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Dog Intelligence and Emotion

by Lexiann Grant 
Email: lexiann@frognet.net
Copyright© 2001

The following article has been provided by the above author. All copy rights are held by the author and any reproduction of this material in whole or in part must have the authors approval.



by Lexiann Grant
In the following article, author Lexiann Grant, was interviewed by a student intern at the Miami Herald on the subject of canine emotions and intelligence. The questions and answers below are a summary of that interview.

Question Miami Herald Intern (QMHI): 
Are dogs more intelligent than we give them credit for being?

Answer Lexiann Grant (ALG):
Absolutely. For most of the thousands of years that dogs have lived side by side with humankind, they were viewed in primarily a utilitarian manner -- as hunting aids, or farm workers. This relationship was self-limiting in that humans did not expect more and were unaware of canine potential.

When we look at what a dog can accomplish without special training, say, saving the life of a loved one by warning them of a fire in the home, it is even more amazing what they can be trained to do. Early on we learned to develop their natural instincts to do such things as guard livestock or hunt, now they help us in many capacities including serving as ears for hearing impaired persons, leading the blind, as arson detection dogs and much more.

As humans ask "What can a dog learn to do?", we raise the expectation and discover that dogs are capable of learning a great deal more than originally believed, and that they are capable of using that knowledge to interact with humans in helpful, meaningful ways.

The scientific community, in particular animal behaviorists, have only recently begun to study animal intelligence on a serious level. The findings of some of the initial studies are astounding -- that some non-human animals can comprehend abstract ideas, symbols, new concepts, and, can analyze situations and choose varied but appropriate responses for their reactions.

Personally I believe that there has always been much more to the canine mind than what we have in the past permitted ourselves to perceive. Believing this is no longer the wishful thinking of a pet owner anthropomorphizing their own thoughts onto those of their dog's. Rather, dogs have recognizable intelligence.

Do dogs have a similar state of mind as humans? Do they share our emotions? For example, when a dog's owner returns home after being gone and their canine companion shows happiness or is excited, is it because their human is back and the dog is truly happy that they have returned, or do you think they know food is now available to them?

Intellect or intelligence, and emotion, are two different things. However, in addition to intelligence, the field of animal emotions are also now being investigated in depth by scientists. The result? Animals do have recognizable emotions. Many animals, particularly the dog, are social animals. In order to live in a society or pack, or even within a human family, it is necessary to use intellect to survive and maintain order.
Emotions come into play when the members of an animal social group interact with one another -- playing, respecting the pack leader (or head human), appearing to be lonely or missing another pack member when they are gone. Are they the same as what humans feel? I can't know for certain, but I strongly feel they are similar and serve similar functions.

Do my dogs miss me when I'm gone? Are they happy when I return? Yes, I believe they are. I've had this discussion with a few trainers who believe that dogs are intelligent enough to know that when their human is gone, they can't get the food necessary to their survival. These trainers believe that everything a dog does is done out of what they instinctually know to be in their best interest. However, I have seen instances where food is forgotten, or someone else is providing the food and the dog still appears sad when their human is away and happy when they return. In my opinion that makes the "instinct to please in order to survive" theory less of a complete explanation.

The bond, the connection that I share with my dogs is primarily one of emotion. I do not have dogs for them to perform tasks for me. And I certainly don't have them just to provide the items necessary for their survival. I choose to live with dogs because of the emotional relationship that enhances and enriches my life.

What do these emotions, this emotional interaction, do for the dogs? The connection is not one way, but is reciprocal. I feel my dogs loving me and I believe they feel my love for them. We play together, I laugh, they look as if they are happy. At night we cuddle up together and there is a comforting peace. My dogs are healthy and content. And given a choice, I don't think that if they could, they would chose to live anywhere else. The food and shelter may be equally as good elsewhere, but they would remain here because of emotions -- the emotional bond that nourishes their minds and souls*, not just their bodies.

* This raises another issue: Do dogs have souls? I'll leave that discussion to the philosophers and theologians for now! Personally I think that every living being has a soul.

Do dogs understand our verbal communication to them, or have they just memorized certain sounds and motions of ours?

Studies have shown recently that dogs, cats, horses and some other animals recognize certain words or sounds. As in human societies, each culture has it's own language or dialect, as well as symbolic gestures. In order to live within the bounds of these societies, members of the society, and even outsiders who wish to become a part of the society, learn the special words or motions in order to communicate more accurately with one another.

This could apply to dogs living with humans: They learn our language and gestures in order to conduct the communication necessary to live with us on our terms. Do they understand us? They appear to understand very well much of what we say to or request of them on a regular basis.

My dogs clearly comprehend what I mean when I say to them, "dinner, sit, treat, stay, walk" or "ride." Trainers and behaviorists explain that this recognition is the tone we use when we say these words to dogs that causes them to react. However, if I speak in a normal tone they still respond appropriately. If I use an excited voice to say words meaningless to them, such as "laundry" or "light," they ignore me.

What about when we don't say or gesture any communication to them? When we purposely block body language so it can't be said that they are just reading the motions we make? I have witnessed too many episodes of dogs responding appropriately to a human, interacting with them, to not believe that they somehow understand us.

A non-doggy person might call me crazy, but I carry on conversations with my dogs. It is an outlet for me that provides a compassionate audience. Although their response is non-linguistic, they do communicate with me and are an active part of the conversation. When I'm sad, they snuggle and are gentle and loving, not playful or rough. When I share good news with them, they respond by jumping around or by bringing me one of their toys. To me, this illustrates in the dog, a certain degree of intelligence and emotion, as well the ability to read, understand and interact with us.

Whether it's words, tone, gestures, body language or even telepathy, it doesn't matter, it's all communication.

How long have you observed and read about canine behavior?

Casually for 20 years, more seriously for seven years. I am an award-winning dog-columnist and freelance writer. I have served as educational liaison for a local dog club, and volunteer with various dog rescue programs. My husband and I have shown our dogs in conformation and agility and have trained them for obedience; some of them are therapy dogs. In college I studied philosophy, sociology and psychology.

What are your overall views of our canine friends?

I enjoy their company, their behavior and watching them think. I love them immensely and cannot imagine my life without them in it. Because of a dog -- their emotions and intelligence -- I:

Have a career;

Have been lifted from depression;

Found a new, more profound meaning in my life;

Coped successfully with a long recovery from chronic illness;

Learned what is truly important in my daily life…and what is not;
Know about love freely given and received without judgment.

If you believe dogs experience emotions, do you think that they are the only animals who do? Why? What other animals do you feel possess this state of mind?

As I stated above, I believe that every living being has a soul, and if they have a soul, then it probably follows that they must also experience emotions as part of their life.

Other animals which I have observed personally, or about which I have read in various studies that have shown to exhibit emotion and intelligence include a large variety of primates, bears, pigs, horses, cattle, cats, a few various rodents, elephants and so forth. For those interested in learning more about animal intelligence and emotion, readers can research the work of Marc Bekoff, Jane Goodall, Rupert Sheldrake or Mary Lou Randour; these are just a few of the scientist currently working in this field.


As we enter the new millennium, humans are being called to review their relationships with pets and all animals. We share one world together, are all part of one creation. Since we have domesticated some animals and placed others in captivity, it is our responsibility and duty to care for them with the utmost respect for their lives and well-being and this includes their emotional and intellectual well-being. Through this stewardship, we can come to fully realize the depth and joy of the bond we are privileged to share with dogs…and other animals.

Lexiann Grant; copyright 2000, 2001


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