Your Dog Isn't That Special, According to Science

Researchers looked at hundreds of studies to determine whether dogs were exceptional when compared to other species.

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Oct 1 2018, 3:55pm

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You might think your dog is a genius every time she shakes your hand for a treat, but the hard, scientific truth is this: Your pup is just not that special.

Researchers from the University of Exeter and Canterbury Christ Church University explored the biases toward dogs in research, and found that dogs—when compared to other, relatively intelligent species like wolves, cats, hyenas, chimpanzees and dolphins—aren’t particularly exceptional in their cognitive abilities.

“During our work it seemed to us that many studies in dog cognition research set out to ‘prove’ how clever dogs are,” Stephen Lea, a professor at the University of Exeter and the study’s lead author, said in a press release. “They are often compared to chimpanzees and whenever dogs ‘win,’ this gets added to their reputation as something exceptional. Yet in each and every case we found other valid comparison species that do at least as well as dogs do in those tasks.”

To come to this conclusion, the researchers looked at 300 papers on animal intelligence, reviewing sensory cognition, physical cognition, spatial cognition, social cognition and self-awareness. Their findings were published last week in the journal Learning & Behavior.

Read more: Cats Are Actually Nice, Scientists Find

Scientists have used dogs in psychological studies for decades; Pavlov’s conditioning experiments are just one popular example. They make good research subjects because they don’t have to be held in captivity, are accessible, and have been bred for generations to respond to human commands and to perform tasks.

Dogs are unique in the way every species is unique, but as far as domesticated, social carnivores go, they’re not that special, the researchers say.

“We are doing dogs no favor by expecting too much of them,” Britta Osthaus, one of the study’s authors at Canterbury Christ Church University, said in the release. “Dogs are dogs, and we need to take their needs and true abilities into account when considering how we treat them.”