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Exactly How Smart Is Man's Best Friend?

A new pooch IQ test shows that canines may be brainier than we think.

By Alexandra Horowitz
Jul 8, 2008 5:00 AMNov 12, 2019 5:40 AM


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In April, Brazilian scientists announced that they had taught a dog named Sofia to use a computer keyboard. The world’s first canine typist can press paw-size keys to ask for water or to be petted. Dogs seem more human the more we learn about them­—but at least we’ve still got them beat on IQ. Or have we?

The Pooch IQ Kit is a $49.99 home “IQ test” containing a sackful of soft, squeaky rubber and plastic toys and a 49-page instruction booklet. Tests include a dog’s version of object permanence (if a cup is placed over a treat, is the treat still there?), response to an unfamiliar scene (why is my owner wearing a black ski mask and staring at me), operant conditioning (turning in circles over and over again is a good way to get a pat on the head), and problem solving (how can I get my mouth on that Milk-Bone?).

When I pulled out the test, my puppy, Finnegan, sniffed the sack of toys with great interest. This gained him no points. Then we began the exam. Finding a treat under a cup? No problem—though I have to think his sense of smell helped him more than his reasoning skill. Pulling squeaky toys out of a container? Right up his alley, as befits a mixed-breed hunting dog. He scored off the charts on a test requiring him to pull treats out of a rubber cone. And he began eating the cone, to boot.

Then the instructions told me to squeak a toy while keeping it out of view. Finnegan loves squeaking things. He sat and gazed pleadingly at me, the very model of canine self-restraint.

He lost points.

For another challenge, I followed the instructions to place a treat under a plastic igloo and weigh it down with books. The igloo opening is too small for a snout. Finnegan set to it, pawed the books, then looked at me. He lost points again. Why?

Like other “intelligence tests” before it, this pooch IQ test rewards enthusiastic, curious dogs and penalizes those who turn to humans to solve their problems. This follows a long-held tenet of dog training that smart dogs take action while dumb dogs sit and stare. But I believe that the wide-eyed, constant canine gaze toward your face is actually a whole different kind of clever.

Comparative psychology research in the last decade has shown that dogs excel at social cognition, out-testing even some primates. Dogs follow our gaze, our pointing fingers, and our turning heads. They know that our attention is more distracted when we’re on the phone than when we’re sitting reading a book, and that by barking or putting their heads in our laps, they can get our attention when they need it.

The truth is, I am often better equipped to solve the problem of the hidden treat than Finnegan is. So it’s a better option to give up and turn to me—perhaps the smartest strategy of all.

Alexandra Horowitz is writing a book on the mind of a dog.

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