I couldn’t agree more. These test usually measure trainability, which can be a very valuable characterisitc of working dogs. But I believe trainability is composed of both intelligence and ‘willingness to please’. Dogs vary in both categories, and the most trainable ones are high in both.
We have two Basenjis. They are notoriously hard to train, but they can be very intelligent. They simply don’t do what you say unless they see an advantage for themselves in doing it. If they are doing something they find interesting, they will usually only come to you if you have food or a toy. You could say they are independent and stubborn, maybe that’s a little bit of an anthropomorphization, but it seems to hit the mark.
Niko, our male, is incredibly bright ( for a dog! ). I’ve watched him untie knots to free himself from a leash. I’ve also watched him react to mirrors. He clearly understands that he is looking at himself. He has a very distinct notch in one ear that he received when he was attacked by another dog years ago. Everytime he sits in front of a mirror, he looks at that notch in the mirror and then tries to find it with his paw on his own ear. He also makes faces and moves his head around in various odd ways while watching in the mirror. The impression is that he is ‘posing’ to see what he looks like.
He can also clearly understand when he is looking at me in the mirror. One time I entered the room to see him sitting in front of a mirror. He immediately looked at my reflection, rather than turning around at the noise. As a further test, I made a scratching motion with my fingers. When he was a puppy, I would do this when I called him and he would trot right over to receive his head scratching. Now, he responds to the gesture alone, but only when I do it. He immediately turned around, ran right over, and placed his head under my scratching fingers.
Our other dog, Lexie, isn’t so bright. She has looked into mirrors, but she always seems uninterested. She doesn’t seem to think they are windows, because she will usually stare out a window for some time (even if nothing in particular is going on outside). Mirrors just don’t seem to be interesting at all to her.
Both dogs routinely ignore TV, unless there is a sound they are interested in. If they hear wildlife sounds, they will start watching and sometimes will sniff the speakers as well. If they hear siren noises, they will perk up and start running around looking for the problem (as they do when they hear those in the real world). When we watched a TV show that had Basenjis on it, Niko jumped up and went right to the TV. He pawed the screem, sniffed it, and even went walking around the TV, looking for where the dogs were. I’m still not sure what they thing of TV, but it seems they are physically capable of perceiving the images and certainly the sounds.
My conclusion is: Some dogs are much smarter than others. Not so earth-shattering, is it? Much the same for people as well, but the range is different. I think some dogs might be able to pass the ‘mirror test’ for self-cognizance and others won’t. I agree with coosa’s post immediately above regarding the attitudes of many animal behaviorists.