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How smart is your dog?

Original Publication Date: February 7, 2016
By C. Sue Furman, Ph.D.

People who consider their dog a family member usually think he is quite bright. Every dog owner (including me) has one or more stories praising some super-intelligent deed their pet has performed.

We have known for years that dogs are extremely loyal and highly trainable, but how smart are they when compared to humans?

Tiffany Howell and collaborators at Monash University in Australia recently performed an online survey of 559 dog owners. They used a scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree) to rate several dog behaviors regarding intelligence. Participants were also asked to rate their emotional bond with their dog.

Owners were pretty accurate in their assessment of a dog's abilities to read emotions and solve problems, but many tended to rate the general intelligence of their dog quite high. About 45 percent thought their dog's intelligence equal to that of a 3- to 5-year-old human, and another 25 percent rated it even higher. Dogs are smart but perhaps not quite as bright as some owners think.

According to Dr. Stanley Coren, an expert in canine intelligence, the mental abilities of a dog are close to those of a 2- to 21/2-year-old child.

"Sit," "ball" and "treat" are words most canine family members understand. Your dog may have a much better grasp of the English language than you realize. The average dog has a vocabulary of 165 words. With training, some learn many more.

Interest focused on dog intelligence in 2001 when it was demonstrated that Rico, a border collie, could recognize the names of 200 different items. Then along came Chaser, another border collie.

John W. Pilley, a psychologist at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., and Chaser's owner, taught her the names of up to two new toys each day for three years. In 2011, the Behavioural Processes Journal reported Chaser could identify 1,022 toys.

Dogs understand words they can associate with objects like "treat," "toy" or "car" or behaviors like " walk," "sit" or "come." Abstract concepts are more difficult for your dog to comprehend. He is more likely to respond to "cookie" than "I love you." Your dog may feel your warmth with syrupy terms of endearment, but he knows "cookie" will result in something tangible.

A pup learns single syllable words most easily. He will associate "walk" for his daily outing more easily than he will grasp "exercise."

Stick to a single word for a given object or activity. Meal time should always be "dinner" or "supper," but alternating between them will give pup a fuzzy picture.

Your bright dog functions at the level of a 2- to 21/2-year-old child with a vocabulary of about 165 words. Use terms that give him a clear picture. Your communication with him will grow as his vocabulary expands.


Sue Furman, Ph.D, has published two books and a DVD on canine massage and teaches classes in pet massage, acupressure, first aid and CPR. See her schedule and submit questions at HolisticTouchTherapy.com.