As a responsible parent, would we leave our young child all alone for many hours? Would we punish him when he asks for some attention? Would we give him little exercise and no mental stimulation? Would we feed our child the cheapest food possible? Even worse, would we electric shock him to get compliance?
All these things are still advocated in our treatment of our dogs – dogs with much the same level of mental ability as a young child.
One piece of evidence that demonstrates the mental ability toddlers and dogs being much the same is that they make the same errors. Both young children and dogs up until a certain age do not recognize that an object still exists when they can’t see it anymore (originally proved in children by developmental psychologist Jean Piaget with a number of tests exploring the minds of children).
Using only family pets dogs which were not specifically trained to understand language and gestures, Stanley Coren came to the conclusion that dogs had the mental ability roughly equivalent to a human two-year-old. Further work led him to believe that the most intelligent dogs might have the mental abilities similar to a human two-and-a-half-year-old child.
In a great interview for Science Daily, Coren says of dogs: “Their stunning flashes of brilliance and creativity are reminders that they may not be Einsteins but are sure closer to humans than we thought.” He lists all sorts of other clever things their brains are capable of also. They can count up to four or five; they have a basic understanding of arithmetic and will notice errors in simple computations, such as 1+1=1 or 1+1=3.
Coren does warn: ‘The idea of a dog’s learning ability hovering around that of a two to three year old child has to be understood within a certain set of limits. Dogs are more athletic and physically accomplished than a human child of that age, and therefore can learn jumping and swimming feats which the child cannot be expected to complete, even though the concept “to jump” or “to swim” would be understood by the child. On the other hand the child has better manipulative abilities than the dog thanks to our fingers and opposing thumb. Also some tasks depend upon sensory ability, so asking the dog to learn things depending upon fine colour discrimination, or the child to learn tasks based upon scent discrimination would obviously be inappropriate’.
Perhaps certain trainers who use aversives should ask themselves, would I be doing this to my little child?