Who’s Cognitively Challenged? (Hint: Maybe It’s Not The Dog)

“My pet is so smart she knows exactly when she’s headed to the vet hospital!” If I had a dollar every time a client uttered these words I’d have paid off my student loans long long ago. 

Cats know, of course. Where else would they be going? Except for the minority that goes to the groomers or the boarding facility, cats in carriers know they’ve got just one destination to dread. But does your dog know you’re headed to the vet even before you’ve made that telltale turn?

He usually does. But not because he’s displaying some bizarre form of ESP. And it’s not that she’s supernaturally attuned to your biorhythmic vibrations, either. (Why is it we’re so drawn to this bizarrely remote possibility?) 

Truth is, they’re just being sensitive. In a smart way.

After all, dogs are way smarter than their owners usually give them credit for. Not only can they pick up on auditory cues we often misjudge them capable of (indeed, some trained dogs can recognize upwards of three-hundred words and resolve frequencies our auditory mechanisms aren’t attuned to), they’re gifted in facial recognition and can read our expressions, too. 

Then there’s that impossibly astute olfactory mechanism –– which may as well be classified as supernatural compared to our rudimentary version of olfaction. Yes, they can probably smell what we’re going to do next long before we do it. (But try not to take that line of reasoning too far. Please.)

As part of their evolutionary progress, our pets have apparently learned to understand way more about our daily lives than we do about theirs. Which only stands to reason seeing as domestic animals, by definition, have evolved alongside humans in a largely dependent way. In a very real sense, we’re their evolutionary guides.

Hence, why it stands to reason that pets would know when our car is nearing home long before it does. Or when our roommate had gotten off the elevator all the way down the hall instead of our neighbor. 

These are common dog and cat powers we mere humans tend to marvel at. But should they surprise us? I think not! To be so blown away by our pets’ fundamental sensory capacity and most basic cognition is the result of unfairly anthropomorphizing their world view. It not only insults their innate cognitive prowess, it minimizes the degree to which they’re dependent on our involvement in their lives. 

Which brings me back to the vet thing. What makes you think your dog wouldn’t know where you’re going? Here are the things she’s probably sensing: 

  • which leash you reach for
  • the time of day or day of week (based on probably hundreds of sensory cues)
  • your stress level (tone of voice, facial expressions)
  • the kinds of treats you choose
  • what kind of purse, coat or wallet you pick up
  • whether you bring park toys or not,
  • etc. etc. etc.

No they’re NOT dumb. The only ones missing out on the cues here are the humans in the equation. Pets? Here’s the real wake-up call. They know way more about your life than you’ll ever know about theirs.