Man's Best Friend Is Pretty Smart

Key West resident Stewart Reinhardt walks his dog Courage near the Southernmost Point in Key West, Oct. 21, 2005. There is a voluntary evacuation in effect for residents.
This story was written by Colin Woodard.

At Eotvos Lorand University's Department of Ethology, visitors are usually greeted not by a security guard, but by a delegation of friendly mongrels, tails wagging. Dogs have the run of the place. They play in classrooms, visit faculty members in their offices, or nap in the laboratories. Animals here are no surprise - ethology is the zoological study of animal behavior - but the total lack of cages is.

And why would there be, asks research fellow Adam Miklosi, who leads much of the research here into the cognitive abilities of man's best friend.

"If you were studying human behavior, you wouldn't keep your subjects in a cage for 20 years and then ask them some questions?" he asks with a smile. "These are animals who've been brought up in a normal way, which allows us to see and understand them in their natural environment, which is the human environment."

After a decade studying dogs in their human habitat, Mr. Miklosi and his colleagues have accumulated a body of evidence suggesting that dogs have far greater mental capabilities than scientists had thought.

Dogs' smarts, it turns out, come out in their relationships with people.

The implications of this research are more esoteric than the average dog owner may appreciate. The research doesn't exactly mean that dogs and their masters can enjoy Chaucer together, but it does mean scientists have reason to consider what dog-human communications may say about language skills development.

Another implication is that dogs may make better cognitive study subjects than primates, which have been the focus of the field thus far.

Until recently, domestication was thought to have dulled dogs' intelligence. Studies in the early 1980s showed that wolves, from which dogs probably descended, can unlock a gate after watching a human do it once, while dogs remained stumped after watching repeatedly.

That never sat well with Vilmos Csanyi, the recently retired head of Mr. Miklosi's department. Mr. Csanyi, who had dogs of his own, suspected the dogs were awaiting permission to open the gate, that they regarded opening the gate as a violation of their master's rules.