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Is Your Dog Smarter Than a 2-Year-Old?
A scientist’s observations

We’ve all heard that dogs and 2-year-old children are roughly equivalent in intelligence, but comparing across species is truly an apples and oranges sort of proposition.

I always want to ask about the age of the dog. Why does the human age matter while “dogs” seems to be an ageless concept? And I’m also curious about which dog and which person. Are we talking about a dog who knows 1,000 words or a more typical canine? Albert Einstein or someone less amazing? Whether you consider the basic premise behind the comparison problematic or not, it’s worth checking out, “Is Your Dog Smarter Than a 2-Year-Old?,” a recent opinion piece in The New York Times.

It’s written by Alexandra Horowitz (author of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know), who researches canine cognition and has a 2-year-old child. Horowitz starts by expressing her overall view of the assertion, with which I thoroughly agree, “From my perspective as a researcher of canine cognition, it at once overstates and understates dogs’ abilities to claim that they are equal in some unifying, cross-species 'intelligence' to 2-year-olds.”

She then writes that observations of her own 2-year-old child and dog remind her that people make this comparison because of some obvious behavioral similarities. The article takes a look at the behavior of both these individuals over a period of a week with some relevant science added to the mix.

It’s a fun read and is, as Horowitz puts it, “fully quasi-scientific.” She acknowledges that there are issues with making the comparison at all. More entertaining than enlightening, she compares many things that are not actually indicators of intelligence, such as the tendency to use one’s mouth to explore the world and being patient.

Still, I think the value of turning this question on its head as Horowitz has done is to encourage careful observation and to remind us, “There is no ruler that measures both dogs and little boys and girls. Just as a child is more than a young adult, a dog is more than—and much different from—a simple human. You are no more doing your dog a kindness by treating him as a child than you would be in treating your child as a dog.”

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Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression. She is the author of five books on canine training and behavior.

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