The smartest dog in the world?

January 31, 2023 • 2:00 pm

I have four writing projects to finish, so for the next few days posting will be light. Bear with me; I do my best.

Here’s an 8.5-year old 60 Minutes segment largely about Chaser, a border collie touted as the “world’s smartest d*g” and “the most important d*g in the history of scientific research.” Chaser is a border collie, of course.  The show displays demonstrations of her “intelligence”: she’s learned the names of over 1,000 toys, including a variety of different balls with different names. She also knows the difference between nouns and verbs. This does not, of course, mean that the dog knows language, as in “language with syntax” but it shows an extreme ability to associate words with objects.

Chaser and some other dogs we’re shown, understand the meaning of “pointing”, though I’m not sure that the demonstration we see distinguishes pointing as a referent to the object pointed at from pointing as a command “come to what’s by my finger.” We’re also shown brain scans of other dogs demonstrating that different parts of their brains light up when they smell their owners as opposed to a stranger, but that’s what happens when a dog learns by association, which isn’t the kind of “intelligence” I expected.

The real question is whether dogs can solve novel puzzles: putting together separate bits of knowledge in a useful way.  Can they do, for instance, what crows can? I don’t think so.

I’m not trying to diss dogs here, nor extol cats; I have, so to speak, no dog in this fight. I just wish the show had shown the kind of intelligence evinced by other animals. That it, it could have discussed “intelligence” and demonstrated the different varieties.

As they say on the show, border collies are both bred and trained to understand commands, so I’m not surprised that Chaser wins the prize for understanding commands and learning the names of toys. When I was in England and the telly was on, I was always transfixed by “One Man and his Dog”, a televised competition between border collies and their trainers to see which teams best herd sheep. And I’ve even seen this skill in person in New Zealand. Regardless of whether this evinces “intelligence”, sheep-herding behavior is impressive and (to me) mesmerizing.

Here: have an hour of “One Man and His Dog”:

15 thoughts on “The smartest dog in the world?

  1. I think this clip with Neil deGrasse Tyson and Chaser should answer some of your questions. It goes beyond just memorising toys and shows process of elimination to bring named toys that she’s never encountered before. (Full disclosure, I didn’t watch the embedded clips, so I’m not sure if they showed something similar.) Of course, it’s a documentary film and not a scientific publication, so I don’t know how reliable it is but I don’t think there’s any deception. There’s a couple scientific papers about Chaser too.

  2. I saw the Chaser video a few weeks ago while pounding away on my adaptive motion trainer (sort of like an elliptical but more versatile). That is one smart d*g! Especially notable is its knowledge of words and their associated objects. Solving puzzles? I don’t think that this particular dog was tested of trained for that capacity. It seemed that the owner focused (for years!) on training the dog to understand word associations. It would be interesting to have someone focus—for years and years on the same dog—on teaching it how to reason. Maybe it’s not possible for d*gs to solve puzzles or maybe it is possible with enough training. The owner is one patient and persistent guy!

    Whatever capacity was being demonstrated—whether it was “smarts” or something else—it sure was entertaining to watch!

        1. BTW – It’s only an issue for some Jews (the more religiously conservative). Most Reform Jews have no issues spelling God. (whether or not you believe in such an entity). I got the joke, anyway, and generally think that D*gs deserve all the praise they can get. And cats. And all critters. Have you seen the dogs that use the buttons to “speak”? That stuff is getting a little freaky …

  3. There are canine cognition labs at Duke and Yale and elsewhere. You can take your d*g there to participate in studies. Last I heard they can do things like test to see if your d*g will disobey a command if he thinks he is unobserved. This is interesting work, inspired by earlier work with babies and great apes, by Tomasello.

  4. My experience is with Brittanies, and might not apply to other breeds.
    Our current pup can, when requested, bring a ball, stick, toy, or Frisbee. By “toy”, I mean a stuffed toy, which he likes to play tug with.
    The wife has tried to do red ball vs blue ball, but that has met with limited success due probably to vision differences.

    Pointing- We point at the dog bed and he goes and lays down in it. I point at the truck and he gets in. I could see the possibility of Dr. Coyne’s suggestion that he is just doing the action associated with the thing near my hand, but often the thing being pointed at is some distance away.
    Also, when I throw an object into a pond or field, he goes after it. If he cannot locate it quickly, he looks back at me for help. If I put my left arm out, he looks to his right . In this case, he is not even looking at where I am pointing, but interpreting my gesture as a relative direction from his present position. Direction as an abstract concept.

    Other Brittanies use such hand signals as directions to patrol when hunting in a field. My current dog is primarily interested in fetching things, and his eternal war with squirrels, chipmunks, and rabbits.

    I have no doubt that he could be trained to ignore those with little effort. Our dogs ignore the livestock completely. If one of them is watching a herd closely, you can bet that a look through the binoculars will confirm that some elk or deer are grazing with the herd.

  5. When I was a teenager, we had a Yorkshire terrier called Tyke. He quickly learned any cues signalling that my parents were going out without him (a major crime in his eyes). Any mention of anything related to leaving the house, such as “out”, “keys”, “coat”, or “shoes”, would have him waiting by the door expectantly, and attempts to spell them instead (“I’m going o-u-t” etc.) soon ended in failure. Similarly, saying “cheese” (his favourite treat and one that he could also recognise when spelled out), “snack”, or “fridge” would see him racing to the kitchen and begging, usually successfully.

    Mum was a children’s speech therapist and often observed that Tyke had a wider vocabulary than many of her clients.

  6. I was told that what started the research on canine cognition by the pupils of Tomasello is that, when the great apes failed some cognitive test, people would say, But my dog can do that!

  7. My family used to own a German shepherd/collie mix who knew how to open doors, apparently by holding the knob with his mouth. (We never knew for certain how he was grasping the knob, because he only did this when he was on the opposite side of a closed door from one of us.) What makes it impressive is that we never taught him how to open them; he figured it out entirely on his own after several years of watching humans. I think his learning to do this without being trained demonstrates cause-and-effect reasoning: he apparently realized that if the knob was turned, this made it possible to open the door.

  8. I recently read Frans de Waal’s “Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Elephants Are?” A really interesting look at how to define what intelligence would be for a dog (or corvid, or elephant), how tests for animal intelligence were different than tests for human intelligence, and so on. For example, they’d try the dot test on elephants (testing for a theory of self by putting a dot on the animal’s forehead and seeing if it reacted to its image in a mirror), but they concluded that elephants had no theory of self. Because they didn’t react to a human-sized mirror.

    Anyway, well worth a read!

  9. The first border collie I ever worked sheep with belonged to the neighbouring farm, but Meg was willing to work for anyone. Unfortunately, she only ‘spoke’ Welsh, but with respect to pointing, she did understand a gesture to command the most important manoeuvre in any sheepdog’s repertoire. Her owner taught me to throw out my right arm and make a sweeping motion with it when I butchered the Welsh for ‘get around’ and she would go around the flock to the far side and usher them towards me.
    Sadly, border collies are not a long-lived breed, and every one I’ve had developed epilepsy.

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