Animal smarts: Training your pet dog, cat or rabbit

Denise Davidson, owner of Dofos pet shop, with Rio the macaw. Picture: Jayne Wright
Denise Davidson, owner of Dofos pet shop, with Rio the macaw. Picture: Jayne Wright
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THEY are our constant companions, our faithful friends and more often than not considered part of the family. And whether it’s cats and dogs, hamsters, rabbits or even something more exotic, most of us consider our pets to be just like us.

A lot of pets even seem to behave like us – they bark at the TV, they perk their ears up when someone comes to the door and they are always on the hunt for food.

Some pets go a lot further, and whether it’s fetching a pair of slippers, working out how to get into the food cupboard or more advanced tricks like catching a frisbee, there’s plenty of evidence that the animals we keep have a great deal more intelligence than we give them credit for.

Dog owner Chris Paterson, 72, certainly believes he has one of the Capital’s most talented pooches, having taught his dog Shadow to obey 30 commands – and, as already revealed in the Evening News, watching the dog teach herself how to jump up and hit the crossing button at pedestrian crossings.

Mr Paterson says: “She is streets ahead of any dog I have ever had and I’ve had four dogs in my life. Shadow just takes to things easily – you just have to tell her once and she’s got it.”

Of course not every animal is going to be super-smart and able to learn dazzling tricks. But just how intelligent is the average pet? And are there any signs to show that they might be the next Pudsey?

The issue of pet intelligence was highlighted this week after a study by scientists at the University of Portsmouth suggested dogs could put themselves in the minds of their owner – understanding that humans don’t see as well in the dark.

And while expert dog whisperer Marco Del Valle of K9 Edinburgh isn’t entirely convinced by the study, he does have a few tricks of his own to test the brain-power of our four-legged friends.

Marco, who used to train police and army dogs in Mexico, says: “I think that test just shows that dogs’ eyes adjust quicker to the darkness than a human’s, and it would be hard to gauge intelligence from it.

“That whole idea comes from people projecting human characteristics on to animals, but they are not like that. But you can get very intelligent dogs.

“The best indicator of intelligence is problem-solving – when I was training dogs in Mexico we would put them inside a cage, and then put food outside the cage – the smartest dogs were the ones that worked out how to get to the food first, because that shows they are good at solving problems.” So if you have an animal with a Houdini-like ability to escape from its surroundings it’s a good indicator that it might be smarter than the average pet.

And, contrary to popular belief, Marco also says that the breed of animal does not have a great deal of bearing on its intelligence.

“It’s a myth that some breeds are more intelligent than others, just like this idea that some breeds are more aggressive,” he says. “In any litter one dog will be the smartest, one dog will be the most aggressive, one dog will be the weakest and so on.

“Also we tend to find that cross-breeds and mongrels are more intelligent than pure-breds, and animals that have had to solve a lot of problems when they are pups will naturally be more intelligent.

“So if you want a smart dog you should keep it busy and active when it’s young and give it plenty of activities.”

While dog training is well established, cats are generally regarded as less straightforward animals to control – so does that make them more intelligent?

Pippa Hutchison, a Clinical Animal Behaviourist at the Royal Dick School of Veterinary Studies, says there is no doubt that cats are incredibly intelligent animals.

“Most cats run circles around their owners, and when you see the way they act around humans it’s hard to deny they are intelligent creatures,” she explains.

“Most dogs will do things for approval or for food, but cats are more difficult, they will only do something if it suits them, so if you are trying to train them with food, it has to be something they want.

“I think pet intelligence in general is something we are only just scratching the surface of – there is work going on with medical detection dogs, after scientists realised that dogs were able to detect cancers and other medical conditions by scent alone.

“The most important thing for any owner though is just to keep their animals active and occupied.”

While cats and dogs can do tricks, it’s not quite being able to speak – which is just what one of the most intelligent species of pet can do.

Parrots not only mimic the voice of their owners, as well as any other sounds they pick up, but according to Dofos owner and parrot lover Denise Davidson, they are incredibly bright creatures.

“They are very intelligent animals – some will live as long as 60 years, and as well as being able to mimic voices and sound, they are incredible at problem solving,” she says.

“They are always watching when you go to the cage – we have to keep ours padlocked, because whatever the locking mechanism they will find a way to beat it.

“They are incredibly affectionate animals as well, but they need a lot of attention – a lot of people don’t realise how much commitment it is buying a parrot, and that’s because they are so smart.”

Boning up on behaviour

• Familiarity - Dogs chew slippers because they like something to gnaw and they may have a familiar and reassuring odour.

• Out and about - Two un-neutered male dogs are likely to be aggressive towards each other because it is their natural instinct. They also urinate to mark their territory.

• Clawing - Cats use their claws for grooming and climbing as well as for aggression or self-defence. It’s also a way for your cat to tell you they’ve had enough stroking or playing.

• Licking - Dogs lick to show affection and also sometimes to request food. Young, weaned puppies lick when they want solid food.

• Hunting - It’s an adventure most cats enjoy, even if they’re well fed at home.