Whether you’re walking down Pico or you’re on the bike bath, if you stop anybody who’s walking their dog and ask, “Is your dog smart?” they’re bound to say, “Yes.” Just about everybody thinks their dog is very intelligent. I never felt that way about any of the dogs I have had. I found the dogs were lovable, cute, loyal, cuddly, and great company, but I never thought of them as that smart. I used to tell people that I never met a dog who could beat me at chess.
On the other hand, I had to admit that dogs did seem smarter than people in some ways. A dog would never bomb a country killing hundreds of thousands of people. A dog would never accidentally send out an e-mail to his boss, bad mouthing the boss. And a dog would never tell a woman that she “looks thinner in the other dress.”
The New York Times recently reported that Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia has done some interesting work with dogs and intelligence. He found that dogs can do pretty well on language learning and other tests devised for infants and toddlers. He came up with an intelligence ranking of 100 breeds, with border collie’s being the smartest pooches on the block. In general, he said that poodles, retrievers, Labradors and shepherds were among the most intelligent and could learn as many as 250 words, signs and signals. He went so far as to say that the average dog is about as intellectually advanced as a 2-to 21/2-year-old child. That’s where I feel he went too far.
A dog as smart as a toddler? Show me a dog who is smart enough to always spit up on his mother’s outfit right before she’s supposed to go out.
But all of this discussion of who’s smarter, a dog or a human isn’t looking at things right. I was guilty of the same thing until recently. Perhaps like most people, I was thinking of dogs’ intelligence as the same kind of intelligence that humans have. It’s like people who feel that if there is life on other planets, those beings will have the same kind of thoughts and feelings that we have. Dogs don’t need to be smart the same way we are in order to be smart.
Service dogs have been demonstrating this more and more. Not only can they smell drugs in a suitcase — or that salami you thought you’d be able to sneak in, but they help all kinds of people with various medical needs. We’re all used to seeing dogs helping the blind. Lately, dogs have been paired with soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan with post traumatic stress disorder. Somehow, the dogs seem to know how to calm down these veterans when the vets need it most. Some small studies have even indicated that because of their strong sense of smell, dogs have been able to sniff out lung and other cancers because of odors emitted by the disease that humans can’t detect.
Dogs also work with epileptics. They become anxious before their human buddy has a seizure. Then they bark and lick his or her face and arm. Nobody knows how a dog could know this in advance. Perhaps it’s a kind of intelligence we just don’t have.
Rather than just appreciating what wonderful minds dogs have, I fear that there will always be some people who compare their intelligence with ours. I used to be the same way, like when I’d say my wise guy line about dogs not being able to play chess. So I believe there will always be people who will mock their intelligence by saying that “obviously humans are smarter than dogs in every way.” To them, I’d just like to present an image that most of us see every day. An owner and a dog are walking down the street. The dog does, well, what comes naturally, while the owner cleans it up. Which one is the smarter one?
Lloyd Garver has written for many television shows, ranging from “Sesame Street” to “Family Ties” to “Home Improvement” to “Frasier.” He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his Web site at lloydgarver.com and his podcasts on iTunes.