They say that intelligence can be measured by a species’ ability to use tools to accomplish goals. Alexandra Horowitz, in her book Inside Of A Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, And Know, theorizes how dogs use their favorite tool, a flesh and blood Swiss Army knife if you will – the human (emphasis mine):
If we revisit some of the problem-solving tests on which wolves performed so much better than dogs, we now see that the dogs’ poor performance can there too be explained by their inclination to look to humans. Tested on their ability to, say, get a bit of food in a well-closed container, wolves keep trying and trying, and if the test is not rigged they eventually succeed through trial and error. Dogs, by contrast, tend to go at the container only until it appears that it won’t easily be opened. Then they look at any person in the room and begin a variety of attention-getting and solicitation behaviors until the person relents and helps them get into the box.
By standard intelligence tests, the dogs have failed at the puzzle. I believe, by contrast that they have succeeded magnificently. They have applied a novel tool to the task. We are that tool. Dogs have learned this –and they see us as fine general-purpose tools, too: useful for protection, acquiring food, providing companionship. We solved the puzzles of closed doors, and empty water dishes. In the folk psychology of dogs, we humans are brilliant enough to extract hopelessly tangled leashes from around trees; we can magically transport them to higher or lower heights as needed; we can conjure up an endless bounty of foodstuffs and things to chew. How savvy we are in dogs’ eyes! It’s a clever strategy to turn to us afterall. The question of the cognitive abilities of dogs is thereby transformed: dogs are terrific at using humans to solve problems, but not as good at solving problems when we’re not around.
Fascinating, no? Will and I marvel at how dogs are the best evolved species on the planet. Their use of humans as tools is analogous in many ways to our use of technology. In the same way I consider my iPhone my augmented cognition, so too can humans be considered augmented cognition for a dog. We use taps and swipes and clicks – gestures – to get our phones to perform super human functions to accomplish specific goals. And without our phones, our intelligence falters – do you memorize phone numbers anymore? And why struggle manually through a math problem when calculators are forever in our purses and pockets, the answer a few taps away? Dogs use their own gestural language (barks, swipes, licks, stares and nudges) to activate us – a co-evolved, bio-user interface – in order to perform super canine functions that help them meet their specific needs: food, shelter, affection, and stimulation.
Beautiful, bio-based interactions, evolved through symbiosis and mutual benefit. Lovely!