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.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
5-minute read
Episode #233

First, let’s get one thing straight: My dog Juniper is the smartest, the cutest and, unfortunately, the most flatulent. Okay?

With that taken care of, here’s a little tour of doggy intelligence tests and lists of the smartest and least-smart dog breeds. Word of caution about what this episode isn’t: a survey of scientific research on dogs’ cognitive abilities. I’m going for easy prey here, in the form of the good old “It must be true because I saw it on the Internet.”


What Do Doggy Intelligence Tests Really Measure?

As you may know, many critics have argued that IQ tests for humans are biased and don’t measure what they claim to measure. Human assessments of dogs’ intelligence – well, I would call them lame, though hopefully they have less pernicious effects.

The Towel Test

Check out a couple of items on one common test, just as an example. The test starts by having you put a towel over your dog’s head. His score on that item depends on how fast he gets the towel off him. But some dogs will hate having the towel on their heads and will be desperate to remove it, while other dogs don’t really care all that much. Is this about brains or about touchiness?

The Home Décor Test

Next up: a Stupid Human Trick. You take your dog out of the room where her favorite napping spot is, and then you rearrange the furniture. Clearly, this is a dog IQ test for people with a lot of time on their hands. Having recovered from your faint when you see all the dust bunnies, you bring your dog back in and see how long it takes her to find her favorite spot again. Dogalini gets the most points if she heads right for that spot. She loses a point if she explores for 30 seconds. She loses another point if she settles down in another spot altogether.

Incidentally, the test doesn’t explain whether “spot” means a bed or a particular piece of furniture, or whether “spot” means a particular location within the room. I’m going with the bed or piece of furniture, but your guess is as good as mine.

Now, I would wonder whether a dog who headed straight for her bed or straight for the sofa had failed to notice that there was something a little different about the place. And I would think that a dog who explored was interested in novelty, which sounds smart. And I would furthermore think that a dog who settled down in a different spot maybe just, well, liked the new spot better.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).

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