By Allison Winn
If you're like most pet owners, you probably believe that your furry friend is a virtual animal Einstein. You might be right. Research at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany suggests that some dogs recognize up to 200 words and even deduce what new words mean, making their mental aptitude equivalent to that of a 3-year-old child.
And it's not just pooches. Cats aren't intellectual slouches, says Stephanie Schwartz, DVM, author of Dr. Cookie's Guide to Living Happily Ever After with Your Cat. But it is difficult to assess how smart they are. IQ tests are just as controversial for cats as they are for people, she says.
"Just like humans, animals have two kinds of intelligence: fluid, which is natural smarts, and crystallized, which is how they process the sum of everything learned," says Stanley Coren, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of How Dogs Think. "Constantly teaching an animal new things increases crystallized intelligence." Here's how to boost your pet's brainpower.
Boost his vocabulary
Speak to him daily, but don't just chatter idly. Make a point to teach him new words. "Give your dog consistent verbal signals," says Coren. "If you're going upstairs, say 'upstairs.'" Eventually, when he hears "upstairs," he'll know to scamper up the steps.
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"Cats can be taught new behaviors with the same training methods that you use for dogs," says Warren Eckstein, founder of ThePetShow.com.
Enrich the environment
In order to develop their mental potential and to thrive, animals need stimulation equivalent to what they would experience if they were running free. A crackly paper bag, for instance, can entertain a cat for hours.
Attempting to capture the light from a laser pointer, a rolling Ping-Pong ball, or a stuffed toy suspended from a string keep her active, too.
Spend quality time with him
"Cats are superbly athletic and require physical as well as intellectual stimulation. The same can be said of exotic pet birds," says Schwartz. "Both cats and birds are social species and form close bonds with preferred companions. Low levels of social interaction can lead to anxiety and depression." If you can't spend quality time with your bird, make his cage and the surrounding area as interesting as possible with mirrored bells and colorful ladders, for example.
Dogs also suffer from lack of stimulation if left alone all day. When you come home, spend the first 30 minutes playing indoor games. "My favorite is a memory game," says D. Caroline Coile, PhD, author of How Smart Is Your Dog?
"Hide some treats that don't have a strong scent throughout the room while the dog is watching, and then take him out of the room. After 30 seconds, let him back in and see how many of the hiding places he can remember." Other strategies include changing toys several times a month, altering walking routes, visiting dog parks.
A sharp mind translates into a healthier body for your pet. With nothing to do but eat, bored pets are more likely to become obese, Schwartz says. And, as in humans, obesity increases the risk of serious health problems, such as diabetes, arthritis, and heart disease.
Keeping your pet's brain busy can also help prevent temperamental behavior. A stimulated pet is happy and will cause fewer headaches around the house-your pooch won't continually hide your socks; your cat won't overgroom or pee on the rug; your bird won't excessively pluck his feathers. And it doesn't take a genius IQ to know that this all adds up to smart thinking.