Anderson Cooper met Chaser, a dog who can identify over a thousand toys, and because of whom, scientists are now studying the brain of man’s best friend. Chaser is also the subject of a book: Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words.
Man and dog have lived together for 15,000 years and there are now more than 80 million dogs in the United States, more dogs than children, yet we know very little about man’s best friend.
Did you know that when your dog(s) stare at you, they are hugging you with their eyes?!?
And, there’s even more to smart dogs than what ’60 Minutes’ and Chaser showed you says Arlene Weintraub, author of – Heal: The Vital Role of Dogs in the Search for Cancer Cures.
The hit CBS CBS -0.48% newsmagazine 60 Minutes just re-ran what was no doubt one of its most popular segments of recent years, “The Smartest Dog in the World,” featuring Chaser, the border collie who learned more than 1,000 words and names. As shown in the segment, Chaser accomplished that incredible feat because her owner, retired psychology professor John Pilley, spent five hours a day, five days a week training the white-and-black spotted pooch to associate certain words with objects such as toys.
As a result, Chaser ended up with a vocabulary three times greater than that of the average toddler. It’s impressive, to be sure, especially since very little was known about the power of the canine brain until quite recently, as correspondent Anderson Cooper pointed out at the top of the piece.
Over the last two decades, however, the scientific community has started to delve more deeply into canine intelligence, unlocking the clues to what’s happening in their brains that makes dogs so seemingly human. Here are some of the latest insights:
Dogs aren’t just learning tricks when you train them—they’re actually getting smarter.
Not everyone can spare the time that Pilley took to train his dog to recognize so many words, but science has proven that, in fact, dogs that stay mentally engaged do get smarter.
For example, researchers at the University of Milan recently took a group of 110 dogs, half of whom had little or no training in obedience or any other skill, and the other half who had extremely sophisticated levels of schooling, in agility, search-and-rescue, and the like. All of the dogs were then challenged to find food that had been hidden—but only after they were shown how the treats would be hidden and what they would have to do to uncover them.
As dog psychology expert and author Stanley Coren reported on the Psychology Today blog, it was clear that the dogs in the trial who had spent a lot of time training to do challenging tasks had gained a leg up on the intelligence scale: Only 30% of the untrained dogs found the hidden food, while 61% of the trained dogs successfully completed the task—even though their previous training didn’t prepare them for this particular test.
The scientists concluded that the trained dogs had acquired a “’learning to learn’ ability” that is otherwise absent in the average dog.
Studies show that dogs trained in complex tasks like agility gain intelligence (Credit: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
That insight jives with what one of the scientists featured in the 60 Minutes piece, Brian Hare, pointed out. “What’s special is that [Pilley] spent so much time playing these games to help her learn words, but are there lots of Chasers out there?” said Hare, an evolutionary anthropologist at Duke University during the piece. “Absolutely.”
In other words, any mutt can probably be as good as Chaser—if his or her owner is willing to put in the hours.
Dogs can smell cancer and other things we can’t because of how their brains are structured.
It’s long been known that dogs’ noses are extremely sensitive—a virtue that has made them indispensable as search-and-rescue aides for centuries. But only recently have scientists begun to unlock the mysteries behind how dogs can pick up and follow scents that no one else can.
What they’ve learned is that dogs have 200 million olfactory receptors (ORs), or proteins on the neurons inside their snouts that send signals to their brains, allowing them to process smells. We human have only five million ORs. Dogs’ nostrils are structured so intricately that they can detect odors at such miniscule levels as parts per trillion, and many experts believe the proportion of the dog’s brain that’s dedicated to analyzing those scents is 40 times larger than that of humans. That makes the dog’s ability to recognize particular odors one million times better than that of people.
Dogs’ noses are now being put to use beyond the realm of search-and-rescue. In the medical world, service dogs are being trained to help people with diabetes recognize when their blood sugar is dropping to dangerous levels. And much attention has been paid recently to reports that dogs can sniff cancer.
The notion that dogs might be able to detect cancer first emerged about 25 years ago, when the British medical journal The Lancet published a five-paragraph letter in which two doctors in London described the case of a forty-four-year-old woman, who came into their clinic with a lesion on her left thigh. She told them her Doberman–border collie mix was constantly sniffing a mole on her leg, and one day when she was wearing shorts, her dog tried to bite the mole off entirely. Turned out that mole was a malignant melanoma—and the dog saved his owner’s life, because the tumor was so small at that point the cancer could be cured.
Since then, dog-loving scientists all over the world have trained and then tested hundreds of dogs to prove they can smell cancer. The results are sometimes astounding: In a 2012 trial, sniffer dogs were able to identify the scent of lung cancer about 90% of the time, even when the scientists tried to confuse them with samples from patients with non-cancerous conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). Dogs have also been successfully trained to detect ovarian, breast, bladder, and colorectal cancer. Multiple efforts are now underway to translate the dog’s nose into automated breathalyzer-like devices that may be able to detect cancer early.
Dogs are wired for empathy in ways that many other species are not.
During the 60 Minutes story we heard a lot about oxytocin, commonly called “the love hormone.” This is a hormone, made in the brains of both dogs and people, that promotes the bonding between mothers and their babies, for example, and makes us feel good when we hug a loved one. Turns out when dogs make eye contact with their people or jump in their laps, both dogs and the recipients of their affection get more of an oxytocin rush.
But are dogs empathetic? Do they feel our emotional pain and joy? Several studies suggest they do. For example, in 2013, a group of Japanese researchers showed that the phenomenon of contagious yawning—long believed to be a sign of empathy—does not just happen among people. The scientists observed 25 dogs yawning in response to the yawns of both their owners and those of people they did not know. They measured the dogs’ heart rate to show that their yawning was not caused by stress (as many dog trainers believe it is).
Dogs may also be empathetic because in addition to sharing the love hormone with their humans, they share the stress hormone, called cortisol. Last fall, researchers in New Zealand took 75 dogs and 74 people and played the same sounds for both groups: a baby crying, a baby babbling and white noise. When they heard the crying baby, both people and dogs showed an increase in cortisol. The dogs’ behavior changed, too, as they became more submissive and alert. The researchers concluded that the dogs were showing “emotional contagion,” a basic form of empathy. What’s more, the empathy crossed species—a rare occurrence, they suggested.
‘Dogs Have The Intelligence of a Human Toddler’ and bottom line, your dog is probably just as smart as Chaser, both intellectually and emotionally. I know mine are! You just might need to do a bit of work to uncover that intelligence. Age, breed and owner or trainer involvement are all factors.
A Quebec bill has changed animals from “property” to sentient beings and includes jail time for cruelty in Canada. Let us hope that the United States and the rest of the world will not be far behind. Especially with daily headlines like these: China, Korea, South East Asia: Stop Cooking Dogs, Any Animals, Alive; Weasel of the Weak –> The Monster Who Tortured And Abused This Dog, Teen Who Killed Kitten Only Had to Serve One Year in Prison and Copycat Dog Muzzle Duct Taping Crime?. Even livestock who are ultimately slated to end up on our dinner tables deserve human treatment throughout their lives!
Hopefully, WE, human animals are finally realizing that all animals have value and deserve fair and better treatment, beginning with domesticated animals that we share our lives with. To whom much is given, much is expected! And because we are the most intelligent animals with the largest brain, at least on our planet, we must be much better than we are!