Source: CityNews (Extract)
Posted: April 1, 2024

Across the broad range of topics that psychologists study, the question of intelligence, its nature, extent, and neurological underpinnings, remains one of the most fascinating and most researched. Psychologists who study cognition, personality, and neuroscience frequently find that their work involves various aspects of intelligence functioning. The same goes for those who study animal and comparative psychology, including the researchers looking at dog behavior.

A team of researchers from the laboratory of Enikő Kubinyi at the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) have recently published a report suggesting that the intelligence of dogs is organized in a hierarchical manner that is very similar to humans.

Types of Intelligence

Before looking at their results, it’s important to note that scientists who study human intelligence have established that there is sometimes an unevenness in the intellectual abilities of people. Thus, for example, we might have a brilliant author whose quantitative skills are so poor that he can’t even balance his checkbook. For that reason, many intelligence tests are designed to measure specific factors, which might include things like vocabulary, mathematical ability, spatial ability, problem-solving, and so forth.

This is similar to what I did when I studied the intelligence of dogs. I found that there were three factors or types of intelligence. There was instinctive intelligence, which included the genetically determined aspects of canine intelligence (for example, retrievers instinctively retrieve and herding dogs herd). Adaptive intelligence refers to the problem-solving and memory aspects of intelligence. The third factor was working and obedience intelligence, which is mostly dominated by the dog’s ability to learn.

General Intelligence

Breaking intelligence into individual factors is not the only strategy that researchers have used. A popular and useful approach treats intelligence in a much more unified manner. The underlying notion behind this: any one specific test that taps into a cognitive ability can predict an individual’s overall intelligence. This concept has a long history (when dealing with human intelligence). The British psychologist Charles Spearman (1863-1945) tested a wide range of mental abilities in people, and based on his later statistical analyses he concluded that there is a general intelligence factor that he called G. This is illustrated by the fact that it is usually the case that if a person is good at one set of cognitive tests it is highly likely that that person will be good at a whole variety of other different tests. Put simply the theory predicts that if you are good at any one thing involving mental skills (like playing chess), then it is a safe bet that you’ll be good at many things involving cognitive abilities (like crossword puzzles) even though these cognitive tasks seem to involve vastly different mental processes (visual-spatial ability versus verbal ability). Many psychologists believe that this theory is, by and large, sound, and thus we can suggest that the concept of general intelligence might work just as well for dogs. Although there are indications that a dog’s mind works in a manner that is quite similar to that of a young human child, up to now there is only one study that directly addressed the concept of general intelligence in canines.

The Canine G Factor

In this new study, Zsófia Bognár led a team of investigators who created a series of seven tests to assess the cognitive performance of 129 family dogs aged between 3 and 15 years. Furthermore, they tracked these dogs over two and a half years to monitor age-related changes.

The results were analyzed using a series of complex statistical models that produced too many outcomes to be fully explored here, but, fortunately, the main findings are easy to report. These researchers identified two broad cognitive clusters. The first can be called independent problem-solving, which includes tests of problem-solving, task persistence, and memory (similar to my dimension of adaptive intelligence). The second can be called learning ability, which includes measures of associative learning (and it is very similar to my dimension of working and obedience intelligence). Furthermore, their data showed that these domains are interconnected so that dogs with better problem-solving skills were generally found to learn new tasks more quickly, and so forth. This interconnection confirms the existence of some higher-order cognitive factor, which looks very much like what investigators of human intelligence refer to as the G factor.

What Is the G Factor?

It is important to note that intelligence researchers suggest that G is not an ability in itself, but rather some comprehensive, widely applicable, property of the brain. It may be driven by individual differences in the speed or efficiency of the neural processes associated with mental processing. Spearman himself hypothesized that G was the equivalent of mental energy. In that light, it is interesting to note that there are several biological and hereditary factors related to G, including brain size. That means you can view a high level of general intelligence as a sort of “power up” that amplifies specific cognitive and intellectual abilities. Of course, anything that might decrease the neural efficiency of the brain should then, not only decrease general intelligence but also decrease scores on all of the individual subtests that it impacts.

Age Effects

This team of researchers reasoned that something that might be associated with lower general intelligence is age. As in humans, studies have shown that aged dogs show a natural decline in various cognitive abilities. Specifically, this can include decreased attention, poor trainability, less memory efficiency, and even reduced responsiveness to known command words. The research team tracked changes in the cognitive abilities of their sample of dogs over 2 and a half years. As expected they found that there was a global reduction in test scores across the board with increasing age. However, this cognitive decline was influenced strongly by the health status of the dogs. Dogs that were in good health did not show diminished intelligence or lower scores over time. Overall, dogs in poorer health exhibited a faster decline in the G factor as they aged.

Given the confirmation of a general intelligence factor in dogs, we should be able to predict that if your dog is good at some cognitive tasks, such as responding to where you point or retrieving objects, then he will generally learn faster and seem brighter overall. This is good news for people who own clever dogs. If, however, you have a rather thick-headed pet, you may find that teaching them anything (actually everything) is going to be more of a slog since a lower canine general intelligence will affect pretty much all of his cognitive behaviors.