How Smart Is Your Pet?

By Chandra Orr

February 11, 2011 5 min read

You think your dog is pretty clever and your cat is a certifiable genius, but how do you know for sure? Your pet's ability to adapt to training, learn new tricks and solve problems reveals a lot, but determining just how smart your furry friend is is trickier than you might think.

"Our ability to measure a dog's intelligence, even in the most ideal of circumstances, is still limited. I've been training professionally for more than 22 years and still don't feel comfortable in confidently saying that a dog is smart or dumb," says expert trainer and dog behaviorist Jonathan Klein, who heads the award-winning "I Said Sit!" training and boarding facility. "It's similar to going to a foreign country where you don't speak the language. I could interview five people, and if I were asked to rate their order of intelligence, it would be a guess on my part."

All animals, including humans, have inherent aptitudes and hard-wired traits to aid in their survival. We excel at reasoning and problem-solving, but gauging a dog's or a cat's intelligence based on the same criteria may not be the "smartest" way to go.

"Measuring animal intelligence is controversial because any way we look at it, we're coming from the human perspective," says veterinarian Jean Hofve, co-author of "The Complete Guide to Holistic Cat Care: An Illustrated Handbook."

When gauged by criteria unique to each species, it turns out animals are pretty sharp.

"It turns out that crows use tools, chimpanzees plan activities ahead of time, prairie dogs have their own language and dogs can learn hundreds of nouns and verbs," Hofve says. "Every animal has intelligence and ability. It's up to us to find those qualities and help our pet express them."

Your dog may not be able to correct the error if he wraps his leash around a pole, and your cat may not come when called by name, but that doesn't mean they're not intelligent in their own right; it's just that different species and breeds have different aptitudes.

"A border collie is considered extremely intelligent because he is able to learn very complex signals and routines that take advantage of the traits bred into him, such as the tendency to herd, but a pug knows how to get a laugh and when to snuggle to make his guardian feel better at the end of a long day. He has special talents that are just as valuable," Hofve says.

The secret behind a "smart" pet is playing to its unique traits and tapping into natural motivators.

"All dogs, just like all people, have different aptitudes. There are brilliant mathematicians who can barely write a letter and novelists who can't do basic division," Klein says.

"With dogs, it's more about their drive to pursue a certain task than it is about their intelligence," he explains. "Let's say you have two dogs, and you throw each a ball into a field with tall grass. One may look for that ball for an hour, while the other may give up after a couple of minutes. This doesn't mean that one dog is smarter than the other, but that one is more motivated to find the ball."

Make the most of those motivations and unique traits with engaging activities. As with humans, exposure to a wide range of stimuli helps pets' brains form new connections, especially when they're young. New people, new social situations and new training routines help dogs and cats flex their "brain muscles."

"Think of it this way: If you snooze on the sofa all day, you're not doing anything to develop your mind. Stimulation from the environment creates new pathways for the neurons in your pet's brain, allowing new ways of thinking," Hofve explains.

Interactive, puzzle-type toys, especially when paired with food, are great for boosting brainpower in both dogs and cats. They offer substantial rewards -- the treats -- that tap into a natural motivator and allow pets to use their inherent abilities to "solve" the problem.

Cats will employ their exceptional manual dexterity and a keen hunting instinct, while dogs can tap into their extraordinary sense of smell to extract the treat. Some pets will catch on more quickly than others, but all pets will benefit from the mental challenge.

Diet, too, plays an important role in mental acuity, and DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, is crucial for brain development. It's the main fat in the brain and a critical element for lifelong brain and vision functioning, Hofve says.

"There really is such a thing as 'brain food,'" Hofve says. "Omega-3 fatty acids have anti-inflammatory properties that protect the brain from the degenerative effect of aging and prevent cognitive decline and senility."

Because of their carnivorous nature, cats and dogs are not good at converting plant-source omega-3s into usable nutrients, so look for marine-based supplements, such as cod liver oil and fish body oil, formulated for pets.

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