Dogs are smart; there’s no denying it. They’re emotionally intelligent, highly trainable and capable of incredible reasoning and thoughtfulness.
That’s why so many of us depend on dogs — and not just for companionship. From working dogs who herd sheep, sniff out danger and guard homes to service dogs who help the disabled to live full lives, they use their brains to enrich our lives and warm our hearts.
But animal intelligence doesn’t stop at dogs. For proof, look no further than the humble rat.
Long a staple of research labs and city streets, the crafty rat has gained popularity as a pet for many reasons, including its intelligence. Rat owners delight in teaching their rodent companions tricks, providing them with fun puzzles and enjoying their loving company.
Hmm… sound familiar, dog lovers?
It’s clear that both rats and dogs are smarter than their silly faces and amusing antics would have you believe. But which is the more intelligent species?
Put those thinking caps on — we’re about to find out!
Are Rats Smarter than Dogs?
No, rats and dogs are both intelligent, however, in different areas-- for dogs, communication and emotions are their most advanced intelligence; for rats, spatial problem solving and emotional intelligence win out.
Dogs Vs. Rats: Showdown of the Smarts
Intelligence goes deeper than book smarts: there are many types of intelligence, and both dogs and rats exhibit each one to varying degrees. Let’s take a look.
Emotional Intelligence: Empathy and Recognition
It doesn’t take a genius to tell that dogs have feelings — or that they understand them. And not just within their species, either: dogs can tell how we’re feeling, too, and their empathy levels for us are off the charts.
Feeling blue? Your dog will know right away by observing your expression, your body language, and your energy.
And he’ll come over and put his head in your lap until you start to feel better. If you’re not happy, he’s not happy, because he feels your pain as if it’s his own.
But skip into the room with a smile on your face, and he’ll be up on his feet in an instant, ready to join you on your joyful romp. He can tell that you’re feeling good and that fact will make him feel good, too.
That’s true emotional intelligence: understanding different feelings and empathizing with others.
However, dogs aren’t alone in their emotional intelligence. Rats show a surprising amount of emotional recognition and empathy, too.
Rat owners report similar behaviors from their rodent companions: they’re able to tell when their humans are feeling down and readily come over to comfort them.
Their own moods are also highly developed. Rats display a wide range of emotions, from fear, anger, and unsociability to joy, excitement, and love.
Winner: It’s a Tie!
This race is too close to call: emotional intelligence seems to be both of these species’ fortes. Dogs and rats are both able to mirror our emotions, react accordingly and display their own individual feelings consistently.
Verbal Intelligence: Language and Communication
Verbal intelligence refers to the development of language and the ability to communicate with others. Dogs and rats don’t speak our language, and ironically, much of their verbal intelligence comes from non-verbal communication.
Posture, tail position and movement, ear position and facial expression all play huge roles in dog communication. They convey moods, intentions, attitudes and more.
For other dogs, understanding these messages comes naturally. But they’re so consistent that with a little practice, humans can become fluent in dog-speak pretty easily!
But even so, we miss out on the massive amounts of information that dogs pass on through scent. Pee, poop, breath and regular old BO communicate personal stats, sexual readiness, health and much more.
Our noses aren’t sensitive enough to pick up the subtle scent cues that constitute this information. But for other dogs, the scent may be the most valuable and developed form of canine communication.
And rats? Well, they certainly have their own language, but it’s not clear if it’s as developed as dog language.
Rats also communicate using body language, especially their tails. But their communication is based more on sound — specifically, ultrasonic noises that are too high-pitched for humans to hear.
We’re only just beginning to understand what rat vocalizations mean. And we’re making good progress, thanks to specialized AIs like DeepSqueak.
But the bulk of rat communication still remains largely mysterious.
Perhaps rats have even more robust vocabularies than dogs, but communication between dogs and humans seems much more natural and intuitive. For this reason, we’re awarding this category to the dogs — but as technology advances, rats may well come out on top!
Drop a dog off far from home and he’ll be back at his front door before long. We’re still not quite sure why, but dogs have remarkable abilities to navigate over long distances.
One theory is that dogs can detect magnetic fields, and they use these to navigate the world. Another states that dogs primarily use their noses to navigate, following trails of scents for miles without missing a turn.
Dogs can travel hundreds or thousands of miles and end up exactly where they intend to. But as far as smaller-scale movements go, well, they can be a little clumsy!
Just look at the way he side-swipes you as he runs by or slips and slides on the icy sidewalk. And if you’ve ever seen a big dog trying to sit in someone’s lap, you know that dogs aren’t always aware of their own dimensions.
For rats, though, both expert navigation and deft movement come naturally. The classic “rat-in-a-maze” experiment is a hallmark of science, and that’s because rats can be depended on to find their way through the trickiest of labyrinths.
And what’s more, rats seem to understand the way different parts of the environment work, and they’re able to exploit these. Rats can find loopholes, shortcuts and secret paths that even scientists can’t spot, and many an experiment has been put on hold to modify spaces that rats have learned to exploit.
Rats take top honors in the spatial intelligence category. Not only can they navigate like history’s greatest explorers, but they can also manipulate their bodies and their environments to reach their goals.
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And the Prize Goes To…
Dogs and rats each have their own strong suits. For dogs, communication and emotions are their most advanced intelligence; for rats, spatial problem solving and emotional intelligence win out.
These are far from the only areas of intelligence: memory and pattern recognition, for instance, also play roles in what we think of as smartness.
But it’s hard to quantify intelligence between species, especially since there are so many different ways that it can be demonstrated. Deciding which species is smarter really depends on individual situations.
One thing’s for sure: if you’re looking for an intelligent and enriching pet, you can’t go wrong with either a rat or a dog.
"If you think dogs can’t count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then give him only two."
-- Phil Pastoret