How smart is your dog?

Could clever canines hold the key to understanding Alzheimer's disease?
18 July 2016

Interview with 

Rosalind Arden, London School of Economics


Dogs don't have the brightest reputation, sniffing and eating things they definitelyDog shouldn't, barking at ghosts or getting stuck under cupboards. But is this fair? Dogs actually do a huge range of things many animals struggle with - we heard earlier they are good at recognising human emotions, but also they can remember lots of human words, and can be trained to do all sorts of things. So how smart, really, is your dog? Rosalind Arden, from the London School of Economics has been investigating ways to test dog intelligence, and also how this might provide insights into human disease. She took Kat Arney through her research, with help from special guest Bounder, and her owner Carol.

Kat - So is Bounder an intelligent dog do you think?

Carol - Well out of our three dogs that we've had she's the most intelligent, definitely! She's been easier to train than our last two but she's very driven by food so, if there's food involved, she will probably have a go at doing something but otherwise, perhaps not.

Kat - She's been so good just sitting here very quietly. Can we do a few tricks - let's do just a couple of tricks?

Carol - High five!.

Kat - Oh that's so cute. She's just put both paws up on your hand.

Carol - Lie down, roll over.

Kat - Here we go -  this is great radio! Can we do a noisy one?

Carol - And the last one - speak.

Bounder - Ruff, ruff.

Carol - Oh a bit better.

Bounder - Ruff!

Carol - Oh, well done!

Kat - Excellent. Thank you. So Rosalind would you say that Bounder's an intelligent dog? How do you test intelligence in a dog?

Rosalind - I'm actually feeling slightly shocked. I think Bounder's more intelligent than some of my children. It's rather shocking.

Kat - How would you test that then - how would you test how smart a dog is?

Rosalind - So the key thing is we wanted to find out if dogs vary from one another in intelligence, so we came up with a few different tests that we could administer to a group of dogs. And we used something called a detour test, can a dog find some food that it can see that's hidden behind a barrier. Can a dog discriminate between two different quantities and we assume that when it comes to food and dogs, more equals better, and then can a dog follow a human making a pointing gesture and go to a bowl which has got a treat in it where the human's pointing at that bowl.

Kat - Right, so we have two bowls here and we have a dog so let's do this test. So we've broken the biscuits. We've got a biscuit in each of these two small bowls; they're going on the floor...

Rosalind - Take her back a bit.

Kat - Okay, right.

Rosalind - Now sit. Take her back a bit.

Kat - OK. We're trying to make sure she goes to one of these bowls...

Rosalind - Oh Bounder, that's astounding!

Kat - Very good dog!. So Bounder has gone to the bowl you were pointing at even though there was a biscuit in the other bowl. What does that show?

Rosalind - Exactly. So in front of me on the floor there were two bowls each with a treat in -the same size treat - and I pointed at one of the bowls only. And Bounder looked at me and she recognised that I wanted her to go the bowl that I was pointing at and she just immediately went there. So we know one thing will tell you whether a dog is intelligent or less bright but if you do lots of general tests you can get a sense of whether or not the dog is... as Carol said - trainable.

Kat - And what can this actually tell us studying dogs intelligence, working out what they know, how they think about the world? I mean, obviously, dogs are cool and awesome, but what use is this kind of research?

Rosalind - Absolutely, a very good question. So it's not just having fun with dogs and treats although that's a marvellous way to spend your life. We were interested partly because dogs, unlike many other mammals, they get dementia like we do, and their brain changes are very much like our brain changes when our brain's get dementia as we age and develop that disease, and so we wanted to find out if there's a way of measuring changes in dog's cognition. If you could measure what a dog's like when it's young and healthy, it would be a terrific way to be able to measure that change as it goes through life and then see if there's some deficit as the dog gets older, and maybe dogs can help us understand dementia and that's really what we're driving at in the future.

Kat - So from your experiments - what's dog intelligence like? I mean there's all these discussions about what human intelligence and cognition is like. What do we know about how dogs think?

Rosalind - That's a good question. So what we were looking at is: is a dog that catches on quickly at one task likely to catch on quickly at a completely different task? So we don't compare dogs with people or dogs with chimpanzees or other kinds of primates. We say, given that you're a dog, the kinds of things that you can do - say find your way round a barrier, navigate through space, discriminate between quantities - is your likelihood of being good at one of those things going to predict, to some extent, your likelihood of being good at another of them. So what we're really getting at here is the fact that with people - if you ask any teacher they'll agree with this - that a big classroom full of children, there will be some kids who just catch onto everything a bit more quickly than others. Now we wanted to know is that also true in dogs? Can we sort of give them a rank order in how quickly they apprehend something?

Kat - And so are there doggie Einstein's out there like genius dog -  got it?

Rosalind - There really likely are. It seems most likely, from what we know currently, that dog's intelligence is distributed somewhat like ours. That most of us are kind of in the middle, and some of us are really, really smart - that's you Bounder - and some of us are a bit less than average.

Kat - And if you just had one tip for people (dog owners) to train their dog, to make it behave a bit better, or do tricks or do what they want it to do, is there sort of one top tip that you've got?

Rosalind - Be consistent!. It's really easy to just give in and do whatever, but be consistent. And when the dog does the thing that you want it to do - if it's come for example (the recall) -  never tell a dog off when it comes to you.

Kat - And in terms of dogs, do we understand from their brains, very briefly, why they are so smart?

Rosalind - We think it's probably because they have co-evolved with us. They've been our partners for maybe 30,000 years and so they've learnt to read our signals, to read our emotions, and to take account of our voice, and so we're very much partners with dogs.

Kat - That is a wonderful thing. Do you have a dog.

Rosalind - Yes, a border collie called Jenny but she's living with a friend at the moment.

Kat - Is she a smart dog?

Rosalind - Of course she is!


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