It’s a cold winter day and I’m standing in a room watching my dog stare at two flowerpots. I’m about to get an answer to a burning question: Is my pup a smart girl?
Dogs have been our companions for millennia and were domesticated sometime between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago. And the connection continues: according to the latest figures from the Pet Food Manufacturers Association, 33% of UK households have a dog.
But scientists studying how dogs think, express themselves and communicate with humans not only fulfill roles from Covid-sensing to lovable family villains, they say dogs can also teach us about ourselves.
And so here I am at the University of Portsmouth’s Dog Cognition Center with Calisto the Flat-Coated Retriever and a bag full of frankfurters to find out how.
Dogs struggle with the idea of ”object permanence” – but Calisto seems good at this task. Photo: Sarah Lee/The Guardian
We’ll start with a task that superficially resembles the cup and ball game favored by little scammers. Amy West, a graduate student at the center, places two flower pots a few yards in front of Calisto and seems to pop something under each one. However, only one actually contains a tasty bite.
West points to the pot the sausage is under and I drop Calisto’s lead. The puppy makes its way to the right pot.
But according to Dr. Juliane Kaminski, Lecturer in Comparative Psychology at the University of Portsmouth, was not unexpected.
“A chimpanzee is our closest living relative — they completely ignore gestures like this that come from humans,” she says. “But dogs don’t.”
That appears to be the result of domestication, she adds, with puppies even younger than Calisto showing the same response, but wolves don’t — even when raised by humans.
“Dogs were chosen to pay attention to our gestures, to the information coming from us,” she says.
According to Kaminski, a central question is whether dogs and children understand gestures in the same way.
“In a way, it also helps us to understand our own species a little better,” she says, and comparing it to other animals — and dogs in particular — can help shed light on which aspects of human communication are unique.
In the next experiment, Calisto observes West putting cheese under one pot and reveals that the other is empty. West then switches pots.
The experiment examines whether dogs understand the idea of ”object permanence” – the realization that in this case the treat has moved with the flower pot.
“We did this with dogs, in a fairly large group of dogs, and they fight,” says Kaminski.
However, Calisto picks the right pot three times out of four. Kaminski is careful. Maybe, she says, Calisto was a little too close to the pots and could smell the treat.
While many dogs find the experiment difficult, that too has led to insights. Some of Kaminksi’s most famous works were with Rico the Border Collie, a dog with an incredible ability to learn the names of objects.
“I basically found him on German television,” she says.
At first, Kaminski thought Rico would choose the right objects based on cues from humans – similar to the case of Clever Hans, a horse that seemed to have incredible intelligence.
But Kaminski’s work showed that Rico really did use the spoken word to select specific objects: he learned the labels of more than 200 items. And he wasn’t the only dog with this ability, as several research teams using different breeds have shown.
Kaminski and his colleagues are now looking for more dogs of this species, having recently started a project called Finding Rico.
“I don’t expect that we’ll find more than 50 dogs worldwide that can do that,” says Kaminski.
But while Rico was good at learning labels, Kaminski notes that he struggled with the idea of object permanence. Cleverness in dogs seems to be complex.
“It’s not like we think we’re looking like an Einstein dog that knows everything,” Kaminski said. “We believe that we have dogs that have a particular skill or set of skills that allows them to learn labels very well.”
Calisto’s skills seem to draw puppy dog eyes. But perhaps that’s not surprising — Kaminski’s work has also shown that dogs show more facial expressions when someone is looking at them, particularly when they raise their eyebrows, which makes their eyes appear larger. Is it a deliberate trick?
“I think they have voluntary control over it,” says Kaminski. “But I don’t think they learned to change their face in a specific way to get a specific reaction from their owner.”
Kaminski says the eyebrow movement may be something people subconsciously chose to do, perhaps because it makes dogs look like infants. Among other things, she and her team are investigating the matter, including whether the movement has special meaning for dogs.
Has Kaminski’s work changed your view of canine intelligence? She points out that while some say dogs are as intelligent as a two-year-old child, others disagree, saying dogs are incapable of flexible thinking.
“It just keeps getting confirmed, I think, that the truth lies somewhere in the middle,” says Kaminski. “And we’re just getting started with what they really understand.”