What actually goes on inside your pet’s mind? You may not believe what scientists are discovering about the minds of cats and dogs.
Despite the fact that the cat versus dog intelligence debate rages on, the truth is that, until recently, very little has been understood about the minds of our pets. However, over the the last few years, mysteries behind those meows and wags are being explored, and there have been some surprising discoveries concerning just how smart dogs and cats really are.
Is Your Dog Smarter Than a Two Year Old?
Sit, stay, fetch! If you’ve spent even a small amount of time training your dog, chances are he responds to these basic commands. But what if your dog could understand as much as your two-year-old child? Chaser, a Border Collie recently featured on 60 Minutes, has not only mastered the average 300 word vocabulary of most toddlers, but she has gone above and beyond, learning a whopping 1,000 unique words.
Chaser’s owner, retired psychology professor John Pilley, has taught her the names of hundreds of toys. Chaser has also learned that nouns and verbs have different meanings. The keyword here is learned: Chaser isn’t simply associating sounds with commands, but instead recognizing the independent meaning associated with each word. She has proven that dogs have the ability to learn and retain information the same way that human children do. Researchers at Woodford College conducted experiments to test Chaser’s intelligence, and they concluded that she had the necessary capacities for “learning receptive human language.” The study proved that dogs have the ability to not only develop an extensive vocabulary, but also to categorize objects by using more than one noun as an object descriptor. In other words, Chaser is learning to communicate with humans through language. Bow wow!
How Much Do Cats and Dogs Really Understand?
With so much more left to learn about cat and dog intelligence, there are plenty of questions about how their minds work, not the least of which is, “How much do they really understand about how humans communicate?” Brian Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University, has recently turned his scientific research from humans to dogs. He believes that Chaser represents a breakthrough in the study of canine cognition. According to Hare, Chaser is learning through social inference, a trait that very few animals possess. To illustrate how social inference works, Hare will hide a ball under one of two cups and point to the correct cup. Dogs, just like young toddlers, will then infer that the ball is under the cup being pointed to and retrieve it correctly. This might seem like a simple task, but as Hare’s own research has shown, even Bonobo apes, mankind’s closest genetic relatives, are incapable of inferential reasoning.
Similar to dogs, cats are also capable of inferential reasoning. Hungarian scientist Adam Miklosi, one of the world’s foremost animal cognition experts, conducted the same pointing test that Hare applied to dogs with a group of cats. In doing so, he received similar results, proving that cats were able to learn through social inference — just like humans and dogs.
Miklosi took the inferential reasoning test a step further by setting up an experiment where cats and dogs were presented with a bowl of food that was impossible to reach. After a few minutes of pawing the bowl, the dogs gave up and looked to their owners for help. Cats, on the other hand, continued to paw at the bowls, ignoring their owners.
Initially you might be inclined to believe that this proves that cats lack complex reasoning, but it’s also possible that the results have more to do with how cats view humans rather than how intelligent cats are. As any cat owner knows, cats seem to have a mind of their own, so to speak, and are inclined to respond to humans only when it suits them. Although cats may understand how we communicate, they may also be deliberately choosing to ignore us.
Different Kinds of Cat & Dog Intelligence
While Chaser’s abilities represent a huge step in the understanding of the canine brain, it’s difficult not to wonder if he is simply an anomaly. After all, most dogs don’t appear to understand 1,000 words or even 100. Chaser lends her extraordinary abilities to the huge amount of time and energy her owner spent working with her to develop her vocabulary. As John Pilley tells Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes, plenty of dogs have the potential to display higher levels of intelligence — if their owners take the time to work with them.
That’s not to say that every pet contains untapped genius. Much like with human beings, dogs and cats come in all shapes and sizes, as well as varying levels of intelligence. Some animals may be excellent communicators, while others show greater intelligence in memory or reasoning. Thanks to Brian Hare, you can find out for yourself just how smart your dog is through his website Dognition. The website provides pet owners with science-based cognitive games that can assess your dog’s specific abilities. Any information that is collected is added to Hare’s research database to help further insights into canine cognition.
There is still so much to discover about cat and dog intelligence, but the good news is that science is beginning to recognize the importance of studying it. With new experiments being conducted, and with the use of technologies like MRI machines to study canine brain activity, we are inching closer and closer to truly unlocking the minds of cats and dogs. Regardless of what is revealed, as pet owners already know, the connection and communication that we share with our pets is a deep and meaningful one.
Do you have any stories of your own that prove just how intelligent dogs and cats truly are? Share with us in the comments!