Dogs do remarkable things. They follow complex instructions to herd sheep, they guide blind people through crowded city streets, they detect cancer and other diseases, and they seem to pay close attention when we talk to them.

Of course, we all know that our own pups are well above average intelligence, but just how smart are they really? Dogs have always been thought of as loyal, highly trainable, and gifted with a great sense of smell for tracking — but not necessarily that smart.

Yet in the last two decades, scientists in the U.S. and Europe have been studying the cognitive abilities of man’s best friend, and they’ve made some remarkable discoveries. They believe that because of the unique relationship between man and dog over thousands of years, dogs have learned to read us so well that, like small children, they can infer meaning from our gestures and use that to solve problems.

Brian Hare, director of Duke University Canine Cognition Center and the author of “The Genius of Dogs”, says, “When judging the intelligence of animals, the first thing we look at is how successfully they have managed to survive and reproduce in as many places as possible.

“The dog is arguably the most successful mammal on the planet besides us. Dogs have spread to all corners of the world, including inside our homes and in some cases onto our beds. While a majority of mammals on the planet have seen a steep decline in their populations as a result of human activity, there have never been more dogs on the planet than today.”

So maybe the smartest thing dogs have done is learn to use our help.

How did he know that?

Rico, a collie in Germany, became famous for recognizing the names of hundreds of objects. And when he was asked to fetch a new toy with a word that he had never heard before, he still brought the right one. Researchers believe that Rico was able to identify the unfamiliar toy the same way children do — by inference. He figured that the new word and the new object had to go together.

What’s the point?

Dogs, more than all other animals, can infer from our gestures what we’re trying to tell them. If a human points to an object, most animals look at the hand, but dogs follow the direction that it’s pointing. In a series of experiments, Hare found that dogs would even follow a human’s gaze and go to an intended target. And if the human looked in the direction of the object — but not at it — the dog would ignore it.

Who’s a naughty boy?

An experiment by University of Vienna researchers was designed to find out when dogs are most likely to disobey. Pooches were told to lie down and a bowl of their favorite food was placed about five feet in front of them. Not surprisingly, they were most likely to go for the food when their owners left the room or turned their backs. But when the owners were facing them, they could tell whether they were watching TV or reading a book — or paying attention to them!

There’s an app for that!

Alexandre Pongracz Rossi, of the University of São Paulo, in Brazil, has trained her dog Sofia to use a computer keyboard with symbols for “walk,” “food,” “water,” “toy,” “play,” and “crate.” When Sofia presses a key, the computer “says” the word. She has learned to press the right key for what she wants. Interestingly, she never uses the keyboard when she’s alone.

Teacher’s pet

Chaser, a border collie who was adopted by retired psychology professor John Pilley, was taught two words a day for three years — at which point he’d learned the names for more than 800 stuffed toys, 116 balls, 26 Frisbees and 100 plastic objects.

But can they talk?

New research shows that all barks are not equal. Dogs use different barks and growls to communicate different messages, researchers say. And what’s more, other dogs can understand differences among barks and identify other dogs by their “voices.”

Do as I do

Scientists in Hungary conducted experiments to see how well dogs can imitate what they see. Researchers stood in front of the pooches and turned in a circle, jumped up, or placed objects in a container. The dogs succeeded at about the same level as 16-month-old children given the same skill tests.

What’s up, dog?

Virginia Morell, author of the book “Animal Wise”, believes that animals — and especially dogs — have thoughts and emotions that were once considered to be exclusively human. She tells this story about her own dog Buck, an American working farm collie, and the jays that would come to her garden to feed every day.

“We found Buck standing and protecting something. We went to investigate and found him standing over one of the jays. My husband picked up the bird and, after he looked for injuries, let it go, and it flew away.

“The next morning Buck brought the bird — it was now dead — and laid it at my husband’s feet. It was a touching moment, and we’ve often wondered about Buck’s decision to guard the bird and then bring the body to us.

“He did all of this independently. We called the county’s disease vector people about the jay, and they stopped by. They examined it in their lab and discovered that it had died of West Nile virus. So thanks to Buck, we helped track the spread of this disease in our county.”

Sneaking after dark

Dogs that were told not to take food were twice as likely to disobey if the food was in a dark room! Dr. Juliane Kaminksi of the University of Portsmouth said: “That’s incredible, because it implies that dogs understand that humans can’t see them.”

Follow my lead

Dogs aren’t as quick as many other animals at solving problems, such as finding their way around a barrier or using a handle to open a door. But if they watch the task done by a human or another dog first, they can figure it out. In an interesting study, puppies that were kept with their mothers while they were working as drug-sniffing dogs scored much higher in their own training for the job than other puppies.

A picture’s worth…

An article in National Geographic featured an Austrian collie with a vocabulary of 300 words. In a test, the dog, Betsy, was shown photographs of various toys she had never seen before against a white background. Her owner showed her a picture of a Frisbee and said the word “Frisbee,” and Betsy went to the next room where there was a Frisbee and three other toys, as well as photographs of each similar to the ones she’d been shown. First she brought back the photograph of the Frisbee, and then, on the second trip, she brought the Frisbee itself.

The smartest breed

Are some breeds smarter than others? According to many experts, the answer is no, although some breeds may be better adapted to certain tasks. For example, working dogs have been bred to understand and follow commands.

In 1994, Stanley Coren, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, published “The Intelligence of Dogs”. He broke down intelligence into three categories — instinctive, adaptive, and obedience — and scored breeds according to each of them. At the top of his list was the border collie, followed by the poodle, German shepherd, golden retriever, and Doberman.

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