Pam Giordano thinks her dog is quite intelligent, and she has proof: Giorgio, an 11-year-old havanese, has diplomas stating he has a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate from Yale. The bumper sticker on Giordano’s car announces, “My dog made it to the Ivy League.”
The honors were bestowed on Giorgio and Giuliana, his sibling, for participating in the university’s Canine Cognition Center.
The Yale researchers are on to something. They have figured out how to tap into the willingness of dogs’ human companions to support their studies. Enthusiastically.
The swelling interest, eagerly amplified by the pet industry, has given a boost to the relatively new academic field of canine cognition, with research centers sprouting up on campuses across the country. In the fall, the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science devoted an issue to the topic.
At Yale, the 3-year-old canine cognition center has been barraged by humans eager to have their dogs’ intelligence evaluated, volunteering them for research exercises and puzzles.
Scientists define and measure a dog’s smarts differently from the way owners do. More than a decade ago, evolutionary anthropologists realized that in the dog, whose development has been so strongly shaped by humans, they had a star subject to observe.
Now some researchers are studying the dog’s brain. Others are trying to identify the dog’s cognitive abilities, debating about the extent to which dogs may be unique among animals. Comparative psychologists are looking at how those capacities stack up against those of children.
Many animal behaviorists say that what people really mean when they call a dog smart is that the dog is highly trainable. But intelligence per se may not be the trait that truly sets dogs apart, at least in human-animal interaction, researchers say.
Certain dogs excel at tasks for which they have been bred for centuries. Bloodhounds have an astonishing sense of smell. Australian shepherds can skillfully keep a flock of sheep together.
But a smart dog can seem less like an adorable toddler than a know-it-all teenager.
“Smart dogs are often a nuisance,” said Clive D. L. Wynne, a psychology professor who directs the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University. “They get restless, bored and create trouble.”