Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?

Updated: Jul 28, 2020

Fortunately, dogs don't judge us, based upon the perspective of their primary sense- intelligence, their sense of smell. If they did, they might be tempted to view us as morons, due to our feeble sense of smell compared to theirs. While we can smell a cheeseburger that is right in front of us, they can smell it from a great distance, and can separate the smell of the meat, the cheese, the bun, the tomato, and the scent of the specific person who assembled it.

Frans De Waal, the primatologist at Emory University in Georgia, has been named by Time Magazine as one of the top 100 Most Influential People. He is the author of the book "Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are." In his work with numerous species, he provides ample evidence that our outdated view of intelligence as a mechanistic ladder, with humans at the top of the rung, is false and counter-productive. All the old models of evaluating intelligence levels are crumbling in the wake of new scientific inquiry and the dividing line between so-called high, human intelligence and animal intelligence is becoming harder to define.

We know that many species use, design, and modify tools. Several species have been shown to have a sense of self and a grasp of time -- memories of the past, and anticipation and even planning for the future. Our outdated image of humans as being the preeminent species is crumbling under the weight of animal empathy and compassion, and the level of violence and destruction that humans wage against themselves and all of nature.

We are in the midst of a wonderful revolution in the study of animal cognition. And some brave researchers are even willing to pose the question of animal consciousness. Researchers are showing us how octopuses in aquariums can continually outsmart the people who are responsible for them. Elephants, Prairie Dogs, Crows (just to name a few) can distinguish whether humans are male or female, young or old, naughty or nice. Frans De Waal has provided a huge body of research to show how Capuchin monkeys will not work for unequal pay, how they will insist on fairness for their fellow monkeys. We could learn something from their very intelligent respect for each other!

Here is a Ted Talk with Frans De Waal that gives great insight into the Morality of Animals. It gives great insight into the depth of cooperation amongst animals and the sense of justice and reciprocity. He also shows how they will choose to help each other when given a choice and console each other when they are stressed.

Animal Intelligence & Cognition

Fortunately, dogs are too gracious to analyze or judge human intelligence, from their perspective. After all, they can sniff cancer cells, detect contraband or explosives from a great distance, find missing children by tracking a scent, and predict earthquakes and other natural disasters. We are lucky they put up with us at all, given how often they have been mistreated. Who are we, with our crude olfactory power to judge any other species? Clearly we humans have a faulty high view of our own intelligence. But it is time to recognize the levels or spectrum of intelligence, and to begin to understand that there are many kinds, and in some cases, superior to ourselves.

For a long time, language was considered such strong criteria for intelligence. Words are powerful -- but they can also be used to lie and deceive. Now that we have begun to understand some of the rich, and effective ways animals communicate with each other, our eyes are starting to open. With Koko, the Gorilla learning sign language, we have started to understand animal memory, emotions, and complex desires. We are just starting to decode communication systems of elephants, dolphins, crows, and many more species. We now understand that even fish feel pain, and every species (we have studied) dreams.

De Waal invites us to reexamine our framework for intelligence and consciousness, instead of swimming in our own prejudices and misconceptions. In order to evaluate intelligence in another species, one has to take great care not to simply impose the structure of intelligence of one’s own species. Dogs have unique forms of intelligence, or methods of navigating their world, such as what has sometimes been referred to as the homing instinct, that can allow dogs to travel hundreds of miles across unknown territory to find their way back home.

Dogs have the ability to communicate with their own species and to understand much about ours, with instantaneous and accurate methods that make our communication styles seem positively primitive for our ambivalence, inaccuracy, or ignorance of simple truth. If awareness were rated as a measure of intelligence, dogs would score very highly.

Dr. Brian Hare, of Duke University, coined the term “Dognition” and has created assessments to help owners better understand their specific dog’s cognitive abilities, such as problem-solving capacity, thinking and learning skills. His Dognition assessment tools examine five core dimensions -- empathy, communication, cunning, memory, and reasoning. Dr. Hare’s work was featured in a Sixty Minutes TV interview with Anderson Cooper and shows the progress science is making with understanding the multi-layered capacity of the canine brain.

Another important contribution comes from Rupert Sheldrake, who has expanded our concept of greater animal awareness than is normally credited to pets. Sheldrake was the former Director of Cell Biology and Biochemistry at Cambridge University and a Royal Society research fellow. He presented a paper to the Society of Companion Animal Studies at Cambridge University’s Veterinary School in 1996, in which he reported on tests in which pets had been videotaped in their home as their owners, away at their place of work, prepared to return home. Even if this timing was completely random, and not the usual time the owner would embark on returning, or if the owners returned in a different mode of transportation, the animals seemed to indicate an awareness of their owner’s intention to return.

The London Times reported this story in 1996, of Sheldrake’s experiments that imply that animals have a spiritual connection or consciousness bond with their owners: “Up to 46 percent of the dogs knew that their masters were coming home up to an hour before they arrived. Dr. Sheldrake calls the bond between dogs and their owners a kind of “invisible stretched elastic bond.”

In Sheldrake’s own words, “I suggest that telepathic communication depends on bonds between people and animals – bonds that are not mere metaphors, but actual connections. They are connected through fields called morphic fields.” In his book Dogs that Know When Their Owners are Coming Home, Sheldrake noted that cats seem to know when their owners are planning to take them to the vet, and promptly disappear. Even if those owners have learned not to take the cat carrier out until the last moment, the cats seem to know the owner’s intention. Sheldrake polled 65 veterinary offices to see how often cat appointments got canceled due to sudden cat disappearance sometime before the scheduled visit. Sixty-four of the offices said it was a common experience, and the other one said it was so common that they stopped making appointments for cats, and just let them arrive unscheduled.

Sheldrake has over a thousand examples of dogs that anticipate the return of their owners, as demonstrated by video cameras that record their behavior. The dogs suddenly get up from a resting or sleeping position, and go and sit by a window, door, or gate that the owner uses to enter the house. This is true even if the owner returns at irregular, unplanned times, arrives in a different vehicle, and no one in the house was expecting the return. Sheldrake cites many stories of dogs knowing their owners were returning from military deployments, even when others in the household were unaware of the imminent return. What is most significant about these studies, is that the animal reacts the moment the owner intends to return. This suggests a telepathic connection to the owner’s emotions and thoughts rather than a scent trail.

The Famous Corgi's

Sheldrake quotes Queen Elizabeth II’s head gamekeeper, Bill Meldrum:

"When her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visits her estate at Sandringham, England, the staff does not need to be told when she is approaching because her gundogs have already alerted them. All the dogs in the kennels start barking the moment she reaches the gate – and that is half a mile away.

Sheldrake’s research indicates that animals have their own specific form of telepathy when they are deeply bonded with a human being. Sheldrake’s studies indicate a little over 50% of dogs exhibit this telepathic connection with their owner’s intentions. In the meantime let's continue to investigate further the possibility of working with animals as a spiritual practice of improving mind-to-mind communication.

Genie Joseph, PhD

Director: The Human-Animal Connection



Recent Posts

See All

Make a donation

Please consider making a donation to support our work. The Human-Animal Connection is a non-profit 501c3 organization. All donations are tax deductible.