Are Dogs Smart? Your Pet Might Not Be As Exceptional As You Think, This Study Says


When it comes to animals, it's easy to put dogs on a pedestal. After all, they're cute, accessible, loving, fun, and basically all around perfect. You probably have a dog as a pet, have owned one before, or plan on getting one in the future. It's essentially a universal truth that dogs are the absolute best. It's also a pretty standard to believe that dogs are smart, like smarter than your average pet or animal. If you're really set on that idea, then this new study might sound pretty surprising to you: as it turns out, dogs might not be as smart as you think they are. And, what's more, believing that they're super smart could actually be hurting them.

A new research paper, which was published in the journal Learning & Behavior, states that while dogs certainly aren't stupid and have their own unique set of cognitive abilities, they are actually not inherently smarter than other animals. Britta Osthaus, a senior lecturer in psychology at Christ Church University in the UK summed it up: "Dogs are special, but they're not exceptional. They're smart, but they're not stand-out smart."

In fact, the research was conducted mainly because so many people believe that dogs are smarter than other pets and animals. Lead author Stephen Lea was previously an editor of the journal Animal Cognition, where he saw many papers on the special abilities of dogs, but noticed that other animals weren't being tested the same way. Lea felt this wasn't helping to draw the right conclusions, and so he decided to do it himself, analyzing more than 300 existing studies on animal cognition to compare dogs to other equivalent species.

The research paper says that dogs fit into three main classifications: they're carnivorans (meaning they are made up of meat-eaters), they're social hunters (they work together to find and retrieve food), and they have been domesticated by humans. In the paper, Osthaus and Lea compared dogs to species in each of those categories, like wolves, wild dogs, hyenas, cats, dolphins and chimpanzees, and horses and pigeons. In pretty much every cognitive category, they found that the other animals were doing just as well as dogs, or, in some cases, doing even better. While dogs are uniquely the only species at the middle of the categories, there wasn't anything else that really stood out. Sure, they can do certain tasks really well (like assisting police officers), but researchers say there are other animals that can do those things just as well.

The paper states, "Dog cognition is, no doubt, unique, because the cognition of every species is unique. Dogs exist at a particular intersection of phylogenetic, ecological, and anthropogenic circumstances. But on the basis of the evidence we have reviewed here, those circumstances are sufficient to account for the nature of dog cognition: it is what we would expect of cognition in a domesticated socially hunting carnivoran." Basically, dogs are smart and unique — but not in a way that is entirely exceptional.

So why have people always thought that dogs are smarter than other animals? Osthaus says that one reason is that dogs are easier to study, which means that there is more research out there about them. Another is that humans are closer to dogs than most animals, so there's basically an unfair bias there.

It makes sense that you would want to rave about how smart your dogs are, but at the end of the day, it could actually be hurting them. Osthaus says, "We need to take into account that dogs are dogs. We need to be fair toward dogs, to know what their limits are, so we don't expect too much." In other words, if we assume dogs are too smart, we won't give them the assistance they need to get through certain things — and that doesn't make their lives any easier.