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The Intelligence of a Dog


The empathy between humans and dogs has developed over the thousands of years of domestication of the dog. To a large extent, selective breeding has changed a wild pack animal into one which seems content to live with a pack of two-legged animals controlling everything from its food and water supply to its access to the outside world. Occasionally a dog will seem more like its wild, wolf-like ancestors - seeking the company of other dogs and challenging human authority unless it is enforced by strength. But in general, the favorable light in which dogs view their owners is based on a deep mutual trust. The responsible dog owner should be able to read the signs given by his own or other dogs and react accordingly. Understanding what a dog is trying to say through its posture or its behavior is crucial and many sensitive people are very gifted when it comes to intuitive understanding of their pet. Unfortunately, some people overdo this anthropomorphism, ascribing very complex human behaviour and emotions to dogs. Most of this is in the eye of the beholder. Dogs are motivated on a far more basic level and are much more easily contented than many people think.


How clever is a dog?
The intelligence of a dog is a difficult concept; the extent of it is still disputed by scientists. It is difficult enough to compare humans conditioned by different cultures. With dogs, the question is even more tricky - different breeds have developed different physical abilities and natural instincts. Just think of the immediately apparent differences between toy breeds and giant breeds, guard breeds and sight hounds, fighting dogs and herding dogs.


The dog's brain is much smaller than man's . Its ability to truly think isn't absent, but much reduced, although dogs occasionally give the impression of thinking things out and behaving in a surprisingly "human" way. The most famous canine example is "Greyfriars Bobby", a Skye Terrier who, after his master's death, followed the coffin to the churchyard and denied all efforts to send him away. The dog spent the next 14 years until his own death living around the churchyard, appearing to grieve for his lost friend and master. Expert dog trainers measure intelligence by the speed with which a dog learns new tasks. Dog owners, on the other hand, often measure intelligence by the sensitivity a dog shows in detecting their moods and wishes. Whether these concepts actually represent the same kind of intelligence shown by man is debatable. Dogs certainly show the ability to learn, to understand signals and to associate a signal with a particular movement or task. They don't obey blindly, though, and are quite capable of deciding that they don't want to do something. They have a high degree of "animal intelligence" but seem to lack man's ability to reason and associate complicated abstract ideas.


A dog's power of association
Dogs are capable of linking two ideas in their mind (Pavlov's dogs' association of feeding time and the sound of a bell ringing is a famous example). However, dogs don't associate events which are separated in time. For instance, if your dog runs off while you're on a walk, punishing it on its eventual return, two hours later, won't have the desired effect. The dog associates the punishment with its return to you; it doesn't understand that the punishment is for failing to return two hours ago. The secret is to make the dog want to come back to please you. If returning to you is a pleasurable experience and it receives kind words, a friendly pat or a tit-bit, the dog will return because it knows you want it to.


Do dogs understand people?
Dogs are very good at detecting subtle signals from humans, whether these are unconscious signals of pleasure, distress or anger, or simply the intention to do something. This is, after all, the way individuals in a pack of wild dogs interact, using body language and sounds to express emotions. Obviously a dog doesn't understand our actual language - what means more to it is the pattern and tone of the sound. Sound signals are just as eloquent given by whistle, provided the dog has been taught to recognize the whistle as a signal as is the case with sheepdogs. Dogs' ability to appreciate visual and audible signals is used by trainers at a sophisticated level in putting together dog acts for films, television and circuses. It isn't fear which trains a dog, but the wish to please. This can motivate them to learn complex maneuvers to be carried out in response to signals, even at long range.