Photo: Thunder Circus (flickr)
Dog-human attentiveness may mean that dogs make better subjects to study cognitive skills than primates, even chimpanzees, our closest genetic relatives.
Dogs aren’t smarter than chimpanzees overall, but in some cognitive skills tests, dogs succeed where chimps fail. In a classic experiment that tests a subject’s use of human visual cues, food is hidden in one of two scent-proof containers. A scientist suggests which container has the food by staring, nodding, or pointing at it. Chimpanzees perform poorly at this, but dogs get it right.
Dogs’ ability and motivation to pay attention to people also helps them to imitate our behavior, another task that chimpanzees struggle with. Many dogs can imitate the actions of their owners, like bowing and making a 360 degree turn. Many dogs can even imitate never-before-seen actions done by human strangers. For instance, dogs can learn to operate a ball-release machine, like those used for batting practice, after seeing a stranger operate it several times.
Does imitation really require much intelligence?
Sure. Imitating human actions demonstrates a number of cognitive skills: attentiveness to an action performed, the ability to remember the action, and the ability to control their own bodies so as to imitate the action.