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Who's top dog when it comes to 'Social intelligence'? Kids or pets?

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© iStockphoto / Robert Dant © iStockphoto / Robert Dant

(HealthDay News) -- Your pooch or your toddler -- who's the most "socially intelligent"? The answer could be a toss-up, a new study suggests.

For the study, researchers used a series of tests to assess the ability of dogs, 2-year-old children and chimpanzees to do various types of thinking.

The dogs and toddlers did much better than the chimps on tests of cooperative communication skills, such as the ability to follow a human gaze or a pointing finger.

Scientists believe these basic social skills that begin to develop in infancy are what seem to set humans apart from other species, study author Evan MacLean explained.

"There's been a lot of research showing that you don't really find those same social skills in chimpanzees, but you do find them in dogs, so that suggested something superficially similar between dogs and kids," said MacLean. He is director of the University of Arizona's Canine Cognition Center.

"The bigger, deeper question we wanted to explore is if that really is a superficial similarity or if there is a distinct kind of social intelligence that we see in both species," MacLean said in a university news release.

"What we found is that there's this pattern, where dogs who are good at one of these social things tend to be good at lots of the related social things, and that's the same thing you find in kids, but you don't find it in chimpanzees," he explained.

MacLean offered one possible explanation for the findings: People and dogs may have evolved under similar pressures that favored "survival of the friendliest," with benefits and rewards for more cooperative social behavior.

Some things that happened in human evolution may have been very similar to processes that happened in dog domestication. "So, potentially, by studying dogs and domestication we can learn something about human evolution," he suggested.

MacLean suggested that the research might lead to a better understanding of autism and other disorders in people that involve problems with social skills.

"There are different kinds of intelligence, and the kind of intelligence that we think is very important to humans is social in nature, and that's the kind of intelligence that dogs have to an incredible extent," MacLean said.

The research involved more than 100 toddlers, 430 dogs and 106 chimpanzees.

The results appear in the April online issue of the journal Animal Behaviour.

More information

The Humane Society of the United States offers dog care and behavior tips.

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