Canine Intelligence: How Our Understanding Continues To Grow

Making Light Work of a Heavy Snack

Making Light Work of a Heavy Snack

I was going to write an article this week about canine intelligence, but I quickly ran into a conundrum… they are intelligent in so many ways, I’m going to have to write a book, not a blog post!!!

Canine intelligence and what it means, stands for, and how it is represented is a hot topic these days. For a long time, we didn’t look at canines as intelligent, but rather we thought they were gifted with their nose, and something that we can train and mold to complete tasks.  Those tasks may have been something we didn’t want to do ourselves, or that we found canines could actually do more efficiently. While there are some magnificent examples of highly trained human trackers, a bloodhound’s nose is hard to beat.

But the tables have turned. Societal shifts have opened our eyes to explore our world through a different lens. We are more empathetic towards animals, their needs, and have turned our perspectives from being “master’s of the universe” to welfare minded “caretakers” (…this may be a generalization as there are still far too many people who either ignore or refuse to believe this, but that is a topic for another blog). We have begun to explore the possibilities not by what they can do for us, but rather what we can simply learn from them by taking a step back and looking at the world through their eyes.

We have come to understand that not all animals, especially dogs, are created equal. There is an unexplored intelligence that we are just beginning to uncover and attempt to understand. While being humans, we are still confined to understanding intelligence by how we have defined it, we are still uncovering many aspects of canine life that we once thought was completely untrue, or impossible.

I thought an easy way to share some of the ways that canines are amazing us, and showing just how intelligent they are, would be to group these concepts into areas we as humans tend to think about intelligence, and share some amazing links to some stories to demonstrate these areas.

Nose Work

Nose Work

Scent (nose) Intelligence:

This has been linked with canines for a long, long time. Helping on hunts, detecting predators lurking just outside our camps, canine olfaction has always been considered one of their strong suites. Imagine telling someone 30 years ago that scientific research would be able to show that they are actually so intelligent in this way, that they could in fact act as more reliable early warning detection systems for particular cancers than some of our best “man-made” medical equipment. Don’t believe me? Check out these links: (sorry, you can only access the abstract without purchase).

Google Search: Canine Cancer Detection, or Google Scholar: Canine VOC detection and then pick “since 2014” for the newest articles.

Verbal Intelligence:

Immediately one thinks “dogs don’t speak words, so how can they have a verbal intelligence!?”. Well canines bark, and these barks do mean something. Canines also have a very important, and complex body language that they use to “silently” speak to one another. They can ALSO read our body language and what we are doing and interacting with! Furthermore, canines are great listeners (OK, most of the time :)), and have an incredible ability to understand human language… now imagine living in a world where this is going on all the time!! That is some serious thinking power!


Chaser the Border collie has the same understanding of vocabulary as a three-year-old child:

Body Language:

Auditory: (a neat article in how dogs bark in different language courtesy of one of my Master’s Degree Professors, Stanley Coren)

What Did You Say!!?

What Did You Say!!?

Visual Intelligence:

People used to think of dogs as completely colour blind, but this is not true. We learnt at Bergin University that canines are dichromatic, not trichromatic, so to say they are colour blind is a misnomer. Canines can see colours in the environment; they just see them slightly differently than we do. Stan Coren writes:

“Instead of seeing the rainbow as violet, blue, blue-green, green, yellow, orange and red, dogs would see it as dark blue, light blue, gray, light yellow, darker yellow (sort of brown), and very dark gray. In other words, dogs see the colors of the world as basically yellow, blue and gray. They see the colors green, yellow and orange as yellowish, and they see violet and blue as blue. Blue-green is seen as a gray”. Reference:

One thing that Bergin University is demonstrating is that canines are capable of a form of reading. While not scientifically demonstrated how this occurs this video will get your grey cells working trying to figure out how they can look at a cue card and understand what it means without any auditory reinforcement by the trainer in the later stages of their training! AMAZING!! (I LOVE MY SCHOOL!) (this is an older video… facility has changed (now for three years).

Physical Intelligence:

While I alluded to canine’s inability to open jars earlier (not having opposable thumbs will do that), they do have an amazing ability when it comes to their physicality and using it in intelligent ways. Anyone (like myself) who has worked within Service Dog organizations can certainly attest to this. The ways that they are able to help out it truly amazing! – Turning on a light switch (Sae can sure raise her voice up high!! What Excitement!! All students at Bergin work with canines training for full service certification). -learning to pull a wheel chair at Bergin’s new facility. -Zoom Learning to recycle bottles (this was early on in my Master’s Program). We are required to teach our own dogs a higher-level job by shaping and linking smaller instructions together.

With all this said, I must also put in a disclaimer. These changes to our mindsets have gotten us excited, and the media excited, to seek out and find out more about canine intelligence. It is important that we continue forward with an open mind, but also be careful not to jump to any conclusions before we are able to match our gut feelings with rigorous studies that either approve or disprove particular theories and ideas. This isn’t to say that these intelligences we witness don’t exist, we just need to put our thinking caps on to determine how we can accurately measure and record. Our canines are truly amazing. They offer emotional and physical support, they can help us live longer, and they always seem to bring a smile to our faces. I am a firm believer that we are just beginning to truly understand our canines, so next time you are looking into your dogs eyes wondering what they are thinking, just know, they are looking right back at you, and might be wondering the same thing. -J