Who’s a clever dog? Scientists study secrets of canine cognition

Dogs can figure out some things that even chimps can’t. Our science correspondent puts her puppy retriever to the test

Six-month-old flat-coated retriever puppy Calisto
Studying the skills of dogs such as six-month-old Calisto can help shed light on which parts of communication are unique to humans. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

Nicola Davis@NicolaKSDavisMon 17 Jan 2022 07.00 GMT

It’s a cold winter’s day, and I’m standing in a room watching my dog stare fixedly at two flower pots. I’m about to get an answer to a burning question: is my puppy a clever girl?

Dogs have been our companions for millennia, domesticated sometime between 15,000 and 30,000 years ago. And the bond endures: according to the latest figures from the Pet Food Manufacturers Association 33% of households in the UK have a dog.

But as well as fulfilling roles from Covid detection to lovable family rogue, scientists investigating how dogs think, express themselves and communicate with humans say dogs can also teach us about ourselves.

And so I am here at the dog cognition centre at the University of Portsmouth with Calisto, the flat-coated retriever, and a pocket full of frankfurter sausage to find out how.

Nicola Davis with her puppy Calisto at the University of Portsmouth, with Dr Juliane Kaminski and research student Amy West
Dogs struggle with the idea of ‘object permanence’ – but Calisto seems to do well on the task. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

We begin with a task superficially reminiscent of the cup and ballgame favoured by small-time conmen. Amy West, a PhD student at the centre, places two flower pots a few metres in front of Calisto, and appears to pop something under each. However, only one actually contains a tasty morsel.Advertisement

West points at the pot under which the sausage lurks, and I drop Calisto’s lead. The puppy makes a beeline for the correct pot.

But according to Dr Juliane Kaminski, reader in comparative psychology at the University of Portsmouth, this was not unexpected.

“A chimpanzee is our closest living relative – they ignore gestures like these coming from humans entirely,” 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, yet wolves do not – even if they have been raised by humans.

“Dogs have been selected to pay attention to our gesturing, information that is coming from us,” she says.Advertisement

A key question, Kaminski added, is whether dogs and children understand gestures in the same way.

“That in some sense also helps us understand our own species a bit better,” she says, adding the comparison to other animals – and in particular dogs – can help shed light on which aspects are unique about human communication.

In the next experiment Calisto watches as West places cheese under one pot, and reveals the other is empty. West then swaps the pots around.

The experiment investigates whether dogs understand the idea of “object permanence” – the realisation that, in this case, the treat has moved with the flower pot.

“We’ve done this with dogs, in quite a large group of dogs, and they struggle,” says Kaminski.

Calisto, however, picks the correct pot on three out of four attempts. Kaminski is cautious. Perhaps, she says, Calisto was a bit too close to the pots and could smell the treat.

While many dogs find the experiment tough, that too has yielded insights. Some of Kaminksi’s most famous work was with Rico the border collie, a dog with an incredible ability to learn the names of items.Advertisement

“I found him on German TV, basically,” she says.

At first Kaminski thought Rico was picking correct objects based on cues from humans – similar to the case of “Clever Hans”, a horse who appeared to have incredible intelligence.

But Kaminski’s work revealed Rico really was using the spoken word to select specific objects: he learned the labels of more than 200 items. And he wasn’t the only dog with the ability, as a number of research teams have shown with various breeds.

Kaminski and colleagues are now looking to find other such canines, having recently launched a project called “Finding Rico”.

“I don’t expect us to find more than 50 dogs worldwide that that can do this,” Kaminski says.

But while Rico was smart at learning labels, Kaminski notes he struggled with the idea of object permanence. Cleverness in canines, it seems, is complex.

“It is not that we are thinking that we have like an Einstein dog in front of us that knows everything,” said Kaminski. “We think we have dogs that have a special skill or a special set of skills that enables them to be very good at learning labels.”

Calisto’s skill appears to be pulling the puppy dog eyes. But maybe that’s not surprising – Kaminski’s work has also revealed dogs produce more facial expressions when someone is looking at them, in particular raising their eyebrows which makes their eyes look bigger. Is it a deliberate ploy?

Cobra the dog sniffs a mask, a means of detecting Covid.


“I think that they have some voluntary control over that,” says Kaminski. “But I don’t think that they have learned to sort of modify their face in a particular way to kind of get a specific reaction from their owner.”

Kaminski says the eyebrow movement could be something that humans unconsciously selected for, perhaps because it makes dogs look like infants. Among other research, she and her team are probing the matter, including whether the movement has particular meaning for dogs.

Has Kaminski’s work has changed her view of canine intelligence? She points out while some say dogs are as intelligent as a two-year-old child, others take the opposing stance, suggesting dogs are unable to think flexibly.

“It’s just confirmed, I guess, over and over is that the truth is somewhere in the middle,” says Kaminski. “And we are still at the very beginning of understanding what they really understand.”You’ve read 30 articles in the last yearArticle counton

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