Are Dogs Really Smarter Than Chimps?

Canine Smarts or Self-Emergent Behavior?

Originally published in different form on October 26, 2011 at

"Hello, Doggie!"

In recent years researchers in the field of what I like to call dognitive science seem to have made some tremendous insights into canine intelligence and cognition, some of them real, some imaginary, but all very interesting nonetheless.

Dogs are amazing animals. They have an ability to read us like no other species can. Sometimes they know more about us than we know about ourselves. According to research done by primatologist Brian Hare, dogs also score higher on certain so-called “mind-reading” tests than wolves and chimpanzees, where the goal is to see which animal can more reliably follow a visual cue given when a human being points at or even looks toward a prey object (meaning a treat or a toy). [1]

Dogs can learn to do this quite easily. According to Hare’s research chimps and wolves reportedly can’t. To some people this indicates that dogs may have a first level Theory of Mind while chimps and wolves probably don't.

Theory of Mind? What does that mean?

If you and I were standing or sitting across from each other and I pointed at something behind you, you would either look to see what was back there or ask, “What is it?” That’s because we both know you don’t have “eyes in the back of your head.” The conclusion that Hare and others seem to have come to in recent years is that your dog has pretty much the same capacity to know what others are capable of seeing, while our closest cousins, chimpanzees, don’t. This has been popularized in the media with the banners “Dogs Are Smarter Than Chimps!” or “Dogs Are Smarter Than Wolves!” even though a dog’s brain is two-thirds the size of a wolf’s, and less than half the size of a chimp’s!

Brains of Chimps, Dogs, Humans & Dolphins

(Note: a dolphin's brain has the most folds.)

So where does all this amazing canine brain power come from?

How Wolves Hunt

I believe it comes partially from the way wolves hunt together, as a cooperative social unit, targeting animals that are 10 to 20 times their size. It also comes from the ways that dogs have interacted with humans for at least 44,000 years. But oddly enough, it’s the wolf connection that may be the most important. That’s because unlike solitary predators, who only have to focus on a) their own movements, b) the movements of their prey, and c) the changes in terrain, wolves need to focus on a whole set of added variables: d) the movement of their pack mates. This is why wolves (and other canids who occasionally hunt in packs) are smarter than other land predators. Dogs may have inherited this behavioral tendency when their ancestors began hunting with humans more than 40,000 years ago.

As for why dogs can sometimes seem smarter than chimpanzees, this may also relate to the hunting style of our dog’s ancestors. Chimps are omnivorous, meaning they eat both meat and vegetable tissue, though meat makes up only 10% of their diet. Like wolves, chimps will sometimes hunt together, as a group; the difference is that for wolves, the meat of large mammals makes up 90% of their diet, plus, chimps aren’t capable of hunting and killing animals 10 to 20 times their size the way wolf packs are. Meanwhile, the difference between wolves and other canids—such as coyotes, dingoes, jackals, foxes, and dogs—is that, except in rare cases, wolves always hunt large prey while other canids do so either occasionally or not at all.

When a group of wolves goes in search of prey and they find their target they usually approach slowly. If their target is a herd of elk, deer or bison, they try get the herd moving so they can cull the weakest (most vulnerable) member from the herd; if their target is a single moose they do the same, but without the need for culling. In either case, once the herd or lone moose is moving, the wolves give chase, yet begin taking different paths, flanking the prey animal from all sides. Some take a direct, some an indirect approach to the prey (behavioral tendencies that are often mischaracterized in social contexts as dominance and submission).

This certainly seems like a sophisticated plan of attack. But a new computer model, created 2 computer scientists and a dog trainer from Spain, shows how a virtual pack can replicate a real wolf pack’s behavior by obeying two simple rules: 1) move toward the prey until a safe distance has been reached, and 2) when close enough to the prey, move away from the other pack members. (“Wolf-pack (Canis lupus) hunting strategies emerge from simple rules in computational simulations.” October 17, 2011.)

So simplicity, not sophistication, may be the wolf’s secret to success.

Here is the abstract from this study: “Our results suggest that wolf-pack hunting is an emergent collective behavior which does not necessarily rely on the presence of effective communication between the individuals participating in the hunt, and that no hierarchy is needed in the group to achieve the task.”

Pattern Recognition and Self-Emergent Systems

Going back for a moment to the ability to follow the gaze of others, do wolves sometimes follow the gaze of other wolves when they hunt? Yes. Does this mean they’re also smarter than chimps, or that they have a fully-developed Theory of Mind while chimps don’t?

I don't think so.

As veteran dog trainer and natural philosopher Kevin Behan writes, ”Dogs are attuned to where humans point because this is akin to selecting the vulnerable prey animal from a herd, around which the group then focuses [its] collective emotional charge. Science, in its search for higher cognitive processes to explain complex behavior, thereby misses the primal emotional dynamic which is the true organizing principle.” ("The Math Underlying Natural Dog Training," March 7, 2013.)

Note that the researchers from Spain say that hunting is an “emergent” behavior. And one of the rules of emergent systems is that the system (in this case a wolf pack) is always smarter than the sum of its parts. This would mean that the wolf pack exhibits more intelligence as a whole than its members are capable of individually. In other words, group action by individual wolves = increased intelligence of pack behavior.

It seems to me that, just as when wolves hunt there's an increase in the overall intelligence of the system, when dogs interact with humans there's also the potential for this kind of increased capacity for complex behaviors and learning, i.e., interacting with humans is what makes dogs seem more intelligent than wolves or chimps. And that’s because of a process called pattern recognition.

Pattern recognition is one of the chief features of self-emergent systems. It's also what cognitive scientists call a “down-and-dirty” form of cognition, meaning it doesn't require intellect or reason but instead operates in real time, on a purely unconscious level. The reason this is important is two-fold. 1) It explains why dogs show more social intelligence and behavioral variability than wolves or chimps. That's because dogs routinely interact with human beings, and we exhibit far more varying patterns of behavior than any other animal on the planet, meaning that in terms of pure pattern recognition, interacting with us is a cognitive gold mine for dogs. And 2) The process of recognizing changing patterns in one’s environment tends to release one of the brain's feel-good chemicals, dopamine.

It's no wonder that dogs are madly in love with human beings. They’re like the character singing the Police song, ”Every Breath You Take.” Except when they’re sleeping, dogs watch every move we make, every breath we take. They’re always watching us...


“Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?

1) Interestingly, another dognitive scientist, Monique Udell, did a study showing that wolves actually outperform dogs in following human social cues!

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© 2016 by Lee Charles Kelley.