Dog Intelligence and Abstract Reasoning

Imagine this:

You work in a warehouse. You see a worker with his arms full of boxes enter a room. The lights in the room are not on, so the worker uses his elbow to flip the light switch on. If you were to later enter the same dark room (without carrying anything), you would probably turn on the lights by using your hand. Why? Because you would assume the previous worker used his elbow because his arms were full, and because using your hand is your natural, prefered method for manipulating a light switch.

Now, imagine the same worker enters the darkened room without anything in his arms, yet he still uses his elbow to turn on the lights. You might assume there was a good reason for him to do it this way – perhaps there is a chemical or foreign substance on the switch, or something sharp sticking out – and later duplicate his actions when you entered the same room. (Or, you might just think he was nuts 🙂

This demonstrates a level of previously thought to be reserved for humans and other primates. That’s no longer the case. Our dog friends can do the same thing!

In a , this exact kind of abstract reasoning was demonstrated in dogs. Here’s how it worked.

A female Border Collie named Guiness was trained to push a lever with her in order to get a treat, rather than using her mouth to do so. She was then observed by two groups of dogs. The first group watched her use her paw to get the treat, but she had a ball in her mouth while doing so. The second group of dogs watched the same , but this time her mouth was empty.

Guess what? 80% of the first group of dogs used their mouths – their preferred method – to operate the mechanism. They assumed Guiness used her paw because her mouth was “busy”. The second group reversed that with 83% using their , assuming that “empty-mouthed” Guiness was demonstrating the “right” way to get the treat. A third group – the control group – who never saw Guiness demonstrate the mechanism, performed as expected with 85% using their mouths the first time.

So, what do we conclude? Simple. Dogs can reason abstractly, and they can adjust their performance accordingly.

Brian Hare, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany states, “What’s surprising and shocking about this is that we thought this sort of imitation was very sophisticated, something seen only in humans. Once again, it ends up, dogs are smarter than scientists thought.”

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