Waiting for a Treat: Sign of Dog Intelligence

Important aspects about your dog’s problem-solving skills can be revealed when you have him wait for a treat.

Your dog's ability to wait for a treat may predict how well your pet solves problems, and could even reveal at least certain aspects of Fido's intelligence.

The key skill is inhibitory control, according to a new study published in PLOS ONE. A dog or other animal that lets emotion and impatience get in the way of self-control appears to be far less successful in solving problems.

The ability is even inherited, at least in part.

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"It seems safe to say that inhibitory control has a genetic component, but is also subject to environmental influences," lead author Corsin Müller from the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna told Discovery News.

While practice helps, it does not make perfect in dogs.

"I would not expect that every dog can reach the ‘perfect' level of inhibitory control," Müller said.

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Studies on young children have come to similar conclusions, but humans have another problem-solving ability. It's our talent for figuring out the physical rules underlying a challenge, and then applying that knowledge, when needed, to other problems.

For example, a child may figure out that a key opens the front door. When presented with another key, the child could use it to open something else, understanding its function and the relationship between keys and locks. Dogs turn out to be not so good at detecting such underlying physical rules.

The new study looked at how well 40 border collie dogs performed in a variety of tasks observed over a period of 18 months, starting when the dogs were puppies. Just the one breed was analyzed, to avoid behavioral and other variations seen between different types of dogs.

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The dogs in the study were divided into three groups as puppies. One group received a set of toys that offered dogs opportunities to learn about means-to-an-end connections, the effects of gravity and other defined learning objectives. The second group received similar toys, but these toys were not associated with such clear learning objectives. The third and final group grew up with balls, ropes, rubber toys and other basic playthings.

The researchers predicted that the dogs raised with the first set of toys would do better at later physical problem-solving tasks, but this was not the case.

"When it comes to understanding how a particular task can be solved, what dogs learned when solving previous tasks does not seem to help them in solving other tasks with similar underlying physical rules," Müller explained.

He added, however, that "for one problem-solving task, dogs with better inhibitory control scores indeed performed significantly better than dogs with poorer control scores."

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The outcome of classic "wait-for-treat" games, where the owner shows the treat to a dog and then makes Fido wait for it (sometimes with the pup doing a trick on command in the meantime), seems to be a better predictor of the dog's future problem-solving success.

Does this then mean that good inhibitory control in dogs and other animals is tied to intelligence? The researchers leave that as a somewhat open question.

As Müller said, "Concerning intelligence: this is not a term we are using much, because it is a rather vague concept without a clear definition. One could see inhibitory control as a component underlying seemingly intelligent behavior, though."

This Maltese shows impatience in waiting for a treat.

Creatures both big and small made the list of the top 10 most intelligent organisms on the planet, proving that bigger isn't always better when it comes to brains. The new list, created by neuropsychiatrist

Jon Lieff

, includes animals that have been widely known for their smarts, as well as some surprising entries. Boston-based Lieff, who is a past president of the American Association for Geriatric Psychiatry, specializes in the interface between psychiatry, neurology, and medicine. Such interdisciplinary research is leading to a better understanding on how human and other mammal brains age, which may shed light on treatments for common disorders, such as dementia. Included on the list are bees, which Lieff said use symbolism and abstract concepts to solve problems in their daily lives. "They have a kaleidoscopic memory of every flower for miles, and learn from wise elders where the best flowers are," he told Discovery News. "Bees self medicate in their hives in different ways, and engineer the very complex honeycomb structures that are the most efficient possible for honey storage."

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Do not let their squishy tentacles fool you. Octopuses are extremely intelligent, according to Lieff, who explained that they spread cultural information, mimic others and communicate using colors, patterns and flashing. "They have advanced spatial learning capacity, navigational abilities and use creative predatory techniques," he added. "They manipulate objects as well as the human hand does."

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Elephants have highly evolved social capabilities and often show wise, compassionate and loving behaviors, Lieff said. Elephants have amazing memories and can remember friends and enemies for a half century or more, depending on their health and lifetime. (Elephants in the wild can live to about 60, and the oldest known elephant on record -- in captivity -- reached the age of 86.) "In captivity, elephants have become excellent artists," Lieff said. "Elephant communication is elaborate involving many different vocalizations, and they 'speak' to family five miles away. Elephants are extremely collaborative, consoling and cooperative, and deeply mourn their dead."

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Ants are the ultimate team players, but they display great individual intelligence as well, according to Lieff. The insects can navigate long distances with ease, remembering their lengthy routes. "Ants care for their family similar to many mammals and show altruism for comrades," Lieff said, mentioning that ants are the second society on earth (after termites) to develop agriculture. Human-established agriculture evolved much later.

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Dolphins continue to astound researchers. These marine mammals in captivity can remember the communications of their fellow tank mates for at least 20 years, according to Lieff. "They also immediately notice themselves in a mirror, and are very creative in inventing new ways to fish," he continued. "They wear sponges on their noses to protect themselves near rocks. They have advanced social relations with humans, such as herding large schools of fish toward fishermen wading in the water with nets. When the fish are about to come in contact with the nets, the dolphins signal the fishermen by slapping the water."

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Birds are among the smartest of animals, with two groups making this particular list. The first are crows. "Crows are aware of themselves and are able to use counting and analogies," Lieff said. "They can solve higher-order, relational-matching tasks spontaneously. They use tools better than most (non-human) primates, molding wire into a hook and using three different tools for one task." He added that studies reveal crows understand the Archimedes principle, which holds that the upward buoyant force exerted on a body immersed in a fluid, whether fully or partially submerged, is equal to the weight of the fluid that the body displaces. This knowledge allows crows to manipulate water levels to access food.

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Curious and playful, cockatoos are also incredibly smart. Lieff explained that cockatoos use multi-step techniques to solve problems, such as figuring out how a complex cage lock works. For example, Lieff said one clever cockatoo figured out a lock that required removal of a screw, followed by removal of a bolt, then turning a wheel 90 degrees before finally shifting a latch sideways. Other cockatoos that watched this happen quickly repeated the successful maneuver. A quick search at YouTube also reveals that cockatoos "completely disprove the notion that animals can't dance," Lieff said.

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Lizards do not get a lot of recognition for their intelligence, but Lieff believes it is time they did. Anole lizards, in particular, continue to impress researchers with their cognitive skills. Anoles demonstrate counting, advanced learning and problem solving, he said, adding that their memories are extraordinary. In captivity, these lizards can "invent techniques that they don't use in the wild. They can use multiple different strategies (to solve puzzles) and can unlearn incorrect approaches, rapidly reversing course."

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Dogs are so loyal to humans that they often don't get credit for their own intelligence. "From a purely cognitive vantage point, dogs have learned up to a thousand different words," Lieff said. He added that "service dogs demonstrate creativity and high intelligence" in saving others. Canines can also accurately read human emotions.

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Rounding out the list are whales, which demonstrate elaborate communication techniques and cultural exchange. "They work together for creative fishing techniques, with each whale in a designated role," Lieff said. For example, he explained three whales sometimes line up in a row while beating their tails together. This creates waves that can knock a seal off an ice perch. Whales also swim beneath a school of fish in circles, blowing air bubble "nets," which trap the fish. This requires a lot of team organization, as some whales do the diving while others make calls in order to herd the fish. Such teamwork is passed on to other generations.

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Missing from this Top 10 list are humans and other primates, which clearly excel at social communication, cooperation, tool making and much more. But can a species measure with complete accuracy its own intelligence compared to that of other animals? It's near impossible, since that judgment can only be based on the particular animal's values, brain structure and way of thinking.

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