Five-year-old Hunter lives in Alberta, Canada, with his human companions, Kenny Au, a computer engineer, and Denise Lo, an ESL teacher. He is a Shiba Inu. Shiba Inus were named one of the top ten smartest dog breeds in a 2018 article by CelebrityDogWatcher.com. [Currently, humans only have methods for measuring working intelligence in dogs, the ability to learn a new command in less than five repetitions and obey it ninety-five percent of the time. Adaptive intelligence and instinctive intelligence aren’t accounted for.] Since Hunter is the most intelligent dog Au and Lo have ever owned, they regularly provide him with opportunities to learn new skills. Hunter picks up his own toys, fetches his owners’ slippers, and stacks toy rings. Most impressively, though, he paints.
Hunter’s first painting was a gift to his family. In March of 2017, Au and Lo wanted to paint a design on one of their walls. When neither Au nor Lo found a suitable design, they decided to consult another family member. First, they taught Hunter to hold a paintbrush in his mouth, then they taught him to put the paintbrush to a paper that was taped to the wall and move the brush along the paper. Finally, they added paint to Hunter’s paintbrush. Pleased with the result, they let Hunter paint the design for their wall. “Since Hunter is such a huge part of our lives, ” said Au and Lo “we thought it would be appropriate if he made some artwork for us.” Now Hunter paints daily. “He seems to love having a job,” say Au and Lo, “and it seems to make him calmer throughout the day.”
Hunter isn’t the only pooch who has gained attention for his paintings. Arbor, a Las Vegas, Nevada rescue dog, Dagger II, known professionally as Dog Vinci, a black lab and golden retriever mix who became a painter after being told he was too anxious to become a service dog, and blind, long-haired rescue dachshund, Hallie have all found aficionados. While all of these dogs found loving homes, Hunter is the only dog who has been with his current human companions since his puppyhood. There is another way he differs from his canine competitors. While any proceeds Dog Vinci and Hallie make from their paintings go to nonprofits that help canines, Hunter competes on the open market. He has his own accounts on Instagram and Etsy. Though his paintings were originally priced at thirty-eight U.S. dollars each, his Etsy shop currently lists his asking price as roughly fifty U.S. dollars per painting. As of 2019, Hunter has sold over one hundred fifty paintings. His profits total roughly four thousand nine hundred three dollars and fourteen cents in U.S. dollars. Au and Lo say they are considering donating some of the future proceeds from Hunter’s work to their local animal shelters.
Hunter isn’t doing this for the money. Instead, he’s motivated by the treats his humans give him when he uses his paintbrush in a constructive way. He is learning the physical movements a painter performs, and he is associating those movements with obtaining a desired reward. Neither he nor any of his canine competitors are actually learning the many abstract concepts associated with painting, such as perspective, medium, and color palette. Much of a dog’s brain activity is focused in the stratium, a dopamine rich area that focuses on reward, pleasure, and expectation. In other words, it’s probably the expectation of a reward—a reward that, as an intelligent dog, he likely quickly learned to expect—that is a pleasure to Hunter, not the act of painting itself. The ability to take pleasure in an abstract, emotionalized concept is a distinctly human ability. A brain’s ability to perform complex functions is partially determined by its size relative to a creature’s body. The average dog brain is roughly the size of a tangerine. Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist who studies the canine brain for Emory University in Atlanta, says, “Dogs’ brains just don’t have the real estate to do the things ours do.”
Hunter is a motivated artist. He simply doesn’t have human motivations. In the end, though, does that really matter? Dogs can recognize partner bonds. In Berns’ research, dogs would willingly feed other dogs they knew, even if they didn’t receive any food themselves. Unlike most animals, apart from humans, dogs recognize pointing as a meaningful gesture that indicates attention should be turned to something other than themselves. They know how to use head and facial movements to redirect their humans’ attention. Most impressively, dogs understand object permanence. Object permanence is the psychological understanding that an object moved out of sight has not disappeared, and it may appear elsewhere. Dogs understand this concept, and they can use object tracking to determine where they should search for an object that has moved out of sight. For comparison, four-year-old humans struggle with understanding object permanence. Hunter uses his skill at object tracking when he paints. Not only does hr know performing certain actions with a paintbrush will lead to his getting a treat. He uses his object tracking ability to make sure he performs the same physical movements with the brush each time he paints, both while he is dipping the brush and while he is actually painting.
Perhaps that’s not how a human artist approaches painting, but Hunter is still forming a genuine connection with someone every time he pleases a human who loves him with one of his paintings.