A Trusted Friend in a Complicated World

16 Ways Dogs Are Smarter Than You Think

When it comes to intelligence, dogs are at the head of the class.

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Afternoon Happiness
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They’re masters of communication

“Your dog may be able to figure out the best ways to communicate what she wants,” says Amanda Landis-Hanna, DVM, senior manager of Veterinary Outreach for PetSmart Charities. “Many dogs have different whines or barks that mean different things. She may learn that you respond to a high-pitched whine with a treat and a lower pitched whine with a belly rub.” Check out the scientific reason dogs tilt their heads.

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puppy Border Collie gives paw
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They have an extensive vocabulary

They may not be able to respond in kind, but according to psychologist and leading canine researcher Stanley Coren, PhD, of the University of British Columbia, dogs can understand much of what you say. The average dog can learn 165 words, while those in the top 20 percent of dog intelligence can understand up to 250 words. “The upper limit of dogs’ ability to learn language is partly based on a study of a border collie named Rico who showed knowledge of 200 spoken words and demonstrated ‘fast-track learning,’ which scientists believed to be found only in humans and language learning apes,” Coren says. Find out 13 unbelievable facts you never knew about your pooch.

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Profile view of a beautiful young woman petting her dog and giving it a kiss at a park

They prefer dog-speak

Similar to the way that adults bond with babies using “baby-talk,” a study from University of York’s Department of Psychology found that dogs are more interested in interacting and spending time with humans who communicate in “dog-speak.” Alex Benjamin, Ph.D student, explains that dogs “need to hear dog-relevant words spoken in a high-pitched emotional voice in order to find it relevant.” Squealing “Who’s a good boy?” in your highest voice is simply a good way to bond with your pup. Find out more secrets your pet isn’t telling you.

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American Pit Bull Terrier, Dog smell something in the park
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They can picture what they smell

According to a study published in the Journal of Comparative Psychology, dogs create a “mental representation” of objects they are tracking through smell. Whether its a ball, chew toy, or treat, dogs make an assumption of what they will find at the end of a scent trail and are surprised if what they find doesn’t match their expectation. Using its incredible sense of smell, this dog saved a missing person in a way no human could.

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dog licks a cat, love, friendship, big and small

They are brainier than cats

“I believe the absolute number of neurons an animal has, especially in the cerebral cortex, determines the richness of their internal mental state and their ability to predict what is about to happen in their environment based on past experience,” says Suzana Herculano-Houzel, associate professor of psychology and biological sciences at Vanderbilt University. And according to a study in which she participated, dogs possess significantly more neurons in their cerebral cortex than cats—530 million vs 250 million. (For comparison, humans have 16 billion cortical neurons.) The findings mean that “dogs have the biological capability of doing much more complex and flexible things with their lives than cats can,” she explains. Never lose your pet again with these well-rated GPS trackers. 

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sad looking dog in front of wooden fence.
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They use facial expressions to communicate

Dogs may get excited when rewarded with a tasty treat, but they are much more expressive when humans are looking at them, according to research from the University of Portsmouth. According to dog cognition expert Juliane Kaminski, Ph.D, who led the study, dogs are sensitive to humans’ attention and produce more expressions when someone is watching. “We can now be confident that the production of facial expressions made by dogs are dependent on the attention state of their audience and are not just a result of dogs being excited,” she says. The most common expression used in this research? “Puppy dog eyes” or brow raising.

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Beautiful young woman with dog in green sunny nature

They can tell the difference between happy and angry faces

According to a study published in Current Biology, Fido can tell when you’re mad at him for chewing your slippers even before you yell at him. “Our study demonstrates that dogs can distinguish angry and happy expressions in humans, they can tell that these two expressions have different meanings, and they can do this not only for people they know well, but even for faces they have never seen before,” says Ludwig Huber of the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna. Dogs are even smart enough to be heroes–these shelter dogs saved their owners’ lives.

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Funny healthy african lady running in the morning with her dog in park in the morning
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They process vocabulary and intonation like humans

They may not speak, but dogs can understand speech in a way similar to humans. They use the left hemisphere of their brain to process vocabulary and the right hemisphere to process intonation. This discovery was found by using fMRI to analyze dogs’ brain activity while their trainers’ voices offer praise in both positive and neutral ways. Here are 13 secrets to becoming every dog’s favorite human.

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The owner commands her dog. Whippet trains the command to stay. Dog training outdoor.

They can interpret our gestures

Dogs not only process vocabulary and intonation but also read our communicative gestures. “We take it for granted that dogs can effortlessly use our pointing gestures to find a hidden toy or morsel of food, but no other species can spontaneously read our communicative gestures as flexibly as dogs can,” says Brian Hare, an associate professor in the department of evolutionary anthropology and the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at Duke University. This ability helps dogs solve problems and allows them to be our social partners, he explains.

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gray and white bit bull puppy yawning
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They contagiously yawn

Contagious yawning—when seeing, hearing, or thinking about someone yawning causes you to yawn—is related to empathy in human adults. Dogs also contagiously yawn, which means they also have empathy, explains Hare in Scientific American. In fact, they probably have more empathy than human infants who do not typically contagiously yawn.

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Portrait young dog playing in the meadow
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They can laugh

Animal behaviorist Patricia Simonet at Sierra Nevada College by Lake Tahoe researched dog laughter by analyzing recorded sounds of dogs playing in a dog park. “To an untrained human ear,” she explains, “it sounds much like a pant, ‘hhuh, hhuh.'” Simonent also found that the sound of laughing dogs has a positive effect on other pups.

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Dogs at play - basset hound and poodles have fun running in a Colorado off-leash dog park
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They are capable of empathy

Humans generate feelings of empathy with one another through rapid mimicry, and a study out of Italy’s University of Pisa found evidence that dogs engage in “involuntary, split-second copycatting” too. Observing a variety of dogs in a park, researchers discovered that when one dog copied another’s play behaviors such as bowing and grinning, “the resulting play sessions lasted longer than did interactions in which there was no observable mimicry.” They also noticed more mimicry between dogs who already knew each other than with dogs who were just meeting for the first time. Don’t miss these natural remedies for arthritis in dogs.

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Guide dog is helping a blind man in the city

They can save our lives

Instinctive intelligence is a dog’s ability to perform a job or task for humans. “Service dogs are known for this type of behavior and can typically outperform machines that are designed to do the same thing,” says Brandon McMillan of the Emmy Award-winning TV series Lucky Dog on CBS. “For example, a dog’s sense of smell is about 40 times greater than ours. This gives them the ability to smell chemical changes in our bodies and alert us when we’re having a drop in our blood sugars or about to have a seizure.” Save your dog’s life by knowing the 12 warning signs of cancer in dogs.

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Two pure breed chihuahua dogs threatening to each other at the dog park
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They can learn from their mistakes

“A simple example of this is when dogs have been attacked by another dog and now they’re afraid of all dogs,” explains McMillan. “This is because they’ve suffered trauma and identified what caused the trauma. Their memory tells them it was a dog that attacked them and caused pain, so their basic logic tells them to stay away from dogs or it could happen again.” Luckily, dogs can learn to get over their fear like humans can, says McMillan. If you need to calm your dog down, this type of music works best.

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Labrador retriever

They want to please

Did you ever wonder why Fido is so eager to bring your slippers or fetch the paper? It’s because dogs recognize the conditions needed to sustain the pack and please the leader, explains Dr. Steve Weinberg of 911 VETS. These are the secrets your dog knows about you.

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Labrador Retriever Sniffing the Air on Early Frosty Winters Morning
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They can predict bad weather

While dogs don’t have a sixth sense for bad weather, their senses do alert them to climate changes before most humans notice them. On Caesar’s Way, Ralph Greco, Jr. explains that before a storm dogs can feel a drop in barometric pressure and the shift in the static electric field, smell chemicals in the air associated with lightning, and hear thunder far off in the distance. Check out the 11 superpowers all dogs have that prove they’re cooler than humans.

PJ Feinstein
PJ Feinstein is a communications professional with 15 years of writing, editing, marketing, public relations, and digital content experience. She specializes in developing engaging, easy-to-read, and on-brand content for websites, blogs, social media, and newsletters. An editorially-minded writer, she has covered a broad range of topics such as beauty, home decor, parenting, pop culture, and technology for a variety of outlets. In addition to managing her own personal lifestyle blog for nearly a decade, PJ has contributed to sites like Better Homes & Gardens, Brides, Cool Mom Picks, Glitter Guide, Oriental Trading, Artfully Walls, and others. PJ has had the privilege of speaking twice at Alt Summit, a premier business conference for bloggers, has been interviewed on Sirius XM radio, and once had a fashion question printed (and answered!) in Lucky Magazine.