Why Your Pet is Smarter Than You Think

Photo: CorbisSeemingly blank stares, repeated yawns and obsessive sniffing may not be the most compelling of behaviors in humans. But with dogs and cats? Each could be a sign of downright brilliance. The trick is how to recognize it.   

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Here are just a few signs of smarts, according to pet experts:

•Extreme yawing: Also known as "contagious yawning"—or yawning a lot in response to people yawning around him—could be a sign that your pooch is superior in the empathy department, and is basically a wiz at reading and responding to the emotions of others.

•Baby-like meows: Does your cat have a cry that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up? Probably she's developed it specifically to mimic that of a baby—and to get you to dish out some feline food, stat.

•Excessive staring: Your dog is probably observing you carefully, watching to see if you are looking at him, or even if your eyes are open, which are signs that it’s time to listen to you. Genius communicator!

•Ignoring your commands: Don't label your pup a slacker; it could mean she's got highly developed reasoning skills that compel her to solve problems—like where to find a hidden ball or which direction to walk first—all by herself, thank you very much.

But mere humans can't be expected to grasp the braininess of pets all on their own. “Usually, knowing what your dog is actually doing is not possible through mere observation,” canine scientist Brian Hare told Yahoo! Shine. It’s why Hare, an associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University and coauthor of "The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs are Smarter Than You Think," has come up with a way for you to find out a whole lot more: Dognition, a website tool kit, launched February 5 and aimed at helping dog owners get to know their pooches better.

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The kit, available to download at different levels from $60, gives about an hour’s worth of science-based games that look at cognitive skills like reasoning, memory and empathy to help you discern meanings behind various behaviors.

After performing the tests on your dogs (which are designed to be fun), an algorithm assesses your results to ultimately reveal your dog’s particular type of smarts, of which there are many different kinds. Then you can safely label him things like “Ace,” a problem solver with great communication skills, or “Einstein,” a creature with a keen understanding of physics. You’ll get detailed answers and have your scientific findings added to a huge database, which can help everyone, from pet lovers to scientists, understand dogs a whole lot better.

“Think of it as a citizen science project,” Hare explained.

Cat smarts are less individualized, Mieshelle Nagelschneider, an Oregon cat behaviorist and author of the forthcoming March 5 book The Cat Whisperer, told Shine. “I’d say intelligence is across the board for felines. Though there are some anomalies out there—what would be analogous to genius children. Wildcat hybrids like the Bengal, for example, need a lot of mental stimulation with their strong wildcat hunting genes.”

Her forthcoming book, similar to the Dognition web tool though less cognition based, will help humans decipher a range of feline behaviors, from annoyances like scratching a spraying, to fascinating ways of communicating.

But let’s get down to it: Which pets are smarter, dogs or cats?

Hare, who said he’s often asked to compare intelligence levels among creatures from dogs and cats to dolphins to monkeys, said it's an impossible question, since every animal is brilliant at being itself. “The way I answer that,” he added, "is, if you can tell me what’s the better tool, a hammer or a screwdriver, then I can tell you which is smarter.”

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