In search of ponies: Be realistic about dog smarts

So infamous are they, they have their own name.

Known as “The Terrible Twos,” they represent a stage in the life of a youngin’ that parents often dread and live through only with enormous patience and the knowledge that this too shall pass.

Sharna Johnson

Sharna Johnson

Consumed with a sense of self, some kiddos charge through their second year of life as if it’s their planet — their wants, their needs, their curiosity, their insatiable urge to push all buttons.

Of course not all little ones go through the terrible part. There are those who approach the curiosities of life more gently, content to hear what the button will do if pushed, without having to push it themselves — but their brains are still working overtime and they want what they want.

Sometimes they seem to understand what they’re doing, and they certainly know when they are in trouble, learning fast to kick in sweet faces to stave off consequences.

Truth is, however, though they look like little people, they simply haven’t developed the cause and effect reasoning of big people.

For the most part, parents get it. Little ones genuinely don’t know better.

Dog owners, on the other hand, hold their pooches in much higher esteem, attributing them with reason and logic that may greatly exceed the reality.

In a 2012 study, researchers found that a quarter of dog owners believed dogs to be smarter than most people and capable of learning social and cognitive skills.

Additionally, it was found that nearly half of dog owners believed the mental capabilities of dogs fell somewhere around pre-school to kindergarten levels.

They also found that the stronger an emotional bond people have to their dogs, the smarter they think the dog is.

Believing and perceiving that dogs are more capable intelligent than they truly are may be part of the reason dogs end up back in shelters, researchers noted, but more appropriate interpretation of behavior could be the key to reducing that trend.

What research has actually found, places the cognitive abilities of dogs more in line with the brain function of 2-year-old humans — yes, that stage where most interaction is reduced to one word exchanges on the go —  “juice” “cookie” “No!” — and maybe a handful of simple sentences, but a far cry from the imaginative mind of a 5-year-old that can sit through a movie and draw pictures to go with a story they made up all on their own.

It doesn’t mean there aren’t some brilliant 2-year-olds out there that can learn faster and are more aware of their surroundings and the feelings of others, but on average, “cookie” is, well, simply a yummy treat that one wants as many of as they can get.

It doesn’t mean that having a dog is like living with the Terrible Twos forever, because, of course, after years of being a 2-year-old, dogs start to get the hang of things, calm down, and certainly meld to their surroundings.

And research has proven their ability and tendency to pick up on their human’s emotions, so they, without a doubt, learn that to make us happy makes them happy too.

But understanding that they may always chew on things they shouldn’t and will never understand that relieving themselves in front of people is uncouth is key to us having the appropriate expectations.

Though there is always a chance the research is wrong, after all, arguably, there is something very brilliant in training an entire species to hand you cookies and rub your belly.

Sharna Johnson is a writer who is always searching for ponies. You can reach her at: insearchofponies@gmail.com