Inside Animal Minds: National Geographic's cover story makes this vet ponder dog breed smarts
Betsy the Border Collie knows more than 300 words. Sure, she’s no Alex-the-African Grey. She won’t be speaking them anytime soon. But she knows them. She can act on them. And she understands them in different contexts, displaying a knack for abstract thinking we’d never before thought possible in animals—not to mention dogs.
So goes National Geographic's March 2008 cover story. It details the unique intelligence of creatures we'd never considered brainy before. But the best part is the dog section (what can I say, I'm specieist).
Though canines are considered to be endowed with less smarts than an ape or an elephant, for example, they’re uniquely talented when it comes to detecting acoustic patterns in human speech. Even an ape can’t grasp the meaning of new words as fast as Betsy does.
Some researchers postulate it’s Betsy’s breed type that makes the difference. Herding dogs have been selected for their ability to receive and respond to verbal commands for hundreds of years. This genetic predisposition has been honed through countless generations of canines by interbreeding the best herders. It makes sense they’d have the kind of intelligence we’d recognize best.
This is why wolves, the canids we’d guess might reign intellectually supreme for their need to survive in the wild, don’t register so high on the IQ scale. Verbal command-oriented dogs are the smartest—by our standards of measurement, at least.
This verbal bias might also explain why cats are considered less intelligent than dogs, and why pigs beat out sloths.
After reading this article, I couldn’t help thinking we Homo sapiens have no earthly way of measuring true non-human intelligence. All we can measure is what we perceive. And the kind of abstract thinking that might take place in a cat’s brain may as well be detectable on Planet Zog, but it sure ain’t clear here on Earth.
That’s when I got to thinking about my stupid stupid Frenchies. Man, are they dumb! By dog standards, they’ve got to rank sub-Maltese. Still, I’ll take a Frenchie any day over a Border Collie.
I don’t know about you but animals with the intelligence of a toddler are not my cuppa tea. I went through the terrible twos once with my own human and I certainly wouldn’t want to live with it ever again—never mind 24/7 for the next fourteen years.
But who knows? Maybe my dogs’ tile-trained lifestyle and rejection of commands (even Brian Kilcommons couldn’t teach my Sophie to sit) represents a higher intelligence than what we assume lies behind Betsy’s deep brown eyes.