Who cares if dogs aren't exceptional? At least they're better than humans

It's not that dogs are dumb, is that people aren't smart enough to realize that all animals are more intelligent than we think.
Rosa Luxembark
Rosa Luxembark, the author's dog.Megan Carpentier / NBC News
Get the Think newsletter.

I don’t care if science says my dog is dumb, because I already know that she is. She’s afraid of paper bags, for Pete's sake. She’s snapped her nose in a mouse trap more than once. She runs from her leash no matter how badly she wants to go outside.

Fans of man’s best friend, though, erupted in fury over a study published recently in the journal "Learning & Behavior" that said that dogs aren’t “exceptional” when it comes to intelligence and cognition. The study’s authors looked at existing research in order to compare dogs' smarts with those of other animals in three categories: Being mostly carnivorous, hunting socially and being domesticable. In those contexts, there’s not enough scientific evidence to suggest that a champion herding dog’s spacial awareness is more extraordinary than a homing pigeon’s ability to navigate long distances.

As Dr. Stephen Lea, one of the study’s authors, told the New York Times, “almost everything a dog claimed to do, other animals could do too.” After reading paper after paper that claimed that dogs had extraordinary abilities, “It made me quite wary that dogs were special.”

A nation of cat fanciers rejoiced.

But anyone who has ever spent time with a dog — or a cat or a bird or a miniature pig — knows that intelligence isn’t why animals inspire compassion and love in humans. It’s their big, limpid eyes, their derpy tongues, and the obvious joy they take in chasing a toy around for hours at a time. And, as anyone who has ever gone on a date with a person claiming to be a “sapiosexual” or tried to get kisses from a cat can attest, selecting companions based exclusively on how smart they seemingly are is a surefire way to get clawed in the face.

Furthermore, while it’s interesting that the authors of the paper were able to show clearly that dogs don’t necessarily possess skills that similar animals lack, that should inspire more love for creatures of all kinds, regardless of their intelligence.

You can’t keep a Holstein in an apartment in Brooklyn, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have complex relationships with their babies and members of their herd. Researchers have found that dairy cows and their calves experience depression and anxiety when they are separated. Pigs — not just the pot-bellied little ones — can find food using a mirror and can be trained to do puzzles. Chickens can count and moderate their behavior based on expected future outcomes, according to various studies of their behavior. Turkeys seemingly have long-term memories and recognize the risk to themselves when they see other members of their group slaughtered.

And yet, corporate farming operations torture thousands of animals on a daily basis, pumping chickens, turkeys, pigs and cows full of antibiotics and hormones while starving them of space and light. And the vast majority of Americans don't have a problem eating any of the above even as they attribute more complex intelligence and emotions to their pets.

But even animals that scientists don’t fully understand deserve our respect. It’s virtually impossible to compare a human and an octopus brain, but when one octopus species has been seen building underwater cities, a comparison shouldn't really be necessary to recognize they’re much more than alien-looking pre-tapas.

There are plenty of other animals we don’t feel guilty about eating: Fish, deer, ducks, sheep, goats, alligators and frogs, among others, all find their way to a dinner plate. It’s easier to rationalize eating an "ugly" bird than a "cute" lamb, and we willingly ignore that even animals we don’t consider “cute” can still feel pain. The distinctions we make in America about “barbaric” dietary habits — like eating dog or horse meat — are entirely arbitrary.

As a society, we may spend more time considering the ethics of eating animals when they’re easily rendered as Disney characters (unless you are an Alaskan who loves both "Frozen" and reindeer sausage), but that only reinforces our tendency to look at any "different" animal as less worthy of basic empathy and more delicious.

Plus, it’s not like our human leaders have demonstrated a lot of intelligence — emotional or otherwise — recently. President Trump and his Justice Department saw nothing wrong with holding immigrant children in cages that looked exactly like large dog kennels; Republicans tend to flat-out deny the science of climate change because it doesn't fit their idea of manifest destiny; and basic economics escapes the best of us. Heck, the president has literally referred to some people as “animals.”

When millions of Americans voted for this kind of cruelty and short-sightedness, actual animals — no matter how dense or carnivorous — are far superior to at least some humans.

One doesn’t have to be a stereotypical vegan PETA donor to believe that treating animals well (and eating fewer of them) should be an ethical imperative. This week, the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a grim report that predicted unavoidable and catastrophic climate change by 2040, which will also lead to mass extinctions of species smart and stupid alike. That threat requires an unprecedented effort on the part of humans just to slow down the damage to the earth, one that’s going to include massive changes to our diets, our use of land and water and how we treat our pets.

Research like this — which focuses on a sweet spot where science meets Twitter memes — is a great opportunity to reframe how we think and talk about the organisms with which we share the planet at a time when that’s vitally important. I’d rather have a "dumb" dog, or a mean cat, or a livestream of a cow or goat escaping from a city slaughterhouse, than deal with a lousy person who actively fills my life with more stupidity.

Get the Think newsletter.
MORE FROM think