24/04/2014 05:49 BST | Updated 23/06/2014 06:59 BST

Is My Dog Smarter Than Me?


One of our dogs, Gonzo the Vizsla, will eat anything, even a blueberry or a lettuce leaf dressed with vinegar. The other, Roodie the Border Collie, eyes anything new with suspition, food included, and will accept raw meat, but anything else is seen as an attempt to poison him. He watches to see what Gonzo eats and then will sometimes take the risk when she does. This seems to be his rule of thumb (not that he has an opposable thumb, had he, dogs would surely rule the world) for most new things and situations.

Today, at our favourite spot in Richmond Park, "leg o mutton pond", i threw a ball into the cold water. Gonzo doesn't go for balls in water, and Roodie, though he normally would, was bored of the game having found a stick he preferred, and decided not to. At that point i started encouraging them to "get the ball", but neither dog would. Eventually i got out my bag of treats, and said again "go on - get the ball!". The penny dropped for the incredibly greedy Gonzo, and though she hates water, she leapt in and swam out for the ball. When she got back to the bank, she dropped the ball on dry land and came bounding to a halt, sat at my feet, nose to the bag of treats, an expectant look on her face that said "i've performed my side of the deal! Where's my treat?". I gave her two treats, huge congratulations, and marvelled at how mentally underated dogs are.

I've taken Gonzo to Kennel Club agility classes, and the Kennel Club examiner who awarded Gonzo her Bronze, commented on how remarkably intelligent, but also keen to try new things, she is. An unusual combination as in the wild, curiousity and risk taking costs lives.

As a long time owner of Border Collies, I am used to extremely smart dogs who have even used the doorbell with training, but Gonzo's behaviour sometimes outclasses any dog i've met. I contacted a well known dog behaviourist and asked his opinion on Gonzo's intelligence. "How is it", I asked, "that i can drop a ball from any window in the house, and the Vizsla will shoot outside to the exact location, while every other dog i have studied, stands and looks at the window from where the ball was dropped, and often has to be prevented from jumping out?". (This applies to other people's houses too, so it isn't merely Gonzo knowing the house... Also we've moved a few times). The response I got was that, while collies may be the brightest dogs, they are motivated very strongly by wanting to please, trick training etc, wheras, Gonzo seems to be an independent problem solver, often working alone to get what she wants. Maybe going through the bins is more of a sign of intelligence than doing an agility course perfectly in minimum time!

Secondly, as my only dog for the first 5 years of her life, and my constant companion, Gonzo's brain has perhaps been pushed to develop by continuously being challenged by new situations and interaction. And lastly, perhaps too, the diet she has had plays some part. Gonzo has eaten yoghurt, apple cider vinegar, coconut oil, all sorts of natural products alongside her raw food since she first arrived. There is a strong link between nutrition and brain growth and size.

I bought Gonzo a dog "IQ Test" which required squares to be moved on a board to release treats. As you can imagine, it was completed and empty within two seconds flat.

Monkeys are often heralded as almost our equals because they use tools. A Chimp can point to a button on a screen that says "biscuits". Well in her own way, Gonzo uses tools, bringing me her food dish or her lead, to get a desired response. She knows to step on the bin step to get the lid open when she thinks i can't see her. She has learnt that the chickens are not to be bothered or she is sent to bed. She knows to carry their eggs very very gently or they crack. She has learnt that some behaviours are worth repeating and give her what she wants, while others are not. That not only makes her smart, but smarter than many humans! Her limits lie in my teaching ability only. When Gonzo is disobedient, it's because she thinks she has a better idea. Food or fun are always at the top of her to do list.

Did you know that there is a dog on the internet who can drive? And another who can distribute the post in his household, recognising the letter shapes for each family member? Perhaps the biggest sign that dogs are cleverer than us though, is that we follow them around carrying their poo in bags, we feed them, love them and let them share our homes for free and pay for their healthcare. Now that's smart.