Emotional Health

Yes, Your Pet Is Really Smart

As a dog owner, I am frequently impressed by their human-like responses to distress, anger, or excitement. Sometimes their intelligence seems superior, if not extrasensory. When I am packing for a trip, how does my dog know when he is coming along vs. when he is not? I have tried experimenting, making sure that I prepare exactly the same way, but some mysterious clue tips him off every time. When I am packing to leave without him, he invariably begins to sulk the minute the suitcase appears.

The only explanation (besides the idea that he might actually speak English, which I’ve considered) is that we humans give signals that the dog can read but we do not even know we are sending. Another projection? Perhaps, but I’ve heard enough stories about the human-like behavior of pets to feel that our species often underestimates dogs, and many of the others.

There are obvious reasons why it is adaptive for man to see himself as superior to animals.  It is a way of defending against fear that more powerful beasts can kill us, for one thing. If we imagine we can outsmart a foe, their power is diminished.

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It also helps to make us feel more separate from the animal kingdom — adaptive to the survival of humans who rely on eating their fellow creatures. Even fish have been shown to be “intelligent.” An incident involving an octopus in Australia named Inky who made an escape from his aquarium that involved quite complex behavior made headlines around the world last week. The very next day, a chimp tried, but failed to escape from a zoo in Japan. About the first “jailbreak,” The New York Times reports that

“… octopuses had also been documented opening jars and sneaking through tiny holes on boats, and that they could deflect predators by spraying an ink that lingers in the water and acts as a decoy. Some have been seen hauling coconut shells to build underwater shelters.”

“Octopuses are fantastic escape artists. . . They are programmed to hunt prey at night and have a natural inclination to move around at night.”

“They have a complex brain, have excellent eyesight, and research suggests they have an ability to learn and form mental maps.”

One wily octopus at a British aquarium . . .  escaped nightly from his tank, slithered to a nearby tank to snack on fish for dinner, and returned home.”

More fascinating news was reported later this same week in the Times about the communications of whales and dolphins. Using the technique of free diving—i.e. diving without scuba gear, which makes noises that scare the creatures away, researchers are able to get right into the middle of pods and record the unique “clicks” that they use to communicate. The Times has produced an incredible “virtual reality” video of a dive, which you can download to your phone.  “We spend millions of dollars each year to search for intelligent life in the universe, “ says researcher Fred Buyle . . .  (but) “there is intelligent life right here.”

It’s somewhat awe-inspiring to imagine the inner life an octopus, though it may not be easy for those who love eating seafood. These incidents (and others) make us wonder if it is ever humane to remove animals from their natural habitat(s), even as we are busy destroying these places. Man has allowed himself to occupy and squander the world’s resources partly because we haven’t given enough thought and respect to our fellow creatures. Perhaps these dedicated scientists can help people realize how important it is to protect them and their world before it is too late.



Grandin, Temple. Animals Make Us Human.


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  • Linda White April 26, 2016 at 12:53 pm

    A lifetime of interacting with horses and dogs – and humans – has helped me recognize those two species’ability to learn incredibly complex tasks, Horses’ intuitive responses remind us that the only animal with skin thinner than theirs is the domestic cat. Horses, deer rabbits and and other species that are prey, rather than predators, have an eye set on each side of the skull . The matchless peripheral vision this creates, combined with those animals’speedy gaits, allow them to detect and escape from predators. Horses’ intelligence, memory, and capacity for learning – and remembering – subtle, complex task. Horses’ reasoning and cognitive abilities are often overlooked because, as prey, their first responses to anything unfamiliarare fear and flight.

    Predators, which includes domestic dogs and cats, have both eyes facing forward, the better to see long distances and detect movement. (What’s that? It’s a squirrel! And he takes off in swift pursuit.) Predators too are speedy, the better to chase down and capture their next meal.

    They are intelligent, capable of reasoning, and in fact,can be surprisingly wily in their own best interests. Most predatory species are, naturally competitive and often resist humans’ efforts to modify or control their behavior. Resistance occurs initially, usually persisting until that behavior is modified or extinguished … not because they are fearful, but because they are genetically programmed to be the alpha in any interaction – even among their own species.

    Yes, our pets are smart – very smart, and like horses, cattle, sheep, and every other species on earth, domestic or wild, they are at our mercy.

  • Mickey April 21, 2016 at 1:16 pm

    Thank you, Dr. Ford. I’d print the poem I read this morning by Simon Armitage but it’s a long one. I looked for a web address but way too much information out there. Before You Cut Loose is the poem. Borzoi sent it to me. Before You Cut Loose,

      put dogs on the list
    of difficult things to lose. Those dogs ditched
    on the North York Moors or the Sussex Downs
    or hurled like bags of sand from rented cars
    have followed their noses to market towns
    and bounced like balls into their owners’ arms.
    I heard one story of a dog that swam
    to the English coast from the Isle of Man,
    and a dog that carried eggs and bacon
    and a morning paper from the village
    surfaced umpteen leagues and two years later,
    bacon eaten but the eggs unbroken,
    newsprint dry as tinder, to the letter.
    A dog might wander the width of the map
    to bury its head in its owner’s lap,
    crawl the last mile to dab a bleeding paw
    against its own front door. To die at home,
    a dog might walk its four legs to the bone.
    You can take off the tag and the collar
    but a dog wears one coat and one colour.
    A dog got rid of—that’s a dog for life.
    No dog howls like a dog kicked out at night.
    Try looking a dog like that in the eye.

    There. It’s a great poem about our lovely four legged furries. We love them so.

  • hillsmom April 21, 2016 at 11:26 am