Your Dog’s Not That Clever After All… But He Really, Really Loves You

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You might think your pooch has more smarts than a Mensa convention but a new book about dog intelligence throws cold water on your notions. It’s not their big brains that set dogs apart, it’s their big hearts.

Dog is Love begins in a London train station on a cold, dank day. A weary crowd of commuters are making their way through the ticket barriers. While waiting his turn, Clive Wynne becomes irritated by a dog on the far side of the gates that’s started “yapping up a considerable storm”. Suddenly, the dog spots his owner coming through the barrier and makes his escape from the woman struggling to hold his lead. The excited animal jumps into a man’s arms, happily licking his face. Wynne and his fellow commuters take in the scene with knowing smiles;  irritation melts away and the evening seems a little brighter. That’s what dogs do to us.

For around fourteen thousand years, dogs and humans have faced this world together; more than any other animal, dogs are there for us. This enduring bond is a curious thing; we have domesticated many animals but none have formed a connection quite like the one between humans and dogs. Why is this? And how does my dog know exactly what I’m saying, sometimes even what I’m thinking?

smiling dog

Photo by Natalie Scott on Unsplash

It turns out scientists are curious about these questions too. In fact, there’s been tonnes of research into dog intelligence over the past twenty years or so. In their search to understand what’s so special about dogs, scientists discovered that if you turn two cups upside-down, hide a piece of food under one of them and point to the one with the food, a dog will turn over the one you’re pointing at. This may seem simple, but even chimps – our closest, big-brained cousins – couldn’t figure it out.

Clive Wynne is an animal psychologist who studies dogs and wolves. His book, Dog Is Love questions our assumptions about man’s best friend. Wynne and his research student discovered that dogs weren’t the only animals capable of following a pointed finger; wolves raised in the captivity could also find the hidden treat. This cast doubt on the theory that of all the animals, only dogs had enough smarts to understand humans.

As a scientist, Wynne considered his discovery to be great progress in our understanding of dogs, but as a dog-lover he felt conflicted. After one journalist called him the “Debbie Downer of canine cognition research,” he began to question himself. Here he was – someone who cared deeply about animals, especially dogs – saying dogs aren’t that special after all. Not being able to live with this contradiction, he resolved to “get to the bottom of what makes dogs unique”. If it wasn’t a special type of intelligence, then it had to be something else.

dog intelligence: a dog wearing glasses lying on a newspaper

Don’t worry if your dog can’t do this. Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

The rest of the book takes the reader through some of the research that’s advanced our understanding of man’s best friend, and also outlines Wynne’s own discoveries. Some of this stuff is really fascinating. For instance, researchers in Japan found that humans and their dogs gazing into each others eyes triggers the release of a feelgood hormone called oxytocin. Sometimes called the love hormone, oxytocin helps us form emotional bonds. In fact, it’s responsible for the bond between parent and child – so if you think of your dog as your baby, you’re not too far wide of the mark.

Wynne has carried out his own research, too. In one experiment, researchers opened the door of a dog’s kennel with a rope. The dog was confronted with a bowl of food and its owner, both at equal distance from the animal. Of course, the mutts went to their owners first, proving that we’re more than just a meal ticket to our dogs.

Wynne and his research student also demonstrated that dogs who had been neglected early in life could not follow a pointed finger. So it seems dog intelligence is really more about human contact. Wynne says it’s how dogs love us that sets them apart from the rest of the animal kingdom; it’s their desire to form deep bonds with people, rather than any specific kind of dog intelligence, that has made them successful in human society.

Dog Is Love book cover

Dog Is Love isn’t all science though. It’s a great read, with lots of heart-warming doggy tales along the way. Wynne’s own dog, a “larger-than-life character” called Xephos, who “radiates affection” and “brightens whatever room she is in” features quite a bit.

Wynne feels that his research highlights the fact that training shouldn’t focus on punishment or showing the dog who’s boss. He believes that dogs just want their owners to show them the way. We should treat them with compassion, use positive reinforcement, and make time to meet their social needs. And hopefully, they’ll soon be able to tell us that themselves.

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