When Dogs and Cats are More Perceptive (Smarter?) than Humans

A client asked last week: “Who do you think is smarter, dogs or cats?” After pondering for a short moment I responded……”we need to add humans to that mix.”
The age old question of which species is smarter is never an easy one. Do we consider survival capability? Problem solving? The ability to know what one another want without vocalizing? Trainability to be able to perform certain tasks? Using the word “smarter” when assessing the intelligence of animals or humans makes for a difficult interpretation.

This brings us to the additional thought of how do animals perceive their environment as compared to humans? We use sight, smell, sound, touch and taste as our primary means of input. Recently a client lent me a book entitled “The Soul of an Octopus”. It was fascinating in its description of the numerous emotions and reactions that have been witnessed by people who have worked with this species for a long time. It is clear that octopuses can show signs of recognition of certain people, mischievousness, the ability to solve problems, desire for friendship, and sometimes even the knowledge of their own impending demise. How do they do this? They seem to possess many of the same senses as cats, dogs and humans but clearly they have additional perceptive capabilities that go beyond the basics.

Consider this event I witnessed several years ago. At the time we had two young, exuberant and fun loving Irish Setters, Red and Al. They both loved their rawhide chews and this particular night we awarded them each a brand new one. They both grabbed theirs and headed for opposite corners of the same room to settle in for a good chew. As they laid down and settled in, Red and Al abruptly looked up at each other from twenty feet away, dropped their respective treasures and simultaneously switched positions and chews and resumed occupying themselves by chewing each other’s treat. There was no skirmish, minimal eye contact, no posturing, no vocalization, just a non verbal “agreement” to switch prizes. How did they communicate? Aura? Thought? Electrical impulse? Facial expression? Pheromones? As one client jokes……”How did they send the memo?” Just another mystery of the universe.

We have all heard the stories of cats and dogs saving lives, keeping vigil over a sick owner, protecting a child when something seemed wrong, running for help though untrained to do such, waking an owner when a fire started elsewhere in the house…..the stories go on and on. How do they achieve this? Is it intelligence, instinct, heightened capabilities of the basic senses or, as in the octopus, additional capability to perceive their environment and communicate using highly developed receptors in a way that we can not?

So when it comes to asking who is smarter, it is better phrased who has the most useful “perceptive capabilities” for a given challenge. For cats their ability to assess and evaluate their environment is directed mostly toward personal safety, comfort and survival. Dogs, on the other hand, like to use their problem solving and performance learning skills to achieve a task, please their human companions and receive a reward (often one that can be consumed). For humans……. well I will diplomatically leave that answer to the social psychologists.

If you have stories to share regarding behavior that a pet may have exhibited suggesting perception beyond what we generally consider the basic senses, please feel free to tell us. I’m sure many of you, as do I, consider animal behavior fascinating.