Sharman Horwood

Writer and Visual Artist

Intelligence: Cats and Dogs

If you’re at all interested in animal intelligence, I would recommend Frans De Waal’s Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? Well written and clear, the book brings up many important issues. One of the first for me is the problem of measuring intelligence in animals. For instance, he brings up the intelligence lists for dogs, with the border collie as the smartest, and Afghan hounds the least intelligent. Friends of De Waal owned an Afghan hound and pointed out that Afghans seem less intelligent because “they are independent-minded, stubborn, and unwilling to follow orders.” Instead, they maintained–and I have to agree with them–that the list measured obedience, not intelligence. We measure an animal’s willingness to obey directions as evidence of intelligence.

The reason I have to concur is because I owned one of the dumbest dogs I’ve ever known, another breed of dog that is often at the bottom of the intelligence lists: an Irish setter. Cary was amiable, up for any bit of adventure, and compulsive in her habits. She was also the most devious dog I’ve ever known, and clever about it. However, as far as behaviour with me, she was “independent-minded, stubborn, and unwilling to follow orders.” In other words, not easily trained.

I think I should have clued into this right from the beginning. Cary was the best thief I’ve ever known. (You might remember the story of her stealing a heavy, freshly made Christmas cake for breakfast for her puppies.) I used to love real chocolate eclairs, the kind with whipped cream in them, and good chocolate icing. If I treated myself, I’d leave the confectioner’s box on the counter top in the kitchen. The cat wouldn’t be interested in them, and Cary wasn’t likely to be able to reach them. I was a little naive: I didn’t think she could smell them there, either. As I expected, she totally ignored them. At least she did until I was watching television. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Cary hurry from the kitchen to the dining room, and there dive under the table. She was so fast I couldn’t tell if she was eating something. After thinking about this for a moment–and we’re not measuring my intelligence in this–I walked out to the kitchen, and everything looked exactly the same: the pastry box was closed, looking entirely undisturbed. I opened it to get an eclair for myself, and found one was missing. Somehow she’d lifted the lid, mouthed out one eclair without disturbing the other two, and let the lid fall back precisely where it should be.

She loved whipped cream. I went through a short period where I liked to have a Spanish coffee after supper topped with whipped cream. One night I put it down on the coffee table when someone rang the doorbell. Cary was sitting on the couch, her nose over the back, watching who was at the door. I went to speak to them, and was gone some minutes. When I came back, Cary was still looking out the window. I picked up my coffee, and she turned to look at me. The giveaway was her lips covered with a ring of rich whipped cream.

Cary could also be very deceptive, intentionally so. I lived in Saskatchewan at the time, and my family all lived in Vancouver. They would send Christmas presents in the mail, and I would place them in the closet until the Christmas tree was decorated; then I would put the gifts underneath the tree. On Christmas Eve, I went to bed looking forward to the next morning. I realized, though, that Cary wasn’t with me. As a companionable dog, she was compulsive about sleeping by the bed every night. I wondered if she wasn’t feeling well, and went to look for her. She was under the Christmas tree, tearing open one of my family’s gifts: a full box of Purdy’s chocolates, my favourite. She hadn’t expressed any interest in the parcels. She hadn’t gone near the closet where I’d stored them. Nor had she touched any of the parcels during the day while they’d sat under the tree and I was out of the room. No, she wanted more time to delve into them, time while I was well out of the way and she could explore that box in particular.

De Waal’s point is that we can’t measure intelligence in animals from a human perspective. They don’t learn in the same way we do, and they exhibit knowledge that is a bit more related to their living conditions in the wild. He points out team hunting in lions, wolves, wild dogs, even Harris hawks, “teams of which control the pigeons at London’s Trafalgar Square.” Humpback Whales cooperate with bubble-nets to hunt shoals of small fish, like sardines.

Cats will also hunt cooperatively. One of my favourite animal videos is of two cats alone in a kitchen. One cat leaps up and opens the refrigerator door. The second cat jumps into the fridge, picks up a Ziploc bag, and jumps down with it. This second cat then hurries off into the other room, firmly clenching the bag in its teeth, while the first cat jumps up into the fridge through the still open door. Meanwhile, you see a fleeting sight of the woman of the house hurtling after the cat with the bag, while the other cat roots around in the fridge to its heart’s content.

Dogs and cats are not as smart as wolves. Wolves’ brains are one-third larger than a dog’s and they have to survive in harsh conditions, which forces them to develop their ability to reason. Frankly, I think we should be thankful our pets are not as smart as wolves, at least not as far as we can know, given Cary and the cooperative cats.