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Testing animal intelligence - psychologists at work

A question of psychology : who's in charge here?

There was an interesting story on the radio recently about animal intelligence. A team of psychologists in England decided they would conduct a careful experiment to test the relative intelligence of a range of domestic animals, ranging in size from a mouse to a horse. Unfortunately, they could not get hold of an elephant, nor could they include marine animals or birds, but the selection was quite wide. As well as the mice and horses, the tested population included rats, cats, dogs, rabbits, sheep, goats, pigs, and cows.

I am interested in the work of psychologists – my elder sister Jill was a professional psychologist and a practitioner in this field. I still quiver when I remember a time when I was a schoolboy and she was at University with an undergraduate assignment to complete. She subjected me to an intensive IQ test. I never did hear how I fared, but the sad, grave look on her face, and on that of my mother when Jill reported the results to her, suggested that I had failed badly.

Put all that aside; I am now all but over it. However, the focus of psychologists I have known, like Jill and her colleagues, was the study of humans, especially human children. How would they have got on testing the IQ of animals, I wondered.       


I don’t remember how the questions of sampling and statistical analysis were handled in the trial discussed in that radio program, but the methodology was ingenious and memorable. They designed a maze, and each animal was put into the centre, and then timed on how long it took them to find their way out. A different maze was used for each species, scaled up or down so the size of the maze was always the same in terms of equivalence to the size of the animal, and the maze structure (dead ends, corners, length and width of passageways and so on) was identical. The idea was to test memory, decision-making and pattern recognition, which the psychologists believed were good indicators of intelligence. The benchmark, against which each of the different animal species were rated, was the performance of a ten-year old human.

Listening with keen interest to this, I felt sure I knew what the outcome would be. Ever since first reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm about 60 years ago I have taken it for granted that pigs are the smartest of all domestic animals, although secretly I felt sure that if Blue, the Red Cloud kelpie we once owned, had been in the test, he would have shown the rest of them his exceptionally clean heals (intellectually speaking).

The smartest dog I ever knew - the kelpie Blue, with Ellen, amongst the everlastings at Mt Gibson

When the results of the research were announced, to my complete surprise neither the pigs nor the dogs came anywhere. Nor even did the rats, for which I have always had a sneaking respect when it comes to animal intelligence (or at least cunning). The conclusive result was that sheep were superior to all the other animals tested. To me, this seemed to belie their reputation as, well, sheep.

When I told Ellen that “It turns out that sheep are the most intelligent of domestic animals,” she simply grunted “Not any of the ones I have ever met”.

Australia’s great bush poet and essayist Andrew ‘Banjo’ Patterson would have agreed with her. In a celebrated story called The Merino Sheep, Banjo commenced:

People have got the impression that the merino is a gentle, bleating animal that gets its living without trouble to anybody, and comes up every year to be shorn with a pleased smile upon its amiable face. It is my purpose here to exhibit the merino sheep in its true light.


First let us give him his due. No one can accuse him of being a ferocious animal. No one could ever say that a sheep attacked him without provocation; although there is an old bush story of a man who was discovered in the act of killing a neighbour’s wether.


‘Hello!’ said the neighbour, ‘What’s this? Killing my sheep! What have you got to say for yourself?’ ‘Yes,’ said the man, with an air of virtuous indignation. ‘I am killing your sheep. I’ll kill any man’s sheep that bites me!’


Banjo then observes that

as a rule the merino refrains from using his teeth on people … rather his one idea is to ruin the man who owns him. With this object in view he will display a talent for getting into trouble and a genius for dying that are almost incredible”.

He goes on to say:


If a mob of sheep see a bushfire closing round them, do they run away out of danger? Not at all: they rush round and round in a ring till the fire burns them up. If they are in a river-bed, with a howling flood coming down, they will stubbornly refuse to cross three inches of water to save themselves. Dogs may bark and men may shriek, but the sheep won’t move. They will wait there till the flood comes and drowns them all, and then their corpses go down the river on their backs with their feet in the air.


A mob will crawl along a road slowly enough to exasperate a snail, but let a lamb get away in a bit of rough country, and a racehorse can’t head him back again. If sheep are put into a big paddock with water in three corners of it, they will resolutely crowd into the fourth, and die of thirst.


When being counted out at a gate, if a scrap of bark be left on the ground in the gateway, they will refuse to step over it until dogs and men have sweated and toiled and sworn and ‘heeled ’em up’, and ‘spoke to ’em’, and fairly jammed them at it. At last one will gather courage, rush at the fancied obstacle, spring over it about six feet in the air, and dart away. The next does exactly the same but jumps a bit higher. Then comes a rush of them following one another in wild bounds like antelopes, until one over-jumps himself and alights on his head. This frightens those still in the yard, and they stop running out.


I had an interesting discussion about all this with my friend John Callinan, who was a vet in Victoria’s prime sheep country for decades and has had thousands of interactions with sheep.  He was cynical of the study undertaken by the English psychologists. “For one thing” he said, ‘they would have been using English sheep, the product of centuries of domestication and breeding and which are mostly handled one-on-one, members of small flocks in close contact with humans. The Australian merino or cross-bred, on the other hand, live in huge flocks, often in the bush. They are virtually a wild animal by comparison”.


John also wondered whether the psychologists had ever seen a sheep dog trial – the dog always wins.

Sheep dog trials: after a test of will and patience, the dog always yards the sheep …

But when I told my brother the outcome of the animal IQ testing, he was intensely gratified. He loves sheep and has often talked them up to me, even at times when I have been trying to put a mob of them through a gate or into a yard and have been at screaming point in frustration at their refusal to understand my simple objective. I had always taken this recalcitrance to be a sign of the stupidity of the sheep, but the English research suggests I need to look for another reason. An alternative explanation, one I am unwilling to confront, is that sheep are smarter than me. After the last time I had been through all that business with a flock of sheep and a gate, it suddenly occurred to me that they had been playing with me … and enjoying it. Only when they tired of the game did they decide to turn, as one, and file through.

The question of pig IQ needs further research, a new test altogether perhaps. There is a well-known story from the great Karridale bushfire of 1961 which I often retell. At its most ferocious, the fire swept through a piggery, but the pigs had seen (or sensed) it coming and had burrowed down into the sandy soil, leaving only an air hole above their snouts. They all survived unscathed, “saving their bacon” as one wit put it.

Free-range pigs planning their next move.

I also love to recall an incident related to me by a farmer at Manjimup years ago. His free-range pigs preferred the neighbouring bush to the farm paddock. They were constantly getting through the wire fence in the bottom paddock and roaming off into State Forest, from which they were hard to re-muster. Pat thought he could fix the problem by electrifying the fence, which he did.

A few days later he went down to see how the pigs were getting on under the new arrangement. As he watched, the pigs massed into a tight group about 50 metres back from the electric fence. Then, as one pig, they formed into a dense scrum and started screaming. They then charged the fence, took the jolt at full squeal, and tumbled through the wire. They then picked themselves up and happily dispersed into the forest for fun and games.

I was impressed by this, and I now wonder if this might not be a superior test to the one designed by the psychologists in Britain. Clearly pigs can plan a strategy, can value ends over means and understand the psychology of the mob.

I suppose, in a reversal of my logic about sheep, it is possible that the pigs are, in fact, just stupid. But compared to what base-line? I have often wondered about the intelligence of certain humans, like the members of a rugby team geeing themselves up in the change-rooms before running onto the field in the certain knowledge that they are about to be hurt, seriously injured or permanently maimed, all in the name of fun and games. I’d like to put some of these guys into the maze against a sheep, not your innocent ten-year old.

A final thought on all this. In fairness to the animals, I hope the researchers used a 10-year-old male as their baseline for rating animal intelligence, and not a 10-year-old female. When I was ten, my male school friends and I were all significantly less intelligent than our female colleagues. We only just started to catch up when we were about 15, but at that stage the hormones cut in, and we faded drastically, never again achieving ascendency.  Whether or not gender was taken into account in the assessment of various animal species, or even whether this factor applies equally to pigs, sheep, rats and so on, I am unsure. But I guarantee (and emphasise to any future psychological researcher reading this story) it makes a difference.




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2 comentários

03 de mai.

In a sense ALL animals are intelligent, because they've never bothered to learn English and are thus immune from inane questions coming from psychologists. I'd give bonus marks to any that have developed inedible flesh via evolution, because that shows they understand human concepts like 'barbeque' or 'stew'. My own personal pick would be dogs - they've laid low and waited over millennia whilst humans have invented everything to ride in from horse-drawn wagons to cars. Once we perfect the driverless vehicle, I expect dogs to drop the charade and just take the vehicles out by themselves with their heads hanging out the window now that they won't need a human to turn the key or push the pedals anymore.…


03 de mai.

Before we work on Artificial Intelligence why don’t we do something about Natural Stupidity

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