Is There Animal Intelligence?

  • I believe I have witnessed many events where animals, particularly certain dogs, have demonstrated amazing abilities which seem to involve creative thought and impressive logic.

    One specific incident seems to stand out to me. Around 1976, I had nine house dogs in a large old farmhouse. In order to ensure that there would not be any dog fights, I had TRAINED them all from puppies to recognize me as their Alpha male, and the household ran pretty smoothly, except for an occasional broken lamp when they would play hard.

    This specific incident occurred just after we humans had finished eating a steak dinner. The dogs all knew that they were not allowed in the kitchen while we were eating (to minimize begging) but they also knew that the sound of silverware on plates was the sign that they could all come in. The nine dogs always waited in a 500-pound pile in the doorway to their part of the house. They also knew that NO ONE was ever allowed to try to steal any food from the table, or from each other, or from anywhere else. I had trained them all to trust that they would ALL get scraps of meat, and equal scraps of baked potato skins, and equal scraps of bread crust.

    On only one day, over nearly a decade, was there ever a violation of this. We had left the table and the dogs were all getting ready to get lined up to get their goodies. They knew the program! I was aware that there was a medium-sized bone on a plate on the table, but that was not unusual. I went into the Pantry for a total of two to three seconds, and when I came back around the corner, I saw that that bone was gone! Only two of the dogs were close enough to the table to have taken it, Mimas and Titan. Titan was a wonderful dog, but NOT particularly smart, and he also had shown his obeyance of the rules by having gotten up on one of the chairs and sat sniffing some tasty looking morsel on a plate. But he knew that he was NOT allowed to even touch anything on the table. He had once gotten so into sniffing a small piece of meat that he kept getting closer and closer to it, and his nose eventually bumped into the piece of meat! Rather than grabbing the piece of meat, he immediately jumped down from the chair, expecting to get yelled at. So this missing bone was NOT due to him. That left Mimas, his sister.

    Mimas also knew the rules, but her mind seemed forever active regarding getting away with doing things that were not allowed. I had a suspicion that she had grabbed the bone, simply to confirm to herself that she COULD get away with stealing it. But I had not been out of the room for more than two or three seconds! But since I was absolutely sure that she had stolen the bone from the table, I sat down on the floor right next to her, and she immediately also sat down. I was quite certain that there was a very tasty bone and meat in her mouth, and so I watched very carefully to see if there was any swallowing or chewing or other evidence that it was in her mouth. She clearly KNEW that it was very important not to give any such clue. So Mimas and I sat there on the kitchen floor for close to TEN MINUTES, while I watched her head and jaws. NOT THE SLIGHTEST HINT that there was anything in her mouth! She was a very cute dog, and she clearly was trying to emphasize her cuteness. She occasionally looked at me, but more often she seemed to be looking at the ceiling or something else that suggested innocence!

    After more than eight minutes of us sitting there, I started to wonder if she might have swallowed the bone, as some dogs like her father sometimes would do. But the very fact that she SAT THERE, without getting up to walk away, or to lick me, seemed to suggest to me that there WAS something going on!

    The breakthrough was when some saliva started dripping out of her mouth! I had started thinking that NO dog could hold such a tasty morsel in its mouth for close to ten minutes, but this saliva now seemed like the evidence I had been looking for! I even got the feeling that she realized that the jig was up, but even I do not see how she could have kept salivating from occurring. Even we humans sometimes salivate when we are holding something really tasty in our mouths!

    So, after TEN FULL MINUTES of us sitting there, I grabbed her mouth and pulled it open, and the very soppy bone fell out!

    I am pretty sure that most dogs would have quickly swallowed the evidence, but she never did that. In trying to figure this all out, I came to the conclusion that she KNEW that she would not be punished more than getting yelled at, so she probably didn't see much downside. I realize that it sounds impossible, but I really think that she was CHALLENGING ME, to see which of us was going to win this confrontation. Except for the saliva, she was about to win, as I was getting tired of just sitting there, having concluded that she must have swallowed the bone, and I was about to get up and go away!

    Now, for a dog to have thought through the entire situation, and then somehow had the self-restraint to never swallow or chew, seems to me to be a challenge that few 10-year-old children would have met, and even some adults I have known! So there was a LOT of rational thought and even logic that she applied that day.

    I was also tempted to wonder if she had thought through what might have happened if she simply opened her mouth and dropped the bone. She had to be able to think through that I would then NOT have done any punishment, and in fact, that I quite likely would have given the bone back to her! She KNEW the rules I enforced and she knew how I had previously handled issues. I am personally tempted to think that she DECIDED NOT TO DROP THE BONE, because she had set this all up as a one-on-one challenge with me, and that she intended to win! (I wish I could have ASKED her about these sorts of things!)

    That incident, and dozens of others regarding Mimas, convinced me that she may have thought she was smarter than I am, but in any case, she demonstrated that she could THINK THROUGH such a situation and to use LOGIC to make her decisions. IF THAT is not strong evidence of intelligence which is very impressive, I don't know what would be!
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It seems likely that most people who try to evaluate the intelligence of animals are probably measuring the wrong things! Yes, there is great importance in the fact that parrots and parakeets can often quickly learn to COPY sounds they hear. Similarly, most dogs can be conditioned to behave in specific ways on command. These are certainly aspects which show native intelligence. But I believe that it is important to place higher standards on what is expected.

Here is an example of what I consider to be far clearer evidence of the native intelligence of one specific dog. As a puppy, a dog of mine was frightened by a very loud sound, the firing of a shotgun just a couple feet away from her. As a result, Deimos always hated loud sounds throughout her life.

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Even though she was a hunting dog (a Redbone Coonhound) she grew up being very spoiled and somewhat of a sissy, always expecting to be covered up to sleep in her dogbed. Early in her life, I had noticed that when she saw the flash of lightning, she would invariably run to her dogbed and start to shiver. I eventually realized that she wanted not only to be covered, but to have her head covered as well. At the time, I did not understand the implications of that, but there was every appearance that she was frightened of the flash of lightning.

It was only after watching this happen many times that I finally realized that she had somehow figured out the relationship between lightning and thunder! When she would see the bright flash, she had figured out that a few seconds later, there would be a loud boom! So it was not the bright flash at all that she was afraid of, but the thunder that she knew would soon follow.

That is amazing ANALYTICAL THINKING! How could a dog discover such a relationship?

It actually had some humorous side effects! Whenever a flash camera was used to take a photo of anyone, she would immediately run to her bed and start shivering! I would wonder if she was confused as to why there was no sound of thunder then!

This example shows a combination of good observation and good logic in an analysis and then in arriving at a reliable conclusion. That is pretty close to what is considered the Scientific Method of investigation! That is quite different from an animal simply learning to copy some sound or behavior, or to reinforce a specific behavior based on treats or praise training.


In February 2011, PBS aired a program about a dog which showed similar analytical thinking. An owner had gotten the dog to recognize an amazing number of words, each associated with different stuffed animals. The dog could hear a (known) word/name and immediately go to her pile of stuffed animals to find the correct one, quite consistently. A Reporter decided to push the idea farther. (He was also a Physicist!) He brought a stuffed animal of his own along, which the dog had never seen and had never heard the unusual name of that animal, Darwin. So the Reporters asked the dog to find Darwin. The dog was clearly confused, and he needed to ask again. She then brought out the CORRECT stuffed animal, one that she had never seen before! She clearly did a lot of logical thinking, in first realizing that the word Darwin was not associated with any of the stuffed animals that she was familiar with. Amazingly, she did deductive thinking in then concluding that the new WORD Darwin MUST BE associated with the NEW stuffed animal, so she decided to bring out the CORRECT stuffed animal (which was absolutely unknown to her).

This is EXACTLY the sort of experiment which I have always tried to challenge my various dogs with. Some failed miserably at such tests. Only four consistently impressed me with their ability to FIGURE OUT things that they rightfully should not have been able to deduce (Mimas, Deimos, Meatball and Phobos). The rest of my many dogs seemed to be pretty normal in dog terms, but still wonderful!


I have always been a "critter" person. Ever since I was a little kid, I had the opportunity to be around quite a number of animals, especially dogs. I have shared my life with about 20 dogs, nine of them all at the same time!

During those times, I have witnessed a number of incidents that certainly seem to indicate some thinking capability in at least some of them. Several of these incidents are presented below.

Quite a few of the dogs I have had have been hunting breeds. Nearly half have been varieties of Coonhounds. Since I would never want to even injure any animal, much less kill it, I needed to find a way to let them practice some skills while still teaching them to never hurt anything. So I trained them to ONLY kill tennis balls! But I encouraged full out attacks on their tennis balls!

After a while, many of their lives revolved around tracking, catching, retrieving and trying to chew up tennis balls! They REALLY looked forward to the times I would play with them. Usually, I would sit on the living room floor and ask for a ball. They would disappear in all different directions and in short order I'd have half a dozen tennis balls!

Mimas always knew what was about to be asked and understood the question, but she rarely actually went to find a ball. She clearly knew that the other dogs would bring back the necessary balls to play with, so usually she just got into the best avaiable position! I suppose that could seem to be laziness or stupidity on her part, but I tend to think that she knew how to USE the other dogs like that. She seemed to confirm that on certain times when her brother Titan had found a ball and was about to give it to me. Mimas would nip his back leg, and when he would turn around to nip her back, she would catch the ball that came out of his mouth and bring it to me. She and I would then look at each other, and I wondered if she thought she had fooled me about bringing a ball!


Early on, when I just had two Coonhounds, they would often be satisfied just playing with one ball. Whoever brought it back got praised and petted, so there was a lot of competition. They were VERY active dogs and I would throw the ball against a wall pretty much as hard as I could. The ball would come back at really high speed. (I didn't want this game to be TOO easy for them!) Sometimes, the ball would bounce off one of their mouths or noses and wind up almost anywhere. Sometimes, that would be rolling under a couch.

If it was near any edge of the couch there was no problem and either dog could reach under for it. But when it rolled to near the middle, their heads were too big to fit far enough in to be able to grab it. They would look under at it. The two dogs DEFINITELY had different ideas. After a few seconds of looking, the male, Phobos, would just jam his head under, lifting up the heavy couch as he pushed. He did this a couple times even when I happened to be sitting on the couch. That had to be REALLY painful!

The other dog, the female, Deimos, clearly had more organized thoughts. Her usual method resembled the following methodical approach: She would go up to all four sides of the couch and look at the ball. Then she would again look from all four sides. She would stay for several seconds in each place. So this all took more than half a minute. After all that, she invariably would pick the side that was nearest the ball. I was always impressed with the thoroughness of her approach. It suggested to me a series of organized thoughts, taking observations and then analyzing them to determine the best side to work from. (Even when the ball was near one end of the couch, she would still look from the other end, five feet away! She had found a system that worked and she never varied from it.)

Once she selected the best side, her head was still too big to fit under the couch to reach it. At different times, she tried various ways. One worked well, of just kicking at it with her paws, but the ball would come out the other side of the couch and the other dog would get the credit for bringing it to me. She eventually came up with a way that worked relatively well. She would CAREFULLY reach both of her forepaws under the couch (her head was up alongside the couch so she couldn't actually see what was happening). If the ball was only a little beyond what her mouth could have reached, she would gently put a paw (usually the right paw) on top of the ball and carefully pull it back toward her. Even if it slipped off (and it usually did) the ball rolled generally toward her side of the couch enough for her to grab it with her mouth.

When the ball was even farther away, she could sometimes somehow extend her claws that would catch in the fuzz of the tennis ball. Sometimes, she used both paws alternately to very slowly pull the ball toward herself. Quite impressive!

I was SO impressed by her combination of logical analysis and then motor skills that, sometimes when the dogs were not around, I would use a ruler to place the ball just 1/2 inch nearer the front back or end of the couch, to see if she would try from the best direction (she ALWAYS did!) and how successfully she would be at actually getting it. She was remarkably effective! I do not see how that sequence would be possible without intelligence, logic and creative thought.

Several years later, these two dogs had a litter of nine puppies, three of which were kept as parts of the family. Two of those three were not particularly notable except as being generally good dogs, Titan and Enceladus. The third, Mimas, was the most remarkable animal I have ever had the honor of being near. She exhibited a number of behaviors, each of which I cannot explain except by attributing to her a significant analytical ability. I have collected some of the anecdotes about her in a separate page, at Animal Insight, Intelligence, Logic.

(Yes, Phobos and Deimos were named for the two moons of Mars. When they had a litter of nine, at that time the planet Saturn was known to have nine moons, and I named each of them appropriately, so the three unusual names above arose that way.)

There are some other web-pages which are dog-centered:

Is There Animal Intelligence?
Animal Insight, Intelligence, Logic

Dogapult
The Chores of My Dogs
A Dog Birthday Calendar
The US is exterminating dogs
My Dog Meatball on Skis


This presentation was first placed on the Internet in June 1997.

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C Johnson, Theoretical Physicist, Physics Degree from Univ of Chicago