One of These Things Is Not Like the Others.

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

Are Dogs Smarter Than Toddlers?

A recent study at Northwestern University informs us that “babies can think before they can speak.” In the study, 7-month-old infants were able to understand what researchers describe as the simplest and most basic of abstract relations: the levels of sameness or difference between two objects, a key cognitive ability underlying human intelligence, and one that differentiates us from all other animals including great apes.

The test was quite simple.

“Infants were shown pairs of items that were either the same—two Elmo dolls—or different—an Elmo doll and a toy camel—until their ‘looking-time’ declined.”

This decline in the amount of time the infants spent looking at different pairs of objects indicated to the researchers that the relation between the objects—the fact that they were alike—had quickly become encoded in the babies’ brains. Meanwhile, when the infants spent more time looking, it coincided with the fact that objects were not alike.

Dedre Gentner, co-author of the study said the infants “were able to form an abstract, same-or-different relation after seeing only 6 - 9 examples.” She goes on to say, “It appears that relational learning is something that humans, even very young humans, are much better at than other primates.” As an example Gentner cites a recent study using baboons whose success at this required over 15,000 trials.

Co-author Susan Hespos sums things up: “Infants can form abstract relations before they learn the words that describe relations, meaning that relational learning in humans does not require language and is a fundamental human skill of its own.”

What does this have to do with dogs?

Similar studies have been done where dogs were tested to see if they were capable of comparing the differences between smaller and larger amounts of food or the differences between carrots and doggie treats or between the amount of treats they got to what another dog got. The conclusions drawn were that dogs seem able to make comparisons in a way similar to a young child’s abilities in this area.

Of course one might offer the simple idea that there’s a difference between making comparisons and having preferences. For example, before she learned sign language Helen Keller was able to show preferences for certain foods. But it wasn’t until she learned to sign that she had the ability to make comparisons between the things she liked and the things she disliked. This shows that ability to understand and use human language is what enabled her to make such comparisons, an ability dogs don’t have but that the children in this recent study do, even though they’re still too young to talk. 

Let me make this very clear: it’s not possible to make comparisons without having the ability to use and understand language. No other animal—including the great apes—has demonstrated this ability. And it’s not something that comes in gradients. You either have the full ability to use and understand language or you don’t.

Logic & Language vs. Pattern Recognition

Remember, the researchers say that 7-month olds can form abstract relations between objects before they learn the words that describe those relations. Yet we know now that children learn and understand some aspects of human language while still in the womb. So while the infants in this study can’t yet use language, they do understand that words and sounds have meanings.

Do dogs understand that words have meanings? No. Dogs respond to all kinds of cues, some verbal, some not. It’s entirely possible to teach a dog to sit, for example, without ever using the word sit, all you need are hand signals, and in some cases, just your body language. It’s true that, generally speaking, the family dog is far more aware of its environment than the toddlers in the house are; yet toddlers are still able to understand things like language, logic and object permanence while dogs have no such abilities. Do children understand abstract relations? To a certain degree, yes. Do dogs? No. Dogs are experts at an unconscious process called pattern recognition, something we (and young children) also excel at. But unlike dogs and children, adults often think too much and rarely pay as much attention to changing patterns the way our dogs and children do. And, if we’re not careful, it can be easy to mistake pattern recognition for the ability to think, reason, and make inferences, abilities dogs don’t have. Of course, some people would disagree. Learning Through Inference? In his book, If Dogs Could Talk, famed Hungarian ethologist Vilmos Csányi writes a great deal about how he thought his dog Flip was capable of making inferences. But in an interview for The BARk, Csányi says, “A family dog constantly observes human behavior and always tries to predict interesting actions in which he could participate. Dogs can learn any tiny signal for the important actions and is always ready to contribute.”

This is absolutely true. And I would argue that all the examples of “inferences” that Csányi observed in his dog Flip can be boiled down to this simple ability to observe human behavior. In their book The Genius of Dogs primatologists Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods write, “What is special about children is that if you show a child a red block and a green block, then ask for ‘the chromium block, not the red block,’ most children will give you the green block, despite not knowing that the word 'chromium' can refer to a shade of green. The child inferred the name of the object.” Actually, we don’t know that the child inferred the name of the object and didn’t—instead—read some unconscious signal given by the person who asked for it—or what's also possible— just grabbed it at random. Inferences or Pattern Recognition?

In his book Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words John Pilley discusses how he taught his dog Chaser over 1,000 words for various toys. Pilley would place a new object Chaser had never seen before in a different room with several toys she already knew by name. Then he’d tell Chaser to go fetch the toy—let’s say it was called Fuzzbee—a word Chaser had never heard before. And, Pilley says, that just like children, Chaser inferred that the new word referred to a new toy. But did she?  Culling

Wolves are different from other mammalian predators, most of whom go through a fairly predictable predatory sequence: search, stalk, chase, and grab-bite and kill-bite. But wolves are unique in that they who routinely hunt animals that are 10 times their size. And they exhibit a unique behavior that most other predators don’t called “culling,“ where they suss out the weakest member of the herd and specifically target that animal. And just like with wolves, culling is a necessary aspect of a herding dog’s job, and border collies are the Einsteins of culling.

So Chaser’s abilities can be explained via high-octane version of pattern recognition, which includes a border collie’s innate ability to cull sheep. It does not in any way require an ability to make mental inferences.

For instance, Chaser is told to find “Fuzzbee.” She doesn’t know what that is, but she goes into a room full of toys,looks around, and sees a toy she’s never seen before; a major change in the pattern. And since she’s operating through an already established pattern of finding toys and has been bred for culling, bringing a new toy back is not an example of making mental inferences but of something much simpler: pattern recognition. Dogs Are Smarter Than Chimps!

When Brian Hare did his initial research on a dog’s ability to follow where humans point—an ability chimpanzees supposedly don’t have—the headline in the news was “Dogs Are Smarter Than Chimps,” with a sub-title “…Plus They’re Smarter Than Wolves!” But that’s only because none of the chimps and wolves tested were able to follow where Hare and his research team pointed while most of the dogs were. According to Hare this proved that the ability to follow where humans point must have been a by-product of domestication.

Is that true? No! Fortunately, a real animal researcherMonique Udelldid a more carefully-designed study with a) dogs living in human households, b) hand-reared wolves, and c) stray dogs. And guess what? The wolves’ ability to follow where humans point was no different from that of the pet dogs, while the stray dogs weren’t able to follow where the humans were pointing at all.

If wolves are able to follow where we pointwhich is clearly the case—it shows that Hare was completely wrong.

The truth is, in the real world most dogs don’t necessarily follow where we point unless they’re taught to do so; they usually look around in a general sort of way. They know that the pointing “means something,“ but they're not always accurate about it. The Real Reasons Dogs Seem So Smart

The real reason behind the idea that dogs seem so “smart” comes from 5 simple things.

1) Dogs share a common ancestor with wolves, 2) Our dogs’ ancestors became domesticated by our ancestors because of their ability to chase, harass, cull, and corner large prey animals, the way wolves still do today to make a living. 3) This made it easier for our ancestors to hunt, kill, and consume the flesh of mastodons, wooly mammoths, etc., giving our ancestors an advantage over Neanderthals. 4) Humans have been using certain aspects of the wolf’s prey drive to get our dogs to work with us and for us for tens of thousands of years. 5) The reason dogs in Hare’s laboratory studies seem so smart is that they live with human beings, and we exhibit the most complex patterns of behavior of any animal on earth. That’s the genius of Monique Udell’s research and why Hare’s work is, generally speaking, sadly lacking. In other words, dogs are only “smarter” than cats, pigs, chimps and (in some ways) toddlers not because of their own innate IQs, but because of their daily interactions with us. It has nothing to do with making inferences or comparisons. 

Basically, they’re just looking for treats. Lee Charles Kelley “Life Is an Adventure—Where Will Your Dog Take You?”

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© 2016 by Lee Charles Kelley.