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Doggy Intelligence

Are some breeds smarter than others? Do doggy IQ tests really measure canine intelligence? What's a fair way to judge dogs' brains? The Dog Trainer delves into the fray.

By
Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA,
February 18, 2014
Episode #233

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What Does It Mean for a Dog to Be “Intelligent”?

I plucked these questions out of one particular doggy intelligence test, but I don’t mean to single the test out, because these tests all seem to suffer from similar problems.

Does the room-rearrangement project really test whether your dog can find her bed in a rearranged room? Does speed of towel removal – even if you’re comparing dogs who are equally motivated by this task – have anything to do with a fair assessment of intelligence? And what is intelligence, if you’re a dog? Does it have to do with how quickly the dog responds to human cues? Or with how easily the dog learns human words?

Standards like those seem to assess dogs by how convenient they are to us. Maybe it makes more sense to measure a dog’s success in scavenging for food, or how quickly he finds his way to a female in heat. Hey, scientists can’t even agree on what “intelligence” should mean with respect to humans.

Which Breeds Are the Smartest?

This brings me to the idea that you can rank breeds by intelligence. “Smartest Breed” lists often order dogs on the basis of how impressive they are to humans, and specifically on how easy it is to teach them to perform tasks that people approve of. Border Collies always seem to turn up in the #1 slot, with other herding dogs and retrieving breeds also in the top 10.  

What these breeds have in common is that they were developed to work closely with people and under human direction. Stanley Coren, author of The Intelligence of Dogs, relied on a survey of judges in the sport of competitive obedience to make his list. Sure, “cooperative and biddable” can easily coexist with “smart,” but they’re not the same thing.

I can’t be the only dog trainer to raise an eyebrow at the lowly rank Chihuahuas came in at in Coren’s survey: #62 of 79 breeds. I often find Chis skittish and shy, but I can’t say I’ve ever found them notably slow learners.

Training Methods May Affect How We Perceive “Intelligence”

It’s also worth pointing out that Coren compiled his list in the mid-1990s, when harsh physical methods of dog training were almost everywhere the norm. Even now, competitive obedience is one neighborhood of Dog Land that hasn’t quite got on the modern positive-reinforcement bus. And while I can’t prove it scientifically, it’s certainly my impression that “hard to teach” in that old-school collar-jerking way looks an awful lot like “doesn’t respond well to coercion.”

I said this episode wasn’t going to discuss the serious research on cognition in dogs and other animals, but before I close up shop, let’s take a moment for the mirror test. The point of a mirror test is to find out whether an animal recognizes itself in a mirror. Self-recognition is taken to be a sign of self-awareness. Most adult humans obviously pass the mirror test, and so do a number of other primate species. Dogs don’t. And that’s a gorgeous example of why human-centered notions about intelligence and awareness may not help us much when applied to dogs.

Why? Dogs’ visual acuity – what eye charts test – is much worse than ours, and dogs have a much more limited range of binocular vision than we do. (Some brachycephalic breeds, with their eyes at the front of their heads instead of set off to the side, have better binocular vision than dogs whose physical form is more normal for the species.) Long story short, dogs may or may not have self-awareness, but a visual test is not the way to find out. So what is?

The answer, if there is one, lies beyond the reach of this podcast, but it might be scent-based. Here’s your takeaway: There’s some evidence that dogs recognize their own urine. Betcha you can’t do that, you poor non-self-aware weak smeller, you.

As always, you can write to me at dogtrainer@quickanddirtytips.com. I get so many questions that I can’t respond individually, but check out past episodes – I might already have answered yours, especially if it’s about housetraining, humping, or aggression. And please visit me on Facebook, where I’m The Dog Trainer.

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Dog in glasses and dog counting images courtesy of Shutterstock.

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