How Smart is Your Pet?

How smart is your pet? More and more quizzes are becoming available for dog owners to test the cognitive abilities of their dog. Sadly, but not surprisingly, there are few such tests available for cat owners. It’s sad because cats are as intelligent as dogs; it’s not surprising because so few cat owners know that their cats can be trained. In this article, I’ll share examples from a book called How Smart is Your Dog? by Parragon Books, and summarize how our cats fared.

The book is divided into four parts. The introduction overviews breeds and canine actors on the screen, parts two and three contain tests (a total of twenty-five), and the conclusion explains the final scores and provides resources.

Pets can score from one to five on the tests, with five being the highest. For the most part the higher scores seem to reward a pet’s curiosity such as five points for reacting to a squeaky toy and zero points for no reaction. At the same time, there’s a little more to the points than simple curiosity. For example, a pet can receive five points if it knows not to react to a random word even though its owner said it with an excited voice.

Jon Richards, the book’s editor, says that twelve of the tests are designed to explore character, while the remaining thirteen are determined to test problem-solving abilities. However, he doesn’t offer scientific backing for the tests, so don’t take them too seriously.

Richards offers these tips:

  • Your pet should enjoy the exercises because they’ll just see them as playtime fun and not tests
  • However, if your pet shows signs of stress, immediately stop the activities.
  • Spread the tests out over several days to maximize the fun.

I’ve selected just eight tests to highlight. All are designed to explore character.

Sometimes life can place your pet into new situations. Take your pet to a safe place that they’ve never been to before, and see how they react when you let them off leash.

I modified this activity somewhat for our cats. Because they’re indoor cats, and because we decided to take our cats to the backyard for this test, we kept them on-leash.

The first time this spring that we took Cinder and Rainy into the front yard, they were both nervous. They slowly crept forward, their bodies low to the ground, as they explored the strange surroundings. Whenever they heard a sound, their ears twitched and their tails flicked. Neither did much exploring, although they did enjoy eating grass. We realized that the front yard probably made them feel more exposed and therefore more vulnerable, and so we walked them to the back yard, which is fenced in and more secluded. Not much changed in their behavior, except now they were listening to birds instead of traffic. They still mostly wanted to eat grass.

Cats by nature are curious creatures and need time to habituate to new people, places, and stimuli. For this reason, every time we take them outside they’ve been a little more relaxed than the time before. They will now walk confidently from the front porch to our flower garden, where they’ll enjoy a roll in the dirt. Although both seem to think that the sole purpose for going outside is to eat grass, they’re now exploring a little between mouthfuls of grass, especially in the back yard. With encouragement from Andy, Rainy has enjoyed walking on our deck railing. Cinder has even familiarized herself with some of the nooks and crannies in our back yard. She’s also listened to our neighbors, found shaded spots to rest in, and checked out our compost piles.

You might have noticed that I’ve spent a fair amount of time describing this first activity. Rest assured, I’ll summarize the rest more briefly. They were fun, but took far less time to do.

Get hold of something that makes a sound your pet hasn’t heard before. Wait until your pet is relaxed and then make the sound, suddenly and loudly. I used a bag clip. All of our cats scored full points for trying to find the sound.

We tend to check a mirror daily, but how do our pets treat their reflection? Place a mirror on the floor so your pet can see itself. Draw your pet’s attention to the mirror so that it comes up to take a look. I used a full-length mirror. None of our cats showed anything but mild interest and so they received three out of five points. The real challenge for me was figuring out how to take a photo of them doing this test. None of them sniffed the mirror long enough for me to take their picture in front of it, and so I settled for holding Rainy in my arms while prompting her to look at the mirror.

We equate suitcases with vacations, but what do our pets think? Dig out a suitcase and place it by the door, with your pet watching. All of our cats sniffed the suitcase, thereby earning four out of five points. I then had fun trying to get their photos. Rainy politely posed on top of the suitcase for me; I lured Bootsie onto the suitcase with treats.

Wait until your pet is relaxed. Then start to tickle your pet behind its ear. All of our cats scored full points for lifting their head to get a better tickle.

Life is full of obstacles. How do our pets handle them? Take your pet for a short walk. Then place some sticks on the path and lead your pet along it again. I modified this activity for our cats. Instead of taking our cats outside, I placed obstacles on their agility course. Richards said to give five points if a pet walked over the sticks without touching them, three for knocking over some of them, and one for refusing to walk near them. Our cats simply walked around the obstacles instead of stepping over them, leaving me puzzled as to what score to give them. I suppose that’s what I should expect when I use objects like a toolbox. I then had fun teaching them to jump on to the toolbox as if it were a “table” in an agility course.

Hold a treat in front of your pet. Then pretend to eat the treat. Cinder and Bootsie earned full points for checking to see if the treat was still in my hand. To my surprise, Rainy simply stared expectantly at me, for which Richards said to give zero points. I prefer to view her reaction in a positive way, as an example of self-control and/or trust that I would feed her.

Put your pet on one side of a high barrier and tell it to stay. Walk to the other side and call your pet’s name. I almost didn’t do this test. I couldn’t think of anything to use for the barrier. Then sometime later, for fun my husband decided to shape our agility tunnel into a ring, like a doughnut, and placed our cats in turn into the ‘doughnut hole’ to see what they’d do. Great idea! I gave Cinder four points for crawling under the tunnel to freedom and Rainy five points for sitting patiently in the ‘doughnut hole’ until I walked away and started going upstairs; when she then sprang out of the hole.

Thirteen of the tests are said to determine your pet’s problem-solving abilities. “I’ll try them on our pets over the next couple weeks, but I won’t write an article about their results. You’ll need to buy How Smart is Your Dog? yourself if you want to try them on your pets, in addition to the tests I’ve described here. And if you do, I’d love to hear how your pets did!


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