measure how dogs process various forms of information. His goal is to help human companions understand their canine companions better. The Dognition Assessment identifies five core cognitive dimensions:
As a human, it’s easy to assume communication should be primarily verbal. But with dogs, body language is more important. How well does your dog recognize what you are saying through your body language? What about that of other dogs? Does your dog know what you mean when you point?
Just as with people, memory is an important part of daily functioning. Dogs remember good experiences, and they remember the bad ones. They remember where things are. They remember what happens in certain environments. They remember the cues that their human companions have taught them. Just like people, they have both a long-term and a short-term memory.
I like to think of this as “problem-solving”. When dogs are using their reason, they are trying to figure out how to navigate the world in a way that works for them. Do you know any dogs who have figured out how to use the door handle to get out of the house? Do you know any dogs who realize that if they go around the fence they can reach the toy on the other side?
This is a tough one. Can your dog really feel what you feel? Unfortunately, it’s hard to tell, but there are indicators that some might. By looking at the phenomenon of “emotional contagion,” it appears that some dogs can adopt emotions being displayed by humans.
This is my favorite. This is the dog’s ability to work the system and come out on top. Does your dog sneak off with food when you aren’t looking? Does your dog have this uncanny ability to do things that get you to do what they want? Cunning can be a double-edged sword. Having a dog who is cunning can prove to be a handful. (Believe me. I live with Loki.)
How Does This Affect How I See My Dog?
Remember that your canine companion is an individual. Breed has an effect on who a dog is, as does pedigree. Experiences are important, too. Each dog has a history that informs them as they move forward with their life. All of that leads to a unique blend that makes up the wonderful dog sitting before you.
If your dog has trouble remembering cues, that may simply mean that you need to spend a little more time with them. It doesn’t mean that your dog is dumb. It just means that your dog may need work strengthening their ability to remember.
On the other hand, if your dog is generally well behaved and doesn’t get into trouble, but will steal food after you leave the room, maybe it just means that your dog has a higher cunning than many. That’s not such a bad thing. If (heaven forbid) for some reason that your dog ever gets lost, it can help with survival. Maybe, rather than getting upset, it might be a good idea nurture this trait by finding ways for your dog to express that more productively (and manage your own behavior to avoid unproductive expressions from happening).
Accept your best friend for who they are, don’t judge them according to what you see in others, and grow closer together as you learn about each other. For what it’s worth, I think that’s smart doggy parenting.
Learn How to Leverage How Your Dog Learns
Dog training has changed so much over the last decade. We’ve learned more about how dogs process information and learn. The more you understand that dynamic, the better you will be able to communicate what you want to your dog and draw out the desired response.
If you would like to learn more, I highly recommend my Canine Coaching Course. Unlike standard dog-training classes, the emphasis is on you learning the concepts, principles, and techniques of modern, science-based dog training. Overall, you learn an entire system that you can use the rest of your dog’s life.
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Hi! I’m Bo McGuffee, owner of Puppy Tutor Dog Training. My mission is to make human dog training accessible and affordable. If you are looking for an alternative to the more aggressive training styles out there, then you’ve found the perfect dog trainer for you and your dog.