“Dumb” Animals

Mar 30, 2013 | 2013 Articles, Pets

by Judy McFadden

I once heard a Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show announcer say, as the Scotties pranced proudly into the show ring, “The Scottish terrier is the only breed of dog that knows he is smarter than his master.” I found out why. My Scottish terrier therapy dog, McDuff, proved it time after time with his off-the-chart intelligence and you-won’t- believe stubbornness that outsmarted and frustrated me to tears.


I bet you’ve heard the term “dumb animals” before. There’s a perception that animals are dumb and that we humans are superior in every way. Well, I have news for you. Animals and birds are not dumb. Oh, I know some of you may disagree. I know I did at one time. That was before I learned about Alex, Koko, and Chaser.

The December 2011 issue of National Geographic Magazine contains an article entitled, “Minds of their Own. Animals are smarter than you think.” In it we are introduced to Alex, an African grey parrot, and Dr. Irene Pepperberg, a psychologist at Brandeis and Harvard Universities. Dr. Pepperberg bought Alex from a pet store when he was a year old. She studied and worked with Alex all of his life until his death in 2007 at the age of thirty-one.

Alex learned one hundred fifty words and could categorize them. He counted up to six and had a basic understanding of the abstract concept of zero. Alex knew colors, sizes, and shapes. When shown a blue paper triangle, he told Dr. Pepperberg the color, shape, and after touching it, what it was made of. He understood the difference between big and small, same and different, and over and under.

Alex picked up one liners from the lab workers like “calm down,” and “good morning.” He expressed frustration and boredom. When Dr. Pepperberg put Alex into his cage for the night in September 2007, he looked at her and said, “You be good. I love you.” Those were the last words she would ever hear from him. She found Alex dead in his cage the next morning

In her research paper, “The Alex Studies,” Dr. Pepperberg provides ample proof that parrots are smarter than we’re led to believe. Dumb bird? Not Alex. He wasn’t parroting, he was thinking.

Koko, a gorilla, was born in 1971 at the San Francisco zoo. Sickly and near death, at the age of twelve months he was taken from his mother and placed with Penny Patterson, a twenty-five year old grad student. Penny began teaching Koko ASL (American Sign Language) and today he comprehends 2,000 words of spoken English and more than 1,000 ASL signs.

Koko is a celebrity. King Kong is the only better known gorilla. He has his own web site, YouTube video, full-length documentary narrated by Martin Sheen and other documentaries, and is on Twitter. Numerous books have been published about Koko and a book released in 1981 contains a quote or blurb from him: “Fine animal gorilla.”

Koko was given a little tailless kitten that he named “All Ball.” When the kitten died, Koko signed to Penny of his love and about his grief over its death. Dumb Animal? I don’t think so.

And then there’s Chaser, a black and white border collie with a vocabulary of over 1,000 words. John Pilley and Alliston Reid are the Wofford College psychologists who worked with Chaser for years. John owns and trains Chaser and Alliston comes up with the experiments. Chaser knows 1,022 proper noun names for various objects. She understands that objects have names and knows that they may have more than one name. Chaser can combine names and commands.

Pilley and Reid published their research in the Journal of Behavioral Processes. Through their work with Chaser we know that the learning capacity of a dog is greater than was originally believed. Pilley, who is retired, says that Chaser is so eager to learn that he has to go to bed at 8:00 p.m. just to get away from her.

Chaser is a celebrity with numerous TV appearances, YouTube video, and newspaper articles. No way can you call Chaser dumb. Dogs are not dumb animals. Take it from me. I know from personal experience.

Dumb Animals? Here’s Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s take on the subject: “We are impossibly conceited animals, and actually dumb as heck. Ask any teacher. You don’t even have to ask a teacher. Ask anybody. Dogs and cats are smarter than we are.”

Check out KRL’s review of Life with McDuff: Lessons Learned from a Therapy Dog by Judy McFadden.

Judy McFadden, author of Life with McDuff: Lessons Learned from a Therapy Dog, lives in Grove City, Ohio, and speaks to audiences about the benefits of animal assisted therapy and reading programs like Therapy Dogs International and Reading with Rover. Please see http://www.lifewithmcduff.com.


  1. I really enjoyed Judy McFadden’s well-written article. I was amazed at the prolific talents in the described smarts of these wonderful creatures. Thank you for publishing this. Ms. McFadden’s book is also a good read as she takes us through the daily exchange with a dog named McDuff. Funny, sad and two handfuls of poignant exchanges between the cleaver dog and the mistress, McFadden. A heart warming read, indeed.

  2. Great article! I could never tell my dog “Angel” she is dumb. After all, she has me wrapped around to little paw. She is definitely no dummy.

  3. Well said, Judy. My hearing dog, Toby, was trained in half the time required. He knows he’s working when I put his harness on. My trainer said you can never spoil a dog with too much love; but we keep trying! A vet told me that dogs can easily learn 100 or more word and I believe it. You prove it again in your article.


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