Smart Animals

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Hear what Neil had to say at the conclusion of the episode "How Smart Are Animals?"

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You don't think that figuring out a meaningful way to communicate with these creatures should be denied? I'm all for the ethics and such but sometimes people take the idea too far. Interacting with these animals and trying to figure out ways to communicate with each other is extremely ethical. It would be unethical to systematically leave them in the dark. At least in 2011 we're trying.

You all think that dog is so smart - that he can associate words with all those toys.

But he's not that smart. It's obvious that he's just reading the words written on the toys.


I understand animals without words and i raise wolf hi-breds 99% 6 adults and 4 cubs , 20 years, on my own and i know so much from calls actions, movement kisses and I have one sleeping always with me. I've learned the wild instincts and learned to curb and change behavior with LOVE and kindness but also a firm grip on bad behavior, voice pitch alone can control actions, they are so smart and can pick up on things and mimmic you. I love them and they always surpise me of love and sharing and im' part of the family, They make Dogs seem slow! sorry I've had military trained shepards, and they out perform them on smell and learning by a mile. would like your take on this, think your a brilliant man! Love your show and saw you on Bill Mayers show. New to PBS at night but hooked on your Ideas. Thank you and keep surprising me! Gigi Haston

I find it interesting that supposedly less intelligent animals have to learn how to communicate in ways that we understand rather than our being able to figure out what they are saying. It's as if we are so afraid of what we might learn that we have to hanicap the animals before we even try to decide how intelligent they are.


I learned alot from the last dog I had and now observe all speicies of animals in a differnt light now because of it.
I get the fealing that many different speicies are really as intelligent as Humans, they just have different agendas in life because of various factors. Things like,not having the speach abilities Humans have, very few have aposable didgets etc...
They just use their intelligence the way they evolved and possibly just don't have the same drive we have, as with the great apes.
And who really knows, maybe they've even obsearved us some and collectively thought as a speicies, we've got enough for survival of our spiecies, we don't need what Humans have, or can't do what Humans can the same way?

Fascinating show, as always! The episode pointed out that dolphins are one of the few kinds of creatures, along with elephants and some apes, that are self-aware; when they look into a mirror, they realize that they are looking at themselves. I just want draw attention to a 2008 study from researchers in Germany that provides evidence for self-awareness in a non-mammalian species: magpies!


Our abilities to understand the unexplainable are limited to academics.
Our curiosities are written in these pages...
but our passions are the ink with which they were written.
Write on...

I've got a question about the test where people point to the upside-down cup with a treat under it. Can't the dog smell the treat? Shouldn't the test consist of the person pointing to a false cup to see if the dog would react accordingly. Thus pitting dog's trust in Human vs. Smell?

Kudos to another great show. A few days ago, I heard some good things about a book, "Save The Animals And Children." It has raised hundreds of dollars for the Crohn's and Colitis Foundation and has only been out since Thanksgiving. It was written by a woodchuck named Wendy, but I helped her since she's not that comfortable with spellchecker. It's a book about the environment as well about amazing animals. Yes, they are indeed smart.

We marvel at our own intelligence, but fail to realize that we destroy the very thing that sustains our lives, whether that is intentionally or unintentionally. Maybe animals are the true geniuses in that they form a natural equilibrium with the environment that sustains there lives. Us "enlightened" humans are enamored with how smart we are, yet we kill and destroy far to often. We constantly find our selves creating new technology to fix the problems that we created. We can learn from the intelligence of animals!

When asked how difficult it would be communicating with extra terrestrial life forms should they show up; was it Carl Sagan who said " often and how well do you talk to a petunia?".

This was a very special episode for me. A few years ago, I worked as a photographer in a large SoCal studio that had a very beautiful mascot named 'Daisy' - a large Umbrella Cockatoo.

On many occasions, Daisy would demonstrate not only intelligence, but also ego. When customers would come-in and bring small dogs, Daisy would toss food down to them in what seemed like an effort to feel like one of the humans, and display superiority to the 'pets' in front of her.

On another occasion, I walked with her to the garden area in front of the studio and set her on the horizontal handle of the mirrored door which led into the building. She began immediately admiring herself in the reflection, until a moments later when a robin landed on the handle of the adjacent door and promptly began aggressively pecking at what it saw as an enemy. Daisy stared for a moment at the other bird and then turned and looked at me with an expression that I was only able to take as amusement, at the stupidity of her poor cousin. This amazing creature was easily as self-aware (and conceited) as any of the people we photographed. My partner and I at the business where both bitten more than a few times, and the office car, was 'textured' with bites over nearly every internal surface, but I would not trade even a moment of time with that superb creature.

Along with NOVA and Nature, NOVA Science Now is just about the best thing going on television. I always learn something new and the material is presented in a easy to digest manner. One comment about the dolphins. Just a thought....I don't know if this would work or not but would it be possible to teach dolphins morse code? The dolphins' click could be the morse code's dot, and the dolphins' whistle, could be the morse code's dash. If the dolphin could somehow be taught the morse code we could have a common form of language to bridge the current communication barrier.

I could visualize your commentary & it made me smile! Isn't nature wonderful...even in our own backyards?!

I understood his humor immediately! Get over yourself.

Your theory about Mr. Tysons scent on the Darwin doll has one flaw. He actually hand picked all of the stuffed toys from the yard and placed them behind the couch. Therefor, all of the stuffed toys would have his scent on them. Besides your argument still shows that the dog can use reason in order to pick out the corret doll.


It was awesome

As always, an interesting and enlightening show, with a fascinating closure by Dr. deGT. One can never get tired of watching the NOVA Science Now presentations and the Dr.'s summations.

I was intrigued by the idea of trying to understand how the dolphins communicate with one another. Has anyone done a study where the dolphins have to communicate with each other for their reward? Like showing a shape to one dolphin who communicates to the other, who then has to pick out that same shape. Seems like that could give a lot of insight into how they communicate.

The program compares abilities in animals with abilities in children but a difference in MOTIVATION also counts. With animals the extent of trainers' efforts is extraordinary (30 years for Alex and Dr. Pepperberg) whereas 2-year-olds need no trainer --- they are self-motivated, constantly exploring and learning on their own. As a difference, this runs deep; what is the neuroscience that underpins it?


I wonder if an experiment could be performed to see if dogs or dolphins could understand English letters and interpret them to find items.

For example, if a placard were held up with the word "DARWIN" written on it, would the dog eventually realize that word meant to find the Darwin doll? The Dolphin trainers held up symbols, but could the dolphins interpret the letters "SWIM FAST"?

The dog or dolphin might not understand word structure, but even simply interpreting the lines and curves of certain letters and correlating them to a certain verbal command would be a major step forward in animal comprehension.

Philip! Hilarious! (I get jokes.) ;-)

What with the stereotype of BC's being "so intelligent," when I'd come across someone running his/her BC, I sometimes used to quip (to the dog), "How's that cancer cure coming?" ;-)

I agree with your point, and it was a natural concern I had, as well, given my decades of work with dogs. Of all the other toys, only the Darwin doll would have just DeGrasse's scent on it.

However, other studies (presumably more scientifically-designed) show the same results. Dogs can differentiate between hundreds of objects (on command); they can remember an item they've only seen once before; and they can recognize an unknown item, amongst known items. (Naturally, when faced with two unknown items, such as a Darwin doll and a Sponge Bob toy, a dog would have difficulty retrieving the "correct" unknown item.)

I spent many years designing games for dogs which would require them to use their brains to solve basic puzzles. It all starts with seeing a young puppy able to differentiate between fetching a ball and a stick, when both are available. :-)

I was somewhat struck when the researcher exclaimed the dog needed to be with him.

I trained dogs (and horses) for thirty years. I've had a lot of experience with various creatures, from farms, to pets, and other circumstances which bring people and non-human animals in contact. Based on this experience, I'd emphasize how intelligent animals are, to anyone who'd listen. In that same vein, I'd beg people to behave more ethically with the animals in their care. Indeed, when a person would remark how dumb their animals are, I knew I was dealing with someone who didn't respect his/her animals enough to provide opportunities where those animals could demonstrate their intelligence. (I was known to provide as many new experiences as I could for the animals in my care. "Just keeping their brains wrinkled," I'd say.)

Long story short, my respect for the autonomy of all living beings, combined with my intimate knowledge of the intelligence of most creatures, is what led to my becoming vegan, and ultimately coming to oppose animal ownership, domestication, & captivity. (If one can't treat animals fairly, respecting their intelligence, needs, and dignity, one shouldn't have the right to hold them captive.)

It was my experience with the majority of dog owners I encountered (who I typically found to be negligent or apathetic to their dogs' needs, if not downright unethicsl or cruel) which led to my retirement from dog training, after thirty years. I've often said, in relation to how animals should be treated, if you wouldn't do it to a two-year-old child, you probably shouldn't do it to an animal. Indeed, dogs are said to have the intelligence of a two- to three-year-old child. I find most people justify doing things to dogs they'd never consider doing to a child, based on their view of dogs as an inferior life form.

Knowing this, I spent the last few decades advocating for more responsible and ethical animal ownership. Which brings me back to my first remark. Dogs are innately social creatures. They don't just want to be with their pack leaders, they NEED them (their human owners), to know when to do just about everything, from when it's time to eat or play, to when they should be afraid, or when it's time to sleep. This simple, basic need of dogs is often dismissed or denied by those who suggest dog owners should leave their dogs with complete strangers when their owners travel, etc. People, like me, who know their dogs need to be with them, are typically accused of being overindulgent, or obsessed with their dogs. (In my case, that couldn't be further from the truth.) For me, anyway, it was simply a matter of taking the responsibility of animal ownership very seriously. (As such, I also bacame an outspoken critic of current pet travel policies.)

Ethical animal owners don't limit themselves to what is most expedient or convenient. We do what we believe is in the animal's best interests, as best we can understand it at this time in history. It's not necessarily expensive, nor does it require high levels of intelligence. But it can be time consuming, or require some degree of sacrifice, in order to do what is right for the animal. Not only does that mean teaching our animals how to behave in ways which will make them successful in human society, it also means providing as many mentally stimulating and challenging opportunities as possible, given the fact that, because of domestication and confinement, captive & domesticated animals aren't able to pursue their own forms of stimulation.

It breaks my heart to know millions of animals are locked behind doors and gates, their captors believing animals have the intelligence of a bench, and treating them accordingly. I am confident my tremendous success as a trainer is due to my respect for the animals in my care, and doing everything I could to let them show me how limited my expectations of them were. And that spirit of humility was something I found to be extremely uncommon amongst animal owners I've met.

Monkeys no, apes yes. I remember reading or seeing such a thing by National Geographic. I'm not sure if it was Coco, the first gorilla who learned sign language, or another one, had indeed taught some sign language to a young gorilla.

Mr Rowlands, You forgot that Mr DeGrasse picked out the other 9 stuffed animals from the pile, so they would all have his scent on them.

Hi Joseph,

You might be interested in some of the other segments and features we've done on bird intelligence:

We also delve into the question of what makes humans such masterful teachers:

Glad to hear you enjoyed the show!

In the event that science fiction, not only science fact, is of interest to anyone, Dr. deGrasse Tyson's rumination on understanding advanced intelligences is given a treatment well worth one's time in "His Master's Voice" by Stanisław Lem.'s+voice&hl=en&ei=HzpVTZnZMoH6lweYreTKBw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&ved=0CDcQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q&f=false


Hi, I thought you might like to know that your very question is answered in a PBS Nature program on crows. They are very smart and do teach each other.

Hi Neil, all of us who have pets, especially cats who look at us disdainfully, know they are smarter than us, otherwise they would go to work and we would loll about in the sunQ

Hi guys, I recently stumbled across your "How smart are animals" episode .. absolutely incredible!It's a shame there aren't more shows like yours on TV these days...especially here in Australia.

Keep up the great work!

Wonderful show. Chasers capabilities are truly amazing, but I wonder if you are attributing his success at finding Darwin to the wrong sense. Dogs probably paint what they see with how it smells. It occurred to me that Chaser may have picked Darwin not because it was the only one he didn’t recognize but because it was the one that had Mr. deGrasse’s scent on it. He may have decided that because he was being asked to find something he didn’t recognize and this one had the requestors scent on it, it must be the one. What this points out is to reiterate one of the major points of the show. Trying to measure an animal’s (alien’s) intelligence is fraught with traps. It could be that not only do we not know how the animals brain is processing information, we don’t even know what inputs are being processed.


Feb 10, 2011
re: How smart are animals

Great show! I'm really looking forward to watching it again with my wife who wasn't able to catch it with me tonight.
Keep up the good work NOVA!

First time watcher, and I'm in love already. I am an animal lover, but after watching the segment with Alex, my mind started to wander. I would like to pose a question that only time will be able to answer. Will birds ever be able to teach other birds what they have learned. To be able to go from the student, to the teacher would be one of the most significant finds in history. Being that birds can speak certain words, it would be easy to monitor the progress, if any happens. Will monkeys be able to teach other monkeys sign language? Is this feat possible?

I couldn't help but wonder when the program ended, why were there no segments focusing on our feline companions? That's the only part I was disappointed about.


Determining level of intelligence will always be subjective and biased towards those doing the observing. The way I see it is non-human animals are just as intelligent as any human could be, they just have MUCH different priorities. Wolves will plan out who can mate or not depending on their food supply. Humans aren't even smart enough to do that.
Also, on a linguistics side, we think some other animals aren't intelligent if they can't learn to understand us (as far as we can tell) but we don't think ourselves unintelligent for not being able to understand any other animal's language? In that area other animals have us beat.

Thank you for such a wonderful program. This past summer I had the opportunity to relate with squirrel. A matriarchal type, cautious but visibly thoughtful. Sometimes she will Lay in the tree rest on a branch and watch me work in the yard. One day while resting on the end of my picnic table, she approaches from behind and cautiously jumps up on the seat, then jumps to the table, approaches on my left side, walks to the edge of the table lays down her stomach and hangs her head over the edge of the table and is gazing out into the yard. I was resting at the picnic table with an adult wild squirrel laying down about a foot from my left elbow. My mind raced my heart pounded, my perception of the natural world was turned upon his head. It is a female trait. There is one other like her but not quite so bold and trusting, they have to be resourceful to raise their young have to be able to adapt to all situations and take advantage of strangers bearing peanuts, from time to time. With over half a century on this beautiful planet how could I have missed this. Eyes wide open and appreciative thank you for the insight in how different species process their surroundings. What a wonderful program good job keep it up.Randy


On the brain program, Penn and Teller went through their slight of hand trick, and wanted Nova to explain why it kept fooling people time after time. It was decided that our tendency to look at a persons face first made it easy to fool our mind. People with autism, who do not instinctively look to the face are not easily fooled.
Now on this episode of How Smart Are Animals, the dogs, who have tremendous social intelligence, are able to locate the treat by following the owners cues. The chimps have No Attachment to the cues and can't find the treat. I find this fascinating, and I wonder if it could be related. At any rate I love the program.


My wife and I had a female golden retriever named Brandy. Brandy had to take antihistimen pills, which we administered by cramming them down her throat. She didn't like it, but she accepted it. One day I called her to give her her normal pills, and I was holding the pills in my hand. She walked up to me and held her mouth close to my hand and made licking motions with her tounge like she was licking up something. I held my hand out to her a little closer, and she licked the pills ut of my hand and swallowed them. That was the last time I had to cram them down her throat. For the rest of her life (years) we (the whole family) just held the pills out to her and she took them into her mouth and swallowed them (she didn't chew them because we didn't allow her to when we crammed them down her throat). If this isn't animal communication initiated by an animal I don't know what is. Brandy solved the problem of us cramming the pills down her throat which she didn't like. She understood the concept of her needing to take the pills, she then communicated the concept to me that she would just lick them out of my hand and swallow them, which she did. She also generalized this to all the people in the family that needed to give her her pills. She was a very intelient dog, our current Golden retriever not so much. I have tried to communicate to him the need for him to take the pills from my hand, and he just doesn't get it. If you have any questions, just e-mail me.

This was a great episode. I was amazed by Chaser's abilities and wonder if she would be able to pick out the correct toy when faced with 20 or 30 or 100 of them, not just 8 or 9.

@Philip... Sarcasm doesn't translate well over the internet.. But I must assume you are joking about the dog reading the toys. Seems obvious that you are, but you were also taking shots at the show period.. Either way, unfunny. Have a nice day!


The segment in which the dog was told to pick up a named toy from a stack of toys is clearly a "trick". Even the most unobservant viewer could see the names were clearly written on the toy. All the dog had to do was hear the name spoken, read the name on the toy and come back with it.
With "tricks" like this no wonder your funding is in question.

Seriously, a wonderful program. It left me with a warm feeling and two dogs in my lap.


It is disappointing that with so many cetaceans dying each day, this program failed to discuss any of the critical ethical implications of the scientific research on dolphins. There is more recent research than was reported that underscores the claim that dolphins are "nonhuman persons" and have a similar kind of individual consciousness that humans do. Dolphins are not "animals" that can be appropriately used for entertainment or to satisfy human curiosity. They are self-aware individuals who should not be the victims of human cruelty. And it is critical to find an ethically acceptable way to end the captivity (and, especially, the captive breeding) of dolphins for entertainment and research. A "Declaration for the Rights of Cetaceans: Whales and Dolphins" has even been issued in this matter (see We may have come to expect such incomplete and distorted discussions from commercial networks. But when the lives and welfare of such intelligent beings are at stake, we should certainly be able to expect more from PBS.

Great show! It was amazing how the 2 dolphins collaborated on creating a new trick. I have a few questions:
1. How were they taught the word for "create"?
2. They recorded the sounds of the dolphins communicating before their new performance. What happens if you play that sound back to different dolphins?
3. I saw a show many years ago where the dolphins were taught to communicate to the humans by "typing" on large buttons with pictures. Is there any new research in that method?


The comment at the of the episode regarding the possible view of humans from another species based on the way we view other species is actually quoted in a source that is sometimes deemed controversial, Hebrews 2:6 NIV
But there is a place where someone has testified: "What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?..." which is the question that the angels asked the creator of man. I love science!


Many of the segments on cuttlefish over the years show an aspect of intelligence and learning that may not be observed or documented yet. When the cuttlefish is hunting in the sand it seems to mimic the silhouette of a dolphin as the prey would see a dolphin and the prey may interpret the cuttlefish as a dolphin. The color pattern the cuttlefish displays also seems to mimic the sonic waves the dolphin produces when hunting. The cuttlefish seems to not only to take on the silhouette of the dolphin, it also uses it's color to mimic the sound/compression waves the dolphin creates. In the cuttlefish's mind he may be mimicking the vibrations/compression waves the dolphin makes with color. This shows more than just color and texture mimicry, it also shows intelligence in recreating the sound/compression waves as color.