It’s still often thought that human hunter gatherers captured wolf puppies and raised them and that's how dogs were created from wolves. But really!!? I honestly think this theory is very unlikely, given the fact that the relationship with wolves was such competitive one.
The canine certainly seems to be an incredibly successful species, but how did they really evolve from wolves and become our much valued best friends with great intelligence and learning abilities? There are probably many answers but I think one at the forefront for me has to be that the dog has developed to be cognitively flexible.
Through modern research and more recent studies of dogs, it has been discovered that dogs are undoubtedly a lot more intelligent than we ever thought (and most people give them credit for!). There are many types of intelligence, such as memory, navigation, inhibitory control and social learning, just because one subject has an amazing memory, it doesn't mean that they are a great social learner. Which would be more intelligent? The dog that has a really amazing navigational skills, or the one that is a great social learner?
So trying to work out which individual dog is more intelligent just isn’t clear cut, all types of intelligence are internal, hidden in the wonder of the mind; they are internal mental processes.
In our modern world dogs are doing more jobs than ever before, dogs are helping people in more ways than ever thought possible, saving lives, assistance/service dogs, military dogs, medical detection dogs, search and rescue dogs to name a few. It’s their amazing flexibility that makes them a success at these jobs.
The most important emphasis here is flexibility, as without flexible behaviour, there is no cognition.
Studies and research have revealed that domestic dogs are remarkably capable at reading human social and communicative behaviour, these skills appear to be more flexible, and possibly more human-like, than those of other animals who are more closely related to humans, such as chimpanzees and other great apes.
I don’t think it is so surprising that dogs are so capable at using human behavioural cues, when you think of a domestic dog interacting in the family home. For example, if you throw a ball for your dog to fetch and then you turn your back, the dog will almost always bring the ball back around your body to drop it in front of you. Your dog has used flexible prediction of your behaviour (by predicting where your front is, based on the fact/evidence of you turning around) evaluating the perceptions (is aware by observing), intentions and knowledge of you (your dog knows you will more than likely throw the ball if he drops it in front of you).
In the last ten years or so there has been a huge increase in research focusing on dog psychology and cognition. This research opens up our whole approach to multi-dimensional canine intelligence that dogs have such as empathy, communication, cunning, memory, and reasoning that are relevant to their flexible problem solving, and in some cases, their ability to infer the solution to problems they've never seen before.
Although research shows dogs’ have good social cognition and how they use it to solve problems; Research also suggests that while they are very sophisticated socially (in terms of interacting with us), when it comes to physical thinking they may not be that remarkable.
By physical thinking I mean thinking in terms of connectivity, solidity, gravity and even what they understand about themselves.
Without doubt dogs can learn to ‘act out’ a solution to a problem relating to physical thinking, they can learn with lots of repetition, to behave as if they understand in a limited context. However if we were to give them a completely new problem, without learning or lots of repetition, their lack of understanding of the new problem would likely make them fail.
The science that has been generated about dog cognition and psychology has got to be hugely beneficial to the dog training world in general, adding more tools to enable us train dogs more effectively than we already do is amazing. A lot of dog training is about repetition and the more you repeat a behaviour or a behavioural pattern, the better that a dog gets at solving the problem as the dog builds muscle memory and a neural pathway. However this isn’t going to allow a dog to solve a new or even just slightly different problem.
So now, when I am training, and I come across a problem, instead of being frustrated or irritated that I can't seem to teach my dog a certain behaviour - I think of why, in cognitive terms and how can I help my dog be more flexible in their learning.
Understanding cognition in dogs certainly helps me appreciate the different types of canine intelligence and cognitive learning abilities, which I hope helps make me a better trainer.