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Your dog is NOT smarter than my baby!

July 21, 2009 |  2:56 pm

You know that snarky bumper sticker that says "My dog is smarter than your Honor Student"?

Well in case you were feeling insecure about our intellectual superiority, let me reassure you: Even our human babies are smarter than that person's dog. In fact, most normally developing babies are smarter than a dog by the time they're 3 or 4 years old. Do you know that research has already discovered that 2-and 3-year-old babies can out-perform adult dogs at picking up on directional signaling like finger-pointing?

Oh yeah, dogs CAN do it. It's just that toddlers can do it even when you throw in little tricks to confuse them.

It turns out that babies also "get" dogs pretty quickly. A new study finds that infants just 6 months old can correctly distinguish between the friendly yap and the angry snarl of a dog. Long before they can say much more than "gaaa gaaa" themselves,  they can interpret the emotional inflection of a dog's bark -- even one they don't know, an experiment at Brigham Young University shows. The study has just been published in the journal Developmental Psychology.

In the experiment, researchers set 6-month-old babies in front of two pictures of a dog -- one in a hostile stance and one looking friendly and pettable. They played a recording in which aggressive barks and friendly barks were presented in random order, and watched to see which picture the baby gazed at while hearing the dog's vocalizations.

The babies -- even those with little to no previous exposure to dogs -- got it immediately. They spent virtually all of their time in the chair looking at the dog whose stance matched the tone of the bark they were hearing.

Brigham Young University psychology professor Ross Flom, the lead author of the study, say the infants' early attentiveness to emotional tone -- even across species -- underscores how quickly young humans learn to make sense of their world by interpreting emotional expressions. In an earlier study, Flom found that babies as young as 5 months old were capable of distinguishing a piece of music with a joyous tone -- such as Beethoven's Ode to Joy-- from pieces of music that are gloomy. The experimental mini-subjects demonstrated their discerning ears for music by staring for a longer period of time at a photo of a person with a happy facial expression when upbeat music played and shifting to an image of a sad expression when music was played that was dirge-like and in a minor key.

That research was published in the journal Infant Behavior & Development. But you can see some pictures of the tots listening here. 

Just try to get a dog to perform such a trick. It's smarts like that that makes us the pack leaders.

-- Melissa Healy

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