How Smart Is Fido?

How Smart Is Fido?

6:48pm Oct 23, 2015
Quincy, the Boston Terrier / Boxer
Shawn Fitzmaurice

SciWorks Radio is a production of 88.5 WFDD and SciWorks, the Science Center and Environmental Park of Forsyth County, located in Winston-Salem. Follow Shawn on Twitter @SCIFitz.

Zorro the Border Collie at the Duke Canine Cognition Center

A human’s bond with a dog is unlike our bond with any other animal. Why is that, how did it happen, and exactly how smart is Fido? Dr. Vanessa Woods, Research Scientist in the Evolutionary Anthropology Department at Duke University and author of the best selling book The Genius of Dogs, is part of a team that is sniffing out the answers.

We established the Duke Canine Cognition Center in 2009, and what we found was that people really loved coming in to learn more about their dogs. And they really loved this idea that they could participate in science, and the dogs really loved doing it too. Everybody was just having so much fun. And so, what we wanted was a way to bring this experience to everyone. The problem with testing here at Duke is that we don’t have enough dogs, and we need more subjects.
Zorro the Border Collie at the Duke Canine Cognition Center

And that’s when Dr. Woods unleashed a pack of citizen scientists and their canine companions on the problem through a project called Dognition.

And so with Dognition, we had 500 people sign up and complete within a very short period of time, exactly the same tests that we do with the dogs in the lab. And they can do them at home. They can do them anywhere.

The results showed that dogs aren’t necessarily more or less smart compared to other dogs. Instead, there are certain areas of intelligence that can be thought of like separate water bowls that are filled to different levels depending on the individual.

What we were trying to find out is how different dogs solve problems. What we were able to see is that there’s three very clear dimensions of intelligence that dogs have. Dogs can either be really good communicators or they have different skills in terms of memory, and then how they were able to take somebody else’s visual perspective. That’s the really fascinating thing about dogs is that they think about what you’re thinking about. Just a simple example of this is if you look up, the dog will probably look up too to find out what you’re looking at, and this sort of displays several layers of cognitive sophistication, and not all animals do this. But because dogs have this extraordinary relationship with us, they also have this extraordinary way of communicating with us, and trying to take our perspective in several ways.
Dr. Vanessa Woods interviewing with SciWorks Radio by telephone.

According to Dr. Woods, humans domesticated dogs somewhere between 15 and 40 thousand years ago.

Dogs and humans have this incredible bond, and it’ s a bond that we’ve developed over a really long period of time. There are several ideas about how it is that dogs and humans became so close. I think that one of the most reasonable ones is that they started hanging around outside of human settlements. Humans being humans, we make a lot of garbage, and so they were able to forage on that. The dogs who were best able to forage on that became more successful. The dogs that were less aggressive were able to hang around more, get more food, and become more successful.

Over thousands of years, humans evolved dogs from wolves using artificial selection. The dogs who were best able to relate to us were more likely to be kept, to survive, and to reproduce. This led to an animal that we pretty much molded to bond with us: the modern dog. So why does a chihuahua look different than a great dane? Why don’t they look like wolves?

So there’s what’s called domestication syndrome. If you have selection against aggression in an animal, it creates all these unrelated offshoots, like they get curly tails, they have splotchy coats, they get floppy ears, so all these physical variations, but then they have all these behavioral and cognitive changes as well. So, with dogs we’ve found that probably the selection against aggression sort of gave birth to these incredible social skills that we see with dogs, that we really don’t share with anyone else, including our closest living relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos.

This Time Round, the theme music for SciWorks Radio, appears as a generous contribution by the band Storyman and courtesy of

Support your
public radio station