Your Dog Has an IQ

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Photo: Thomas Hole

The important question one imagines the scientists behind a new paper on canine intelligence very seriously asking their 68 border-collie study participants: Who’s a smart boy? In a study published recently in the journal Intelligence, a team of British researchers say they’ve found evidence to suggest something like an IQ in dogs — a general factor of intelligence, but for canines.

Writing this week in Scientific American, psychologist David Z. Hambrick succinctly breaks down the study’s methodology, which consisted of three tests:

In the detour test, the dog’s objective was to navigate around barriers arranged in different configurations to get to a treat. In the point-following test, a researcher pointed to one of two inverted beakers concealing a treat, and recorded whether the dog went to that beaker or the other one. Finally, the quantity discrimination test required the dog to choose between a small treat (a glob of peanut butter) and a larger one (the “correct” answer). Arden and Adams administered the battery to 68 border collies from Wales; all had been bred and trained to do herding work on a farm, and thus had similar backgrounds.

A dog who did well on one test tended to do well on the others; likewise, the dogs who did poorly on one tended to do poorly on the rest, too. To the study authors, this correlation among the tests looks a lot like the way IQ is stable in humans: If a person does well at one intelligence test, she likely will also excel at another. Maybe, then, this means dogs have something like an IQ. (An alternate theory I’d like to put forward: Maybe it means they were hungry and wanted a treat, which was the reward for successful completion of all three tests.)

It isn’t the first time this has been discovered in nonhumans: Mice and monkeys have shown signs of a so-called “g” factor of intelligence, too. But as Hambrick points out, scientists may have more luck studying IQ in animals than in humans. For instance, some research has found an association between health and IQ — but with people, so many other factors that can potentially mess with the data. Take things like lifestyle habits: drinking, keeping a poor diet, or smoking. These are all controllable in animals (it’s been a while since I’ve personally seen a Labrador with a bad cigarette habit, anyway) which may allow for a clearer picture of the link between health and intelligence to emerge.

Also: Everyone who has a dog likes to imagine that their dog is the smartest. Someday soon, you may have a way of knowing that for sure.