Death of the ‘World’s Most Intelligent Dog’ rekindles a discussion on animal intelligence.

Chaser, a border collie living in Spartanburg, SC died on July 23rd, 2019.  She was 15.  Chaser had been trained to recall the names of more than 1000 toys by her owner, John Pilley, a psychology professor at Wofford College. Pilley predeceased his beloved dog by one year and died at the age of 89.

Remembered the Names of More Than 1000 Toys

Nova’s Neil DeGrasse Tyson was so impressed with Chaser’s story that he paid the dog and his owner a visit.  In the film shot for NOVA, Tyson randomly calls out the names of several toys in a pile of 1000. Watch the video below to see how many Chaser can correctly pull out of the pile.  It’s pretty impressive, especially when Tyson throws the dog a curve by calling out a name of a toy that the dog has never before encountered.

How is Animal Intelligence Measured?

Here’s where things get muddy.  How intelligence should be measured is debated. Here are some of the considerations that shape scientists’ view of intelligence.

An Animal’s Ability To Learn From Outside Stimulus

When studying the brain, behaviorists like Pavlov and Skinner frowned on the notion of trying to measure something as enigmatic as thought.   Instead, they preferred a more empirical approach and focused on measuring a subject’s response to a stimulus.  In experiments that are repeatable today, animals like rats, chickens, dogs, cats, and even children were made to learn through a stimulus, either negative or positive, before or after an event. The results led both to conclude that, at birth, brains are a ‘blank slate’ and that behavior and thought are written onto it as we grow, interact, and learn from the external environment

No, Says Freud, Intelligence Is In Part Subconscious

Psychologists like Freud dismissed the idea that our brains were only a reflection of outside stimuli and believed that our minds were comprised of both conscious and unconscious components.  He believed that human behavior wasn’t just learned, but also shaped by unconscious forces that were present deep inside the human mind.

Intelligence= Brain Size

Scientist once believed that the brain size of an animal, compared to its body size, was a measure of intelligence: the higher the ratio, the smarter the animal, but this theory has been proven to be false.  Across species, it is the general size of the brain, independent of body size, that is the stronger prognosticator of intelligence.

Intelligence = An Ability To Understand Math

The ability to understand and execute math has been used as a benchmark of intelligence.  In one study, pigeons were taught that three was more than two, and that two was more than one; then the pigeons were shown multiples of these numbers and asked to rank them from lowest to highest.  The pigeons aced the test.  According to the NY Times:

“They learned to rank groups of one, two and three items in various sizes and shapes. When tested, they were able to do the task even when unfamiliar numbers of things were introduced. In other words, having learned that two was more than one and three more than two, they could also figure out that five was more than two, or eight more than six.”

Similarly, this crow demonstrated that it understood the concept of displacement.

Intelligence = The Ability To Use Tools

It was once believed that humans were the only species that was intelligent enough to use tools and to understand their value. Not the case anymore.  Crows, octopuses, monkeys, dolphins, elephants and more have all been observed to select objects in their environment and to use them as tools.

The Definition of Intelligence Is Specific To Each Species

When evaluating intelligence in other species, some researchers argue that there is too much risk of reading human intelligence into the test results.  To this end, researchers believe that intelligence tests should be designed specifically for each species. Results of these tests are regarded as more reliable because they go to great lengths to keep out human bias, but they mean that it is more difficult to understand a specie’s intelligence as it relates to others.

Intelligence = The Ability To Exercise Self Control

When looking at the behavior of some species, scientists see a difference between those animals that respond to a particular stimulus and those that receive the same stimulus and reason that it may not be in their best interest to act.  Is it possible to gauge intelligence by looking at the kinds of animals that can and cannot resist a learned response to a particular stimulus?  Some argue, yes.

A study, led by researchers at Duke University, set out to compare different species based an animal’s ability to restrain itself from a choice that was immediately rewarding in exchange for a future option that was more rewarding.

The experiment, often called the Marshmallow Test, goes like this: subjects are told (or trained) that they can have a reward now, but if they wait, they can have double the reward later.  The test is designed to measure if a subject is capable of foregoing immediate gratification for a superior, future gratification.  Click through the various videos below to see how our various subjects performed on the test.

Humans and Dogs Face Off in the Intelligence Marshmallow Test

Watch these kids snuggle with the decision to eat now, or wait, and eat more later.

Huh-oh.  Think he can do it?  Tasty treat right now, or wait for something better?

This dog tries his hand…er paw…at the same quiz. Will he pass?

So What Is Intelligence?

The jury is still out. It may be that intelligence is a relative matter.  For bees, intelligence may mean the ability to waggle a more effective dance for the rest of the members of the hive; for cats, the ability to select the best location to catch the mouse; for dogs, the ability to select the right toy from a pile of 1000; but to what extent is intelligence a factor of an animal’s cognitive ability and its ability to orchestrate all of its senses, skills, and strengths into one singular, desired outcome?  No one is quite clear.

Some Candidates For World’s Most Intelligent

Regardless of the definition, here is a list of animals that regularly impress human observers with their reasoning and problem solving skills.  It’s a credit to scientists that this list is growing. We are increasingly casting aside our anthropomorphism and starting to see the world as a web of life with all creatures having an important and intelligent role to play in our biosphere.

When it comes to a list of the world’s most intelligent, dolphins are often called out.  They have been known to purposefully place natural sponges over their nose to protect their snouts when they rummage through sea sand for food.  During one study where dolphins were trained to retrieve sea garbage for a reward, one of the subjects learned to shred a piece of garbage into many pieces and turn each one in for a treat, thus maximizing the reward.
A group of animals that always makes everyone’s list is monkeys. Some primates have been known to exhibit very complex social behavior including the concept of equality.  In this classic experiment, Capuchin monkeys demonstrate that they understand the concept of fairness.  The video below is a must see from a Ted Talk by the experimenter.

Watch what this monkey does when he believes he’s being underpaid for the work he does for the researcher.

In lab settings, squirrels were given nuts to hide in their living space only to then watch the researchers steal their booty.  After several thefts, squirrels started to put on elaborate hoaxes where they pretended to hide treats so as to throw off the would-be thieves.

Sorry, this video is does NOT show a squirrel faking it, but we included it because we stumbled upon it when looking for the right video. It was so too cute, we had to share.

In addition to demonstrating the ability to navigate complex group behavior, elephants are able to recognize themselves in a mirror, an ability that, so far, only humans, chimps, dolphins and a few other select animals have been known to do.

We cued this up to the spot where the elephants get right down to the recognition part.  This video shows three levels of an experiment designed to prove that elephants have the capacity to be self-aware.

Like elephants and other higher organisms, chickens live in complex social settings.  Chickens are able to learn and remember the individual features of up to 100 flock members!  They also know which chickens are above or below them in the ‘pecking order’. Chickens have a ‘chicken’ language with certain clucks that signal danger above (like a hawk), danger below (like a snake), and food sources.

Make the Most Out Of Your Pet’s Intelligence

It’s truly remarkable the things that we can teach animals like horses, cats, parrots and pigs to do.  Especially impressive are the kinds of tasks our working dogs can do: dogs that do jobs like sniffing for explosives; assist the handicapped; track humans; herd animals; sniff out medical conditions like diabetes, cancer or seizures; and even go into active battle.

It may surprise you to know that the most powerful rewards that these dogs crave, in exchange for their efforts, are not food, but play, attention, praise, and love from their trainers. Taking time to teach your pet a new trick is a great way to keep your pet’s mind active, to give him the love that she desires, and to enrich both of your lives.

Need Ideas for Training?  Get Started With The Canine Good Citizen’s Award

Recognizing the importance of training and well behaved dogs (behavioral issues are the number one reason why pets end up in shelters), The American Kennel Association has put together a list of commands that every dog should learn.  It’s called the Canine Good Citizen’s Award.  Get your dog started by clicking on the link.

If you have questions about how to train your dog or cat, or have any other behavioral or health questions you would like us to answer, please reach out.