Clever canines: Has living with the human race affected how canine intelligence has evolved?

The canine and human species have lived side by side successfully for millennia, and our evolution side by side is inextricably linked together as a result.

Smart Dog

What started as a relationship of convenience to enhance both species’ chances of ultimate survival has today moved far beyond the realms of logistical necessity, into a symbiotic relationship of mutual companionship and appreciation that has endured far beyond its term of necessity for either species.

Close contact and association with humans has had a direct and sometimes deliberate and acute influence on the canine species as a whole; and in some breeds in particular, like the French bulldog and English bulldog. The flat faces and large heads of both breeds results from deliberate selective breeding on the part of humans; to the point that around 80% of all dogs of both breeds need to deliver young by caesarean section, and some dogs of these breeds require assistance to mate too.

This means that certain dog breeds like these would be highly unlikely to survive in the wild today if humans were eradicated entirely; and even the very concept of dog breeds and selective breeding is a human creation itself!

The impact and influence that humanity has had over the evolution of dogs and dog breeds goes much further than just the physical, however, and from an evolutionary perspective, the influence that living with humans has had on canine intelligence is truly fascinating in and of itself.

Dogs are one of the most commonly used species in research and study into mental processes like cognition, awareness, memory, perception, and the ability to learn, and dogs have been hugely integral in many studies that are today, accepted and taught worldwide as the basis of our understanding the psyche; like those now-famous Pavlovian dogs!

However, whilst most research into the mind that used dogs as its test subjects was designed to return results that could be applied to humans, a number of interesting results that pertain exclusively or particularly to dogs have occurred along the way – some of which were a huge surprise to the researchers undertaking the studies in question, and which may well be a surprise to you too!

With this in mind, this article will look at a couple of the ways in which living side by side with people has directly impacted upon canine intelligence, and how canine intelligence has evolved as a result of this. Read on to learn more.

Lost intelligence

As mentioned earlier on, some of today’s domestic dog breeds would find it virtually impossible to survive in the wild, or in a world without humans, as a result of the way humans have impacted upon their physical traits and inadvertently compromised their evolutionary fitness.

However, living in close quarters with humans for millennia may well also have resulted in other and more subtle changes in how this might affect domestic dogs in the wild – and over time, some of their historical cognitive skills may have become eroded as a result of living with and alongside of humans for so long.

This is an evolutionary process that sees traits that a species no longer needs or benefits from gradually being eroded over millennia – and is why humans have tailbones, but no tails!

When it comes to dogs, they have certainly gained some additional skills and intelligence along the course of their exposure to us, like the social-cognitive skills mentioned above, but they’ve also lost out in some respects too.

The Dingo, for instance – a wild canine species, Canis dingo in contrast to the domestic dog’s Canis lupus familairis – is better at problem solving and working things through alone than our own pet dogs are when you remove them from a social setting. When it comes to working out social problems, domestic dogs beat dingoes.

Additional studies also showed the difference between wolves and dogs in terms of the type of problem-solving abilities they display and their reliance on humans. Both species were trained to solve a simple task, then presented with an apparently identical task that was rigged to be impossible to complete.

The dogs in the experiment looked to the people nearly for direction and help, whilst the wolves, of course, did not! This indicates that the dog relies upon humans to fix things, resolve issues and ultimately, provide solutions for them, and expects humans to have all the answers – whilst wolves would not even thing of doing this, nor imagine that humans might be either able or willing to help them.

Dogs still retain their survival instincts

In terms of the standalone chances of a species’ survival in an evolutionary sense, being as reliant on humans as dogs are is not a good thing. That looking to humans for solutions, inability of some domestic dog species to survive and thrive without humans, and better communication skills with people than with other closely related species are all in many ways a bad thing for dogs in terms of the species’ standalone ability to care for itself alone in the wild.

However, even given this fact, a 2014 genome study to identify the differences between dogs and wolves on a DNA level indicated that dogs and wolves have just as acute theoretical fear responses – a vital trait for evolutionary survival – but that dogs also showed a greater level of synaptic plasticity.

Synaptic plasticity, put simply, is thought to be the physical cellular expression of the process of learning and retaining memories, and indicates that dogs are more adaptive in this respect than wolves, and that as a species, they can mentally adapt faster in evolutionary terms than their other close relatives. However, the fact that dogs diverge from wolves in terms of synaptic plasticity at all indicates that the ability dogs have to learn and remember things itself has irrevocably changed and evolved as a direct result of their relationships with humans.

These are the top 10 smartest dog breeds, according to experts

While all dogs make for best friends, some are, um, more lovably clueless than others. But when it comes to working intelligence (i.e. following commands), certain types stand out from the pack. After surveying almost 200 dog-obedience judges, psychologist Stanley Coren named these breeds as the best of the bunch in his book The Intelligence of Dogs.

And, if you’re curious, we’ve answered some FAQs about dogs’ IQ’s that may blow your mind:

What makes a dog “smart?”

Coren evaluated breeds’ levels of intelligence based on instincts, obedience, and ability to adapt. But pet behaviour specialist Sarah Hodgson says it’s all relative. “Some are social and emotionally dependent on people, so they are easier to train and far more receptive to our vision of what they should do,” she says. “But they have little intuitive smarts.”

One example is a hound, because although they’re not receptive, they have superior senses of sight and smell. Similarly, terriers might not take direction well, but they have excellent hearing.

Do dogs have an IQ?

Not exactly. Like Hodgson explained, “IQ” really depends on the quality you’re observing. In Coren’s book, you can have your dog take an IQ test he created based on his analyses.

Are bigger dogs smarter than small dogs?

It hasn’t been confirmed as a fact, but research suggests that bigger dogs could be smarter. If you look at this list, you’ll find that the only tiny pup is the papillon. Coren recently posed this question in a post for Psychology Today, aptly titled “Are Big Dogs Smarter Than Small Dogs?” Looking at a study from earlier this year, Coren shared, “Data were obtained from 1,888 dogs, and the results were unambiguous. There was a clear trend indicating that larger dogs were able to accurately remember over a longer period of time than were their smaller counterparts.”

Keep in mind, however, that some companion dogs were bred to have particular traits, like being calm and non-confrontational. Hodgson adds that many small breeds are bred down from larger breeds, and thus have similar drives, instincts, and yes, smarts. Now, let’s talk about our BFFs.

These are the smartest dog breeds, according to Coren:

1. Border Collie

The valedictorians of the dog world, these herders took the top spot in Stanley Coren’s intelligence rankings, meaning most can learn a new command in under five seconds and follow it at least 95% of the time. Related: The 20 Best Dogs for Kids and Families

2. Poodle

Nowadays you can adopt cockapoos, whoodles and goldendoodles, to name a few, but breeders love regular ol’ poodles for more than just their hypoallergenic qualities. The curly coated cuties also took the silver medal for working intelligence in Coren’s survey. Related: 40 Top Medium-Sized Dogs

3. German Shepherd

German Shepherds happily serve as police dogs, seeing eye dogs, medical assistance dogs, and therapy dogs, so it’s no surprise that consistent obedience comes standard with this breed. Related: 13 Best Guard Dogs to Protect Your Family and Home

4. Golden Retriever

That’s right. One of the nation’s most beloved family pets also took home straight A’s in this intelligence survey. While the breed originated in hunting, Goldens also enjoy acting like straight-up goofballs once in awhile too. Related: A Definitive Ranking of the 25 Absolute Cutest Dog Breeds

5. Doberman Pinscher

Dobermans got their start in the late 19th century, when a German tax collector named Louis Dobermann wanted a medium-sized pet to act as both a guard dog and companion. Translation: These fearless protectors can hold their own, and hang with kids. Related: 35 Best Large Dog Breeds

6. Shetland Sheepdog

Smaller than collies, these adorable fluff-balls hold their own in herding, agility, and obedience trials. Consequently, Shelties do tend to bark, chase, and herd, but their affectionate nature and love for cuddles will erase any hard feelings. Related: 100+ Unique Dog Names for Every Kind of Pup

7. Labrador Retriever

Labs love to please, whether it’s as guide dogs, narcotic detection dogs, or just everyday family pets. Americans have accordingly made them the most popular breed in the country for a whopping 27 years in a row. Related: 20 Most Popular Dog Breeds in the U.S.

8. Papillon

The first toy breed to crack the top 10, papillons aren’t your average lap dogs. The 5-pound wonders often take home top prizes at competitive agility trials, according to the American Kennel Club. Their name – French for “butterfly” – alludes to their tall, pointed ears. Related: 15 Miniature Dog Breeds That Are Just Too Cute

9. Rottweiler

Rottweilers likely descended from drover dogs in Ancient Rome, with the rugged, dependable temperament to boot. An engaged Rottweiler owner will take care to train and exercise their pooch thoroughly – with the reward of a loving and loyal friend. Related: The 25 Largest, Most Lovable Dog Breeds

10. Australian Cattle Dog

The Australian Cattle Dog sits outside of the top 50 in AKC’s popularity rankings, but don’t miss out on this smart breed. Alert, curious and pleasant, the high-energy herders do best with a job. Related: 22 Healthiest Dog Breeds With the Least Health Problems

(Article source: Various) 

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