Canine intelligence from the pet owner's perspective—and why we need to care

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Canine intelligence from the pet owner's perspective—and why we need to care

A group of researchers decided to investigate dog owners' perceptions of just how smart their dogs are.
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Feb 25, 2015

Why they did it

Owners may better interpret canine behavior if they have an improved understanding of dogs’ cognitive abilities. A group of researchers decided to investigate dog owners’ perceptions of their dogs' intelligence. 

What they did 

Using an online survey, researchers collected data from 645 participants worldwide. Most respondents were women (90.1%) with a mean age of 41.9 years, and most were university-educated. Most respondents were born in Australia (61.5%); the United States (18.5%), and the United Kingdom (9.9%) were the next most frequently represented. Only data from owners currently living with a dog were included in the study, and most had lived with their dogs for at least three years. 

In addition to demographic questions including level of education and location of primary dwelling, the survey included questions intended to “determine respondent beliefs with regard to whether dogs had an instinctive or learned ability to perform certain actions across several cognitive domains, including communication with humans, understanding of human attentional focus, problem solving learning and memory, social learning, means-end awareness, tool use, deception, mirror self-recognition, and empathy/emotional recognition.” The final section of the survey was designed to assess the dog-owner relationship and perceived emotional closeness.

What they found 

Overall, respondents agreed that dogs possess extensive social cognitive skills despite the fact that some of these, such as the belief that dogs are capable of recognizing human emotion, have not been demonstrated in scientific research. About one-quarter of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that dogs are smarter than most people. Owners who were emotionally close to their dogs and had a higher self-reported knowledge of dogs perceived dogs as having greater cognitive skills compared with people who were less close to their dogs. However, owners with higher self-reported knowledge of dogs thought dogs were less capable of instinctive problem-solving.

The researchers acknowledge some of the limitations of the study, such as not separating instinctive versus learned skills, which may have affected the scoring. The demographic data of the respondents may have also introduced bias and may make the data less applicable to the general public worldwide. In addition, since participants were recruited through social media and dog-related online forums, the data may be biased toward people who are very interested in canine cognition and behavior. 

Take-home message 

Inappropriate behavior is a common cause of relinquishment to animal shelters. A broader knowledge base of what is normal dog behavior as well as a greater understanding of owners’ perceptions of that behavior will allow veterinarians and pet care givers to better educate the public about dog ownership. 

Howell TJ, Toukhsati S, Conduit R, et al. The perceptions of dog intelligence and cognitive skills (PoDIaCS) survey. J Vet Behav 2013;8(6):418-424. 

Link to abstract: http://www.journalvetbehavior.com/article/S1558-7878(13)00130-5/abstract

This “Journal Scan” summary was contributed by Jennifer L. Garcia, DVM, DACVIM, a veterinary internal medicine specialist at Sugar Land Veterinary Specialists & Emergency Care in Houston, Texas.