Is Your Pet Smarter Than a 5th Grader?

Dog Breed Small Brabant AccountantWe’ve all seen bumper stickers proclaiming the driver’s pet is smarter than the average honor student, 5th grader or some other group of children.  We all recognize these for the jokes they are.   But recently, we’ve seen all sorts of claims of extraordinary abilities in dogs and other animals.Some of these claims have objective data to support for them and some don’t.  For example, in one experimental situation, a person pushes down a lever on a door to open it.  Behind the door is food.  A dog that had been watching then approaches the door and uses his nose to push down the lever to get the food.  For quite some time people had claimed that dogs could learn by watching people, but this is the first time the phenomenon had been demonstrated in a controlled experiment.

On the other hand, we’ve seen several television news videos showing animals whose owners claim they have complex, human-like abilities.  The owner of Willow, a 12 year old mixed breed dog, claims the dog is able to read.  When the owner holds up one of three signs bearing the words “sit up,” “wave” or “bang” the dog will sit up on her hind legs, wave a fore paw or roll over and play dead, respectively.

In another program, Lucas, a 16 year old retired race horse is supposed to be able to count to 5, and spell his name.  When you watch these videos, you can easily see these are not controlled experiments.  They are instead examples of great training and of animals learning unusual and quite complex cues for specific behaviors.   However, the animals’ abilities are never questioned.

Claims about extraordinary cognitive abilities in animals are not new.  In Germany during the early 1900’s, an owner of a horse named Clever Hans claimed the horse could count, spell words, and even do simple mathematics.  But carefully controlled experiments demonstrated that Hans was simply reading the body language of the people around him to arrive at the right answer.  How animals read subtle changes in human behavior is no mean feat, but Hans’ owner had overstated and misinterpreted his horse’s cognitive abilities.

Osten_und_HansDespite this classic experiment, people seem to forget the lessons of Clever Hans.  A few years ago we were asked to evaluate a dog whose owner was convinced could count and knew geography.  The details of how we evaluated these claims and what we concluded are part of our two session course on “Amazing Feats of Canine Cognition”.




science packageThis course is one of NINE that comprise our “Professional’s System For Decoding and Applying Canine Behavior Science” module from our Applied Animal Behavior Academy.




client comm packageAlso available at Applied Animal Behavior Academy is the module on “The Ultimate Client Relationship Success System For Pet Behavior Pros”.




Enjoy the rest of your day.  After posting this, we are off to a steel band rehearsal!

scot fest perf




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