Expert asks how smart are animals?

I recently flew to Mongolia for a 20-day expedition to the Gobi Desert, Hustai National Park and places in between. One of my companions on the 20-hour flight, plus the five days it took to drive to the Gobi from Ulaanbaatar, was ethologist Frans de Waal – not in person, but in the form of his new book, “Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?” Looking at the science regarding the intelligence of apes, corvids (crows and ravens), dogs and more, primatologist de Waal, a professor at Emory University in Atlanta, reviews the evidence for animal cognition.

There is plenty of it, but only recently has the idea of animal cognition been taken seriously. In the past, he writes, the dominant schools of thought argued that animals were either “stimulus-response machines out to obtain rewards and avoid punishment,” or “robots genetically endowed with useful instincts.”

De Waal is in favor of a third premise: Intelligence comes in different forms, with animal minds possessing a complexity that has long gone unrecognized. It has been within only the past two decades that researchers became bold enough, or curious enough, to move beyond the idea that animals could not have intentions, emotions or cognition. To credit them with such abilities was considered anthropomorphic, romantic or unscientific (and still is by some).

If you live with a dog, cat, bird or other animal, you are probably rolling your eyes and thinking, “Of course animals have emotions and intelligence.” And you would be correct.

While many of de Waal’s examples focus on apes and corvids, dogs don’t go unremarked upon. In Chapter 4, “Talk to Me,” on communication, de Waal discusses the advantages of working with an animal ”intentionally bred by our species to get along with us.” Of course, he means the dog.

“Dogs eagerly pay attention to us and need little encouragement to work on the tasks that we present to them,” he writes. “No wonder ’dognition’ is an up-and-coming field.”

He visits Emory colleague Gregory Berns to see dogs Eli and Callie demonstrate their prowess at sitting still in an MRI machine for brain imaging. Hand signals inform the dogs that a treat is on the way, allowing Berns to visualize activation of their pleasure center.

The finding?

The prospect of food lights up a dog’s brain in the same way and location that anticipation of a bonus lights up the brain of a hedge fund manager.

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and Kim Campbell Thornton, author of many pet-care books.