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Research shows dogs are much smarter than we think

(Rob Swatski)

Last night, 60 Minutes profiled new research into the intelligence and emotional capabilities of dogs.

The segment, below, confirms what many dog lovers have been saying for years. Ongoing experiments are showing that — in terms of memory, social interactions, and emotional intelligence —  dogs are much smarter than we give them credit for.

Dogs can learn hundreds of words

One striking example of canine intelligence is a border collie named Chaser, who has been trained by a retired psychology professor named John Pilley to recognize over 1000 different words.

As Pilley documented in a 2011 study in the journal Behavioral Processes, Chaser has learned the names of 1,022 different toys — when directed to pick a specific toy up, she retrieves the correct one about 95 percent of the time. More recently, Pilley has trained Chaser to recognize verbs as well: she now knows the difference between picking up something, putting her paw on it, and putting her nose on it.

In experiments, other dogs have shown they're capable of a skill called social inference — the ability to monitor the actions of a human and infer facts about the environment. Specifically, when a treat is hidden under a cup and placed next to an empty cup, and a human points at one of them, dogs can infer that the human is pointing at the one with the treat. This is a skill that other animals considered to be highly intelligent, like bonobos (a type of chimp) do not possess.

dog inference

A dog picks the correct cup, inferring that a human is pointing at the one with a treat under it. (Hare and Tomasello, 2005)

Can dogs feel love?

Meanwhile, neuroscientists have been using fMRI machines to learn about dogs' inner emotions. After months of training, they can get the dogs to lie still for up to 30 seconds in the scanners, which track blood flow to different areas of the brain as a proxy for brain activity.

Greg Berns, an Emory neuroscientist, has found that when dogs sniff a rag soaked in their owner's scent, activity spikes in their caudate nucleus — a reward center involved in emotional attachment. It doesn't when they smell a stranger's scent. He's also found that the same activity occurs when these dogs' owners walk into the room, but not when strangers do.

dog mri

A dog sits in an fMRI machine as part of Berns' experiments. (Berns et. al. 2012)

Berns' conclusion from all this work is still unproven, but provocative. He thinks it shows that when you get home and your dog is excited to see you, it's not just because he or she is using you for food and shelter. In a very real sense, he says, dogs can love humans, just as humans love dogs.

Further readingWhat fMRI can tell us about the thoughts and minds of dogs

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