Thanks to Canine-Cognition Research, Everyone Now Wants Their Dog to Be a Genius

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Photo: Meaghan Browning/Getty Images/RooM RF

With pet ownership, as with anything else, trends will come and trends will go. Cat cafés (and dog cafés). The whole “dog parents” label. Cat yoga. An endless stream of hybrid breeds with poodle portmanteaus for names. Our shared history with our furry pals may stretch back for several millennia, but within that period of time, we’ve defined and redefined several times just what the ideal human-pet relationship — and the ideal pet — should look like.

The latest iteration: Lovable idiot is out, doggy genius is in.

We’re living in a great time for dog-cognition science: Recent research has discovered, among other things, that dogs have IQs, that they know when their humans are giving them bad advice, and that they can sort of understand the concept of numbers. They have a lot more going on upstairs, in other words, than the stereotypical tongue-out, tail-chasing depiction gives them credit for. But as the the New York Times recently reported, scientists’ growing fascination with canine cognition has begun to spread outside the boundaries of the academic community, sparking pet owners’ interest in unlocking their own companions’ untapped brain power:

Walk into any pet supply chain, such as the aptly named PetSmart, and take in the toys, gadgets and foods advertised as optimizing a dog’s intelligence. Or just do an online search for “brain games to play with your dog.”… Like human parents who bought Baby Einstein CDs, hoping to enhance the intelligence of offspring even in utero, many pet owners succumb to gadgets advertised as enhancing their dog’s brain function. (See: IQ Treat Ball.)

The growing obsession with brainy pets works out nicely for the researchers, whose work often relies on people volunteering their pets for science. It’s less of a boon, though, for the pet owners, who, the Times argued, are often confused about what intelligence really means when it comes to their dogs. For one thing, we tend to conflate smarts with trainability; a dog can be a readily obedient student, but that doesn’t make it a genius. And some dogs will just naturally excel in certain tasks because they’ve been bred that way, not because they’re inherently smarter.

Besides, as psychologist Clive D.L. Wynne, who heads up Arizona State University’s Canine Science Collaboratory, told the Times, the popular focus on canine intelligence tends to ignore social intelligence, one of the things that keeps us bonded to our pets in the first place: “I think ‘smarts’ is a red herring,” he said. “What we really need in our dogs is affection.” And do you really want a dog smart enough to realize that it actually hates hugs?

Everyone Wants Their Dog to Be a Genius Now