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Santiago’s Brain–And what it has to do with Dogs

Updated: Jan 29, 2021

smart dog reading Einstein's equation on chalkboard

A recent issue of Rolling Stone magazine contained a fascinating article called “Santiago’s Brain.” Santiago Gonzalez moved with his parents from Mexico City to Colorado soon after his first birthday. By the age of eighteen months, he knew the alphabet. At two, he could count to 20 in three languages. At the Montessori school where his parents enrolled him, he learned English in about a month. (Anyone else feel like a slacker yet?) His hyper-fast learning curve continued, and Santiago entered college at 11. At 13, he has advanced computer programming solutions drifting through his mind as he sleeps, and easily discusses things like “molecular orbital theory.”

Clearly, Santiago is what is termed “exceptionally gifted.” But that’s only part of the story; the more troubling aspect is the boy’s emotional life. Early on, he’d been placed in age-appropriate classes at school. By the end of his first week of first grade, he had became a loner in class and volatile at home, and sometimes acted mean, which was totally out of character for him. He soon became very easily frustrated and completely unbalanced emotionally. But when his parents took him to museums, bookstores, and libraries on the weekends, his moods lightened. When Santiago was eventually put into an environment where his mind could be engaged and challenged, although his classmates were much older, he thrived. In other words, mental stimulation was key to Santiago’s emotional stability.

Naturally, this story made me think about dogs. We often stress the importance of exercise, but I seldom come across conversations about how much mental stimulation is required for a dog’s well being. I can’t help but think about all of those border collies and other highly mentally focused breeds that are in the care of owners who don’t understand this aspect of their needs. Perhaps, just like Santiago, those dogs require a higher level of mental stimulation than others in order to remain well-adjusted emotionally. We do know that many highly intelligent dogs who don’t get enough mental stimulation invent activities for themselves, channeling that intense focus into projects their humans just don’t seem to appreciate.

Highly intellectual dogs need more than simply excavating a Kong or running through basic obedience routines. So how can we challenge them? One thing that comes to mind immediately is clicker training. What could be better for a super-smart dog than having to figure things out? Once a dog is clicker-savvy (click equals treat), the game is on! It’s all about figuring out how to make that human click, and it’s great fun for both parties. Although Mojo (my soul dog who has passed on) wasn’t what I would call mentally advanced, he loved learning new tricks with the clicker. Two of his favorites were “Say your prayers” and “Turn out the light.”

Another neat mental activity is to let dogs figure out how to get treats out of a complex treat dispenser. For dogs who haven’t done it before, the Aikiou (pronounced “IQ”) is a good product to start with: it’s a large plastic paw with four sliders that can each be pushed to reveal a treat, and a round disk in the center that must be nudged or pawed to reveal pockets of treats all around the circle. For more experienced or highly intelligent dogs, the Nina Ottoson toys are an excellent choice. They’re more advanced, and require dogs to figure out, for example, how to spin multiple levels of disks to line up the openings to reveal a treat. There’s one where a dog has to figure out to remove a large wooden peg in order to allow a slider to move, which in turn reveals the treat. There are varying degrees of difficulty, and plenty of puzzle toys to choose from. Of course, there are many other activities that also stimulate dogs mentally, including sports such as agility, K9 Nosework, and herding. We just need to match the sport to the dog’s abilities and discover what he enjoys.

According to the Santiago article, because intellectually advanced children are often ostracized, they try to act like everyone else by burying or switching off that highly advanced part of themselves. Researchers worry that “intellectual motivation, after prolonged decimation…becomes irrecoverable.” I hate to think that a dog with intellectual drive, who is motivated by learning, could end up languishing without proper mental stimulation, possibly even becoming depressed, or having his lack of needs being met manifest as behavioral issues like aggression or obsessive-compulsive disorders. Santiago’s story is a good reminder to all of us to take the time to challenge our dogs not only physically, but mentally. There’s an old saying that a tired dog is a good dog, but I’d venture to say a dog who has been mentally stimulated is a great dog, and a happy, better behaved one at that.


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