How smart is the average pet dog?

Can you teach an old dog new tricks?
19 September 2017





Science has attempted to try and measure the intelligence of other primates, dolphins, birds and many other species of animals. My question is: how does your average, ordinary pet dog measure up in comparison?


This week, Stevie Bain has a ‘ruff answer to this “poochy pondering” from David. We asked Ben Ambridge from the University of Liverpool and author of “Are You Smarter Than a Chimpanzee” what he thought…

Ben - It’s not that difficult to come up with a test that you can give in more or less the same form to a handful of different species. There are plenty of studies comparing humans to chimpanzees, to pigeons, to squirrels, and so on. But it’s impossible to come up with a test that will work across all species, firstly for boring practical reasons, so you can’t get a fish, for example, to swim out of tank and press a lever. But more fundamentally because it’s not clear if intelligence means the same thing across different species.

Stevie - Yes, I cam imagine a game of chess between a squirrel and a sheep may not be very informative…

Ben - So instead, what scientists generally do is to try infer intelligence based on brain size or brain weight. About the best measure we’ve come up with is called the encephalisation quotient which essentially measure whether the brain size is bigger or heavier than you’d expect given the overall size of the species. This doesn’t work perfectly but it gives pretty much the results you’d expect.

So humans come top of the table with a score of 7; dolphins are second with about 5; chimpanzees are just over 2; monkeys and whales are just under 2. And on this measure dogs are actually pretty mid table; they score about 1.2. So, to put that in context they’re just above cats, horses and sheep, for example, who score 1 or just under, but they’re just below foxes and elephants.

Stevie - Hmm. So not a particularly impressive score for man’s best friend. In fact, our domesticated pooches even score lower than their wild relatives - the wolves.

Ben - So dogs in general might not be particularly special, but that’s not to say that dogs in particular can’t do some pretty impressive stuff. For example, in my book I took a border collie, called Chaser, who managed to learn over 1,000 different words, albeit with some pretty extensive training. In particular, those breeds that have been bred specifically for intelligence can be pretty smart.

Stevie - So it turns out you may be able to “teach an old dog new tricks” but if you think that fido has a higher I.Q., you’re “barking up the wrong tree.”

Thanks Ben for putting that one to rest.

Next week; we’re cooking up an answer to this question from Zetty:

When you cook food with wine, brandy, or indeed any alcohol, how much, if any, percentage of alcohol stays behind? Also, what would its effect be on an alcoholic?


Add a comment