Monday, November 2, 2009

Can Dogs Think On Their Own?

By Linda Cole

We teach dogs how to do tricks, retrieve things, herd sheep, flush out birds and wrangle geese. Dogs learn how to lead the blind, assist the disabled so they can live in a home environment, and use their incredible noses to find those who are lost. We know dogs can be taught, but can dogs think on their own?

Research has shown that dogs have the mental capacity of a 2 to 2-1/2 year old. We know dogs understand up to 165 words. They also understand the body language we use along with our words. Compared to 100 different breeds of dogs, the Border Collie tops the list in intelligence, followed by Poodles and German Shepherds. The Afghan Hound sits at the bottom along with the rest of the hound group, but where do dogs who aren't purebreds fall? Regardless of whether a dog is purebred or mixed, if dogs have the intelligence of a 2 year old, it's reasonable to believe dogs think.

Ethologist (scientists who study animal behavior in their natural habitats) can rank different species according to how they survive in and react to their environment, if they use tools, or can figure out how to overcome a specific problem in order to obtain food. Chimps and parrots are at the top of the list. Both species have learned our language and communicate with us verbally or with sign language, but other animals and birds have reacted to situations showing their ability to think. Ravens have learned how to pull a piece of string up to retrieve meat at the end of it. Otters use rocks to break into clams, their favorite food.

Trying to determine how dogs think is more complicated because they are not studied in the wild. A wolf pack is the closest cousin we can compare dogs to, but dogs aren't wolves. A dog's natural habitat is someone's home or backyard. Ethologists have a difficult time trying to determine dog intelligence for that reason, and they know far more about other animals than they do about dogs. The emotional bond we share with our dogs creates conditions that make it challenging to accurately test how smart dogs are.

Years ago I had a male dog, Bear, and female, Mindy. They were siblings, a Collie/Shepherd/Irish Setter/Great Dane mix. My dog pen is behind my house with inclines outside a 5-foot fence on the east and west sides. Bear and Mindy invented a game they loved to play. My office window and kitchen window overlook the pen. One day, I glanced out the kitchen window and saw them on the outside of the pen. Frantic to get outside before they ran away, I raced out the front door and ran to the side yard. The dogs were gone. I tore back inside to get their leashes, preparing for an afternoon or longer searching for them. Bear and Mindy were waiting in the basement.

Relieved, but confused, I opened the door and put them back outside. Back in the kitchen, I could hear them running around the pen and went to the window to watch them. They ran around the pen 4 or 5 times and then, as if on cue, looked at each other and jumped the fence in one bound, turned around and jumped back into the pen. They reversed direction, ran a couple of circles before jumping the fence onto the hill on the other side of the pen, then jumped back inside. They continued running and jumping the fence a few more times before tiring of the game. Bear walked over to the back door, took the door knob in his mouth and turned it, holding the door open for Mindy to walk through. Mindy stopped long enough to allow Bear to move in front of the door so he too could enter the basement. My confusion about how they had gotten into the house had been answered.

Can I equate Bear and Mindy's actions with dogs thinking? They noticed the ground was higher in those two sections of the back yard. To me they demonstrated a certain amount of reasoning by synchronizing their jumps and inventing their entertainment which appeared to have been thought about beforehand. I didn't teach Bear how to open the door. He taught himself, and to me that proves dogs think.

Scientists haven't been able to definitively conclude whether dogs actually think; however, if you own a dog, you don't need anyone to tell you how smart your dog is. Observant dog owners see every day how their pet reacts to their environment. I'm constantly amazed at what my dogs come up with. To me, dogs do think, and it's time we gave them credit for it.

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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