Many years ago, a then prominent veterinarian wrote in a book about dogs that since when a dog was tied to a tree, if he twisted the rope around the tree he could not figure out how to untwist it, dogs had no reasoning power. Perhaps I should give the man credit – because statements like this were some of the reasons I began to write about dogs.
First, you cannot judge the intelligence of another species by the standards you would use to test members of your own species. In order to assess the intelligence of a species, you have to understand what that species needs to do in order to survive.
Judging the IQ of dogs by their relative placement in AKC trials is also non-productive. For one thing, it assumes that all breeds of dogs are alike and think alike. Not so, and therefore simply using test scores only tells you which breeds are best at the arbitrary activities being tested in AKC trials. And perhaps, which breeds have the tolerance for the sort of repetition it takes to teach perfect heeling, a feat which has nothing to do with the true, inner life of dogs.
Then there’s the towel test – or whatever it’s called. Drop a towel over a dog’s head. The faster, we are told, he gets it off, the smart the dog. No way! Drop a towel over a Shiba’s head and he will keep it there as long as possible because a Shiba will never, ever in a million years let you know that something you have done (or he has done by mistake) is annoying. Drop a towel over a Golden Retriever’s head and he might well keep it there because you want it there. Drop a towel on a laid back pit bull’s head and he’ll sigh, lie down and take a nap.
We created different breeds of dogs because there was work to be done and we humans needed a dog with a great nose, a desire to herd, a penchant for digging to get to rodents, long legs and good lungs for the chase etc. Look at the dog’s body and begin to understand the way he views the world. All the same?
As for real brilliance, as for the ability to reason, check out a service dog. For some, given the job of assessing the well-being of a partner also means making judgments about others in need. Sometimes that means alerting others, even saving the lives of people who are not their partners, as well as assisting their partners in miraculous ways day in and day out. What about the dog who saves his family from a fire or rouses the parents when a child is in trouble or leads a blind master out of a damaged building or finds a lamb buried under the snow? What about the dog who can open the refrigerator and get his own snack?
If you think a dog tied to a tree can be taking an intelligence test, you have a lot to learn about dogs, about what’s important to them, about the way the think and see the world, about their real skills, the kind they can exercise when not tied to a tree by a rope. If you think dogs are dumb animals, you’ll never “see” the smart stuff they do, not even if it’s right in front of your face.
Seeing intelligence in another species means letting all our preconceived notions about that species float away. It means looking at what’s there in front of us and asking ourselves why and how and what. Why did that dog do that? How did that dog know to do that? What abilities does that dog have that I, as a human, do not have?
I am asked all the time how my service dog knows when I am in pain, how seizure alert dogs know when a seizure is coming, how some dogs who hunt run not after the game but toward where the game is going, how dogs know good people from bad ones. I don’t know the answers, but if you tie me to a tree and the rope gets twisted up, I do know how to untwist it.