I love my black-and-tan hound, Maggie, and enjoy researching the science
behind our relationships with dogs.
This article will take a scientific look into the intelligence of dogs and how
we communicate with them.
safepaws, CC0, via Pixabay
What Science Says About Canine Intelligence
Dogs have long been hailed as man’s best friend, and to any owner of a
pleasant pooch, this saying rings true. Most friendships don’t spontaneously
explode into a fully trusting and mutually beneficial relationships, however,
and strong bonds usually take years to develop.
Contrastingly, when a puppy is confronted with a human, they almost
immediately start yipping, licking, and loving. In this sense, it might be
better to call dogs “man’s best genetically suited friend.” Because of the co-
evolution of dogs and humans, dogs are genetically tuned to be masters at
understanding our commands and from a young age want to communicate with us
way more than any other animal species.
We’ll go through three different experiments done by researchers and examine
how dogs read our eyes, understand our points, and, from a young age, know
that we’re a source of help and a friend in a time of need.
My Austrian black and tan hound, Maggie, who is the inspiration for this
article. Clearly she’s about to get a treat.
Dogs “Speak” With Their Eyes
Humans and dogs have similar eyes in that we both have white sclera (the
whites of the eye). It has been proposed that animals with a strong co-
dependency within species have white sclera, because it makes very easy to
tell where your fellow species members are looking.
While humans are unique in being able show a wide variety of emotions through
our eyes, other animals (specifically dogs) find that knowing where their
fellow pack members are looking is beneficial to social life. Don’t believe
me? Check out the photo below and notice the similarities between our eyes and
a dog’s eye.
Now the question: Can dogs actually receive information from our eyes? The
answer is yes, and they do it better than the long-hailed geniuses of the
animal kingdom, chimpanzees.
White Sclera vs. Brown Sclera
The eyes on the top belong to a dog and a human, whereas the ones on the
bottom are the eyes of a chimpanzee and a raccoon. Notice how the whites are
very visible on the top set of eyes and practically non-existent in the bottom
From left to right, top and bottom,Flickr.com: MShades, MSVG, Fwooper, Tambako
the Jaguar – www.flickr.com/photos/mshades/1397026932/, http://www.flic
Experiment 1: Can Dogs Read Our Eyes?
Now, when there’s no possibility of them getting a treat, dogs don’t show any
particular desire to follow where you’re looking. When they’ve been taught
that when they guess correctly, they get a treat, the game changes completely.
Here’s the breakdown of the experiment done by Krisztina Soproni and a team of
researchers (I’ll avoid listing every detail in method):
Two sound- and scent-proofed bowls were used, one of which contained a tasty
treat for the dog. The researchers trained the dog to understand that if it
picked the correct container, it would get the treat as a reward, thus giving
the dog an incentive to pick correctly. Finally, there were three different
ways that the researchers would try to cue the dog towards the correct
- “At Target”: The researcher both turned her head towards the bowl, and focused her gaze on the bowl.
- “Above Target”: The researcher turned her head towards the bowl, but looked above and beyond the bowl (toward the ceiling, basically).
- “Eyes Only”: The researcher only shifted her gaze towards the bowl, while her head remained straight.
There were 12 trials in total.
Experiment 1 Results: Can Dogs Read Our Eyes?
The results for the test are as follows—there is also a table below titled
“Table 1” if you want numbers.
A quick note before you look at the tables and the results: Averages near 50%
(45-55) are called “At Chance,” which means guessing. Averages below 45% or so
are considered “Below Chance,” and those above 55% are called “Above Chance,”
both showing that there’s less guessing involved.
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At Target : The At Target trials had everyone involved performing at more
or less the same level, which is impressive for the dogs considering they were
going up against humans and chimpanzees.
Above Target : The chimpanzees performed the best at the Above Target
trials, with babies and dogs doing quite poorly. However this is actually a
good thing for the dogs and the babies, and a bad thing for the chimps. Why?
Because chimpanzees were simply looking at the direction that the researcher’s
head was pointing, and were paying no attention to the eyes. For dogs and
babies, when the researcher had her eyes up and above the bowl containing
food, the dogs and babies saw it as a sign of indifference or inattentiveness.
The dogs see the eyes not focused, and they think “Hey, this human doesn’t
give a care about what’s going on here, so I’m going to go about my doggy
ways.” Pretty interesting to discover that when you take out the use of your
eyes, your dog finds it much harder to understand what you’re trying to
communicate, or simply thinks you’re ignoring it.
Eyes Only : For the Eyes Only trials, dogs performed the worst out of the
three, with the babies and chimps performing at the “At Chance” level, which
means they were more or less just guessing. You’re thinking “If dogs are so
good at reading our eyes, why’d they do the worst?” The reason might surprise
**Why This Test Shows Dogs Are Special: The Explanation of the Eyes Only
So why did dogs do so poorly at the Eyes Only trials relative to the other
participants? The reason is actually very interesting, but see if you can
figure it out on your own by looking at the second table.
Table 1: Average Percentage of Correct Guesses for Chimps, Babies, and Dogs
This is the mean percentage of correct guesses for each subject over all
trials. Surprisingly dogs didn’t do well in the ‘Eyes Only’ trials, but
there’s a very interesting reason why which will be explained below.
Data Taken from Povinelli et al.
| At Target| Above Target| Eyes Only
Table 2: Average Percentage of Correct Guesses by Dogs Only Based on Test
and Divided by Trials
This table shows the average amount of correct guesses for all dogs over each
trial. Pay special attention to the large increase in amount of correct
guesses in the ‘Eyes Only’ trials over time.
Data taken from Soproni et al. (2001).
| Trials 1 through 3| Trials 4 through 8
Approx. 70% Correct
Approx. 83% Correct
Approx. 50% Correct
Approx. 55% Correct
Approx. 31% Correct
Approx. 60% Correct
The Answer and More
Figure it out? The initial performance of the dogs in the first three trials
of the experiment was so wretched that it could only mean one thing. That the
dogs were choosing the wrong container on purpose (probably because the dogs
thought the researcher was marking her territory by looking at “her” cup).
However, in the next four trials, you can see that the dogs started performing
way above chance because they figured out that the container being looked at
meant “treat for them.” And this, folks, is why dogs did so poorly at the
“Eyes Only” tests. It’s because they purposefully went for the wrong
containers for the first few trials, and then very accurately guessed the
right containers later in the testing. The figure above is an average , and
take this as a lesson for why tables and graphs can’t always be trusted.
So what does this all mean? It seems to show that when it comes to only using
eyes, dogs are indeed smarter than chimps and babies at understanding gaze as
significant in relaying information. They were just the victim of the
averaging of results, and whereas babies and chimps were just guessing
(staying near 50% is considered “At Chance,” and shows guessing), dogs, in
reality, immediately picked up that the eyes were being used to signal.1
Experiment 2: Can Dogs Understand Pointing?
In a study conducted in 2009 by Nicole Dorey, Monique Udell and Clive Wynne at
the University of Florida, the ability of dogs to understand pointing cues
(humans pointing in a certain manner at a cup hiding food) was researched.
The basic idea of how they did the test is shown in the picture (below revel
in my amazing MS Paint skills) and also the video. One note though, the
experiment done in the video is not nearly as accurate as the one I’ve
explained (they don’t control for smell in the video), and it also talks about
dogs being “born with” the skill to understand points. Both of these make it a
little shaky, but still a very good visual example of what’s being explained
(it also goes into the Eyes Only experiment discussed above).
Basic Sketch of Pointing Experiment
Now the idea for this test is in no way unique (hence the video), and it has
been done numerous times before. Using this to their advantage, the
researchers made a point to not repeat mistakes that previous researchers
made. Here’s the basic method of this experiment, to go along with the diagram
- The researcher sat 0.5 m away from the middle of the two cups.
- The researcher baited both cups hidden from the puppy and then removed the bait from one of the cups. This was to make sure the puppy wouldn’t go to a cup because of the noise it heard from one side during baiting. To neutralize the smell, the researchers used two plastic cups (think red party cups) and stacked them on top of each other. Then, they put a piece of reward in between the two cups to make both cups smell equally of food. Think of a PB&J sandwich with the smell nullifying piece of food being the PB&J, and the two cups being the bread.
- The researcher called the puppy to get its attention, and then, with hands starting from a neutral position, reached out her arm to point at a cup (her finger stopped 10cm from the cup) for approximately 1 second, and then went back to the neutral starting position.
- Once the researcher had went back to a neutral position, the puppy was released. After 3 seconds if the puppy had come within 10 centimeters of the correct cup, it was considered a correct guess.
That’s it for the method. They made sure to not leave the arm outstretched
while the puppy chose a cup because a previous test had found that puppies as
young as 6 weeks of age were guessing ‘correctly’ using this type of visual
cue. However, it turns out the puppies were simply coming to the outstretched
hand of the researcher. So what were the results?
The Results of the Pointing Test
Back to the blip about puppies supposedly being able to listen to human cues
as young as six weeks old, this led researchers to think that dogs could
“communicate” with humans regardless of their ontogeny (their upbringing and
environment). The results from this test, however, seem to prove otherwise.
The puppies chosen to do the tests were aged from 9 weeks to 24 weeks, and
here’s how they performed.
The Number of Correct Guesses by Puppies Grouped by Age
Notice how at 21 and more weeks of age, the puppies performed way above
Data taken from Dorey et al. (2009).
| Average Number of Correct Guesses
Group 1: Puppies 9 to 12 Weeks Old
Average 48% Guessed Correctly
Group 2: Puppies 13 to 16 Weeks Old
Average 51.6% Guessed Correctly
Group 3: Puppies 17 to 20 Weeks Old
Average 62.5% Guessed Correctly
Group 4: Puppies 21 to 24 Weeks Old
Average 74.4% Guessed Correctly
Summary of Experiment 2: The Pointing Test
So what does this show? That puppies do need some time to develop and grow,
and perhaps experience humans. But eventually, they become quite adept at
deciphering our commands from the very young age of five to six months.
According to the results, however, they aren’t necessarily born with the skill
that makes them able to decipher human pointing cues (like the video said).
That’s pretty impressive, and even our own offspring (babies) probably
couldn’t manage to decipher pointing without it being used in their daily
lives. So even though dogs may not be genetically disposed to being able to
heed our every command from birth, they do have some pretty impressive brains
that allow them to bond with us. Here’s a study that compares dogs and their
close genetic relatives, wolves.2
The Wolf vs. Dog Debate: Who’s Smarter?
Over my short lifetime, I’ve heard of people owning wolves and had to deal
with the person telling the story of a friend of a friend talking about how
cool it was and how it was just like a dog. This next test, however, seems to
Experiment 3A: Dogs vs. Wolves in Human Compatibility
At the university of Eotvos Lorand located in Hungary (the biggest university
in the country), researchers conducted an experiment comparing the
personability of dogs and wolves when it comes to socializing with humans, and
also overall dog intelligence.
For the most part, dogs have been considered dumber than their more feral
counterparts, with the common conception being domestication equaling an
irreplaceable loss of brain cells. Since the dog no longer has to think about
and struggle for sustenance and shelter, the brain and body grow dull right?
Wrong! Let’s refer to a study done in the 80’s. Scientists observed wild
wolves as best they could attempting to perform relatively difficult tasks.
What was discovered was, a wolf, after seeing a human unlock a gate once,
could then imitate the action and unlock it itself. Dogs, on the other hand,
after watching the human unlock the gate numerous times, sat there with a
blank stare and bacon on the brain. Or so they thought . . .
Thinking that dogs were actually smarter than given credit for, the head
researcher at Eotvos Lorand figured that dogs were perfectly capable of
unlocking a gate, but simply were waiting for the command to do so. He tested
this not by pitting a dog against a locked gate, but seeing how successfully
dogs accomplished tasks without their owner’s help, and then with it.
28 dogs were selected with varying degrees of closeness to the owner, with
some spending the majority of their time outdoors and not in close contact
with humans, and vice versa. Food was placed on the opposite side of a fence,
with a clearly visible and biteable handle sticking out from underneath the
fence. The idea was that the dog would bite the handle, and then drag the
plate of food to their side.
When the dogs were simply pitted against the fence and plate of food on the
other side, those dogs that spent more time outdoors and had a lesser
relationship with their owner fared much better than those with close
relationships to their owners. This alone would make one think that
domestication does indeed make dogs stupider, as the dogs that had more
independence and spent more time in the wild performed better. However, when
the owners were then allowed to give verbal permission during the task, the
gap between the two groups vanished.
Experiment 3B: The Real Test of Dog Compatibility
Curious to further test dogs’ unique compatibility with humans versus their
genetic neighbors, the wolf, the same university had students raise both wolf
cubs and dog pups. The students hand fed, played with, cooed at, and loved as
best as they could their respective animal buddies.
Three weeks later, to test both the wolves’ and dogs’ relationships to their
owners, they placed both in a room with their respective student owners, and
this is where the differences started to show. The wolves sat motionless,
while the puppies tried their best to get attention from the student they were
paired with, nipping at their hands, barking at high pitches, and walking over
to them. The next phase of the experiment is the more interesting one though.
Method for Phase 2 of Experiment 3B
At three months of age, in order to test if dogs have a specific genetic
disposition towards wanting to bond and interact with humans, the university
conducted the following test:
- Similar to the fence problem above, a piece of meat was attached to a rope, with the meat being unattainable unless the dog yanked on the rope and dragged it towards her.
- The dog and wolf pups along with their owners were placed on the side of the fence with only the rope.
- Both were then allowed to figure out for themselves how to solve the problem of attaining the meat.
As I’m sure you’ve guessed, when left alone, both animals were able to drag on
the rope to get the meat. This is no surprise, nor is it particularly
interesting, which leads me to the next part.
The Truly Interesting Phase of this Experiment
With everything exactly the same as the experiment above, the meat was now
anchored to the ground on the other side of the fence, and this is where the
true differences showed. When the puppy pulled on the meat and realized that
it wasn’t coming any closer, it went over it its owner and, in its own unique
way, asked for some sort of assistance. The wolves, on the other hand,
proceeded to pull on the rope until they got tired, practically ignoring their
owners and focusing only on the meat.
What does this show? That even though both animals were raised pretty much
exactly the same from birth, one had a clear desire to communicate with
humans, and seemed to realize that humans could help solve problems, or give
the hints or commands on how to attain treats. That animal, of course, is our
genetically compatible buddy, the dog.3
After going over all this scientific research and mumbo jumbo (save for the
third part), I’m sure you just have strengthened your initial belief that your
dog is special. Dogs may not be able to debate politics or give you stock
tips, but they’re pretty smart when it comes to communicating with us and
paying attention to us.
With the way they can read our eyes and body movements, it might be scary to
actually play a game of poker against a dog. Further, not every animal is
capable of doing what a dog can do, even one that’s supposedly the ancestor
and therefore close genetic relative. Dogs have something special that allows
them to be good companions for us, and hopefully after reading this you’ve
attained a slightly more scientific and empirically backed argument as to why
you’re a “dog person.” Thanks for reading!
- 1Soproni, K., Miklosi, A., Topal, J. & Csanyi, V. 2001. Comprehension of human communicative signs in pet dogs (Canis familiaris). Journal of Comparative Psychology , 115, 122–126.
- 2Dorey, N., Udell, M. & Wynne, C. 2009. When do domestic dogs, Canis familiaris, start to understand human pointing? The role of ontogeny in the development of interspecies communication. Animal Behavior , 79 , 37-41.
- 3Colin Woodard Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor. (2005, October 26). Why your dog is smarter than a wolf :[ALL Edition]. The Christian Science Monitor,p. 17.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It
is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription,
or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional.
Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a
© 2011 Akbok
GillE on March 17, 2016:
From field research I’ve read, it seems that wolves are masters of giving
directions & instructions in silence, as soldiers have to re ambush tactics,
to organise pack members during hunts. They have long noses, so head-pointing
works for them, whereas eyes wouldn’t show up at distance or dark conditions.
I find it very worrying that scientists still test intelligence of animals
against human abilities, when animals are far superior to humans in the
intelligence/abilities required for their particular niche in life, & vice
versa. If dogs tested human intelligence by assessing human’s abilities to
detect scent & pinpoint prey or any desired item, all terrain & in darkness, &
to observe & act on incredibly faint observations of behaviour, even at a
distance, they would assume humans were unbelievably thick.
Some dogs’ white sclera shows, eg pugs, cavaliers, because they’ve been bred
to have deformed faces/ too large eyes, so the eyeballs bulge out of the
sockets & show more white than is normal. However my current collie pup is
unusual in having some sclera showing all the time, just like a human, & also
appaloosa horses. He also has grey eyes, so it is like having a person looking
at you, rather than a dog! Maybe he’ll grow past this stage, or it maybe a
side effect of his blue merle colouring. he doesn’t have the brown/blue usual
eyes, & the colour of the iris won’t change now. Great hub !
Akbok (author) from Aomori prefecture, Japan on September 18, 2011:
Katharella: I’m honored to be visited by a commentator of such repute! And
yes, I agree about dogs not getting full credit for how smart they are when it
comes to dealing with us. I figured there must be a reason why humans are so
inseparable from dogs, and decided to go into it. Then, lo and behold, turns
out they did evolve to be ‘smart’ when it comes to relationships with us.
Pretty neat when science backs the intelligence of your best bud :).
And wow lol, if only you had a picture of your dog in the middle of that back
flip to make scarring her somewhat worth it. Cute story haha. Thanks for the
comment, reading, and the compliment for Maggie!
Katharella from Lost in America on September 15, 2011:
Hi, I really love this hub! Wow, you put a lot into it! Dogs really are much
smarter than people give them credit for (besides the elite few that know):)
I should do more on my dog but when she sees a camera she doesn’t like it, I
think even though she’s 13 now she relates the camera to a flash because the
day I got her I sat her down to take her picture and when the flash went off
she did an entire back flip! lol I’m not kidding it was the cutest thing but I
think it scared her.
But it is true they know us by learned reactions! Maggie is a sweetie, give
her a doggie greeting from me and my pooch! 🙂 v-up & awesome! -Kat
Akbok (author) from Aomori prefecture, Japan on September 07, 2011:
danielleantosz: Amazing beagle related imagery!
danielleantosz from Florida on September 03, 2011:
They really are, I m glad you agree! Mine has her cute little head sleeping on
my pillow right now!
Akbok (author) from Aomori prefecture, Japan on September 03, 2011:
Daniellantosz: Beagles are one of the cutest darn dogs out there, so thanks
for taking care of one and thanks for the nice comment!
danielleantosz from Florida on September 02, 2011:
Wow. Very useful and well researched hub. I have a little beagle and I
appreciate the info!
Akbok (author) from Aomori prefecture, Japan on May 22, 2011:
Simone Smith: Really glad you enjoyed the Hub, and Maggie says thanks! Similar
to you, I also saw a documentary type program on TV that acted as the
incentive for doing some more research into the topic. It was on Japanese TV
though, so it focused more on how cute the hostess of the show was than the
actual dog related research.
RuthCurley: Yeah by all means go and try them on your dogs. I’m sure they’ll
pass with flying colors. If anything you can just drop a piece of salami on
the floor, and then do the foot point technique. Maggie always picks up on
that pretty quickly.
Memories1932: I’m glad we found each other too! lol. And I know what you’re
talking about in regards to your collie. The same little eye communication
that my dog does made me want to know more about it. Hope my Hub brought you
and your collie closer scientifically 🙂
Eiddwen: Thanks a bunch! I’m really glad you read this.
FeathersofArtemis: Yeah I thought the same thing regarding wolves too, until I
read the research on them of course. Whatever you lose in companion points I’m
sure you can make up for in coolness points though.
Miss Lil’ Atlanta: Agreed, the notion that dogs are stupid has gone on long
enough! My dog still gets fooled when I put a doggy treat underneath a towel
Ruthcurley from Bozrah, CT on May 19, 2011:
Yes, Miss. I know mine controls me with little effort at all. My grandmother’s
dog has taught her all kinds of new tricks!
Miss Lil’ Atlanta from Atlanta, GA on May 19, 2011:
It’s true, dogs are much smarter than what people give them credit for.
FeathersOfArtemis on May 18, 2011:
I was all for getting a half dog half wolf before I learned about most of
this. We would like to think that wolves are more in tune with something in
us, but really they look more like a big pain in the you-know-what.
Have to say though, I may make exceptions for a fennec fox…
Don’t know what it is? google it and prepare for cuteness overload.
Eiddwen from Wales on May 18, 2011:
This is a great hub and I am so glad that I came across it.
I now look forward to reading many more of your hubs.
Memories1932 on May 18, 2011:
What an excellent article. Maggie sure is a beautiful dog and you are both
lucky to have each other.We have a border collie and he definitely uses his
eyes to communicate.
Ruthcurley from Bozrah, CT on May 16, 2011:
I was facinated! I even read all the graphs and fine print. LOL. Now I have to
go try these experiments on our dogs. My grandmother constantly talks about
her dogs eyes and how intelligent they are. She does whatch her mistress
constantly to see what she might be doing. I’m giong to print this out for
her! Thanks again for another well written informative HUB.
Like the pugs eyes too!
Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on May 16, 2011:
Wow, these studies are fascinating! I had heard of some in a dog documentary I
watched some months back, but wished I had a chance to look at the data in
greater detail- hence I am quite pleased to have stumbled across your Hub! So
cool. And Maggie is adorable!!