Who do you think is smarter, a cat or a dog? Is this all-important? how does it affect the way we behave with our dogs? Keep reading to find out.
Small brains, impressive skills
Did you ever wonder clueless in a parking lot, hopelessly searching for the exit? If Foraging Desert Ants had cars, they wouldn’t have this problem, because Desert Ants have an internal sense of the direction and distance of their nest1. When was the last time you forgot where you placed your keys, two minutes after leaving them on the table? A Gray squirrel would probably pity you; he can remember the exact location of each nut he buried even after two months2. Did you ever have a hard time remembering a childhood song? This will never happen to a songbird3.
So, if we try to measure human cognitive skills on the scale of an ant or a squirrel what do we get?
What are cognitive skills?
Cognitive skills are the mental mechanisms animals use to understand their environment. They include perception, learning, memory, and decision-making4.
What is the difference between cognition and intelligence?
Let’s start by asking what is intelligence? The unfortunate answer is that we are not sure. Intelligence is a highly debatable concept. Generally, it refers to the ability of the individual to learn and implement knowledge. Intelligence Quotation (IQ) tests measure specific aspects related to mathematical and language abilities. It is believed that this aspect of intelligence is highly influenced by our genetics and does not change much over life. In contrast, cognitive skills can be improved.
Intelligence or intelligences?
The theory of Multiple Intelligence by Howard Gardner5 characterizes eight different types of intelligence. On top of the normally measured mathematical and language abilities, it also includes:
- Musical intelligence (presented by musicians and composers);
- Spatial intelligence (such as navigation abilities);
- Bodily kinesthetics (coordinated body movement, commonly associated with athletes);
- Interpersonal intelligence (the ability to understand other people);
- Intrapersonal intelligence (a high understanding of the self);
- Naturalist intelligence (the ability to make sense of nature);
Comparing apples and oranges
The term intelligence was invented in order to measure a person’s abilities in comparison to the general population. It would therefore be irrational to try and compare intelligence between different species. Instead, in the same way, that we are starting to appreciate that different people have different types of “intelligence” we should appreciate the different cognitive abilities present across species.
Stop asking fish to fly
It is impossible to conduct direct comparisons between species but we can try to better understand the different cognitive skills presented by different animals. Evolution has equipped each species with a unique set of skills specialized for surviving in a specific environment. If we respect the individual abilities of the species and keep in mind their biological background, we will be sure not to find ourselves comparing the ability of fish and rabbits to fly.
How does this help me with my dog?
I had the fortune of working with a variety of different species, from Fruit Bats to elephants, from rabbits to pigs. Each of these species gave me a good lesson in humility, showing me an alternative way of viewing the world. We feel so close to our dogs it is sometimes hard to remember how different we are. But understanding and respecting this difference is the most crucial step to improving our communication.
1Martin Müller and Rüdiger Wehner (1988) Path integration in desert ants, Cataglyphis fortis PNAS, 85:14, 5287-5290. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.85.14.5287
2Macdonal M.V., Isabella (1997) Field experiments on duration and precision of grey and red squirrel spatial memory, Animal Behaviour, 54:4, 879-891.
3Slater, P.J.B., 1986. The cultural transmission of bird song. Trends Ecol. Evol. 1, 94–97. Https://doi.org/10.1016/0169-5347(86)90032-7
4 Shettleworth, S.J., 2010. cognition Evolution and behavior. Oxford University Press, New York.
5Gardner, H., (1983). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York.