A couple of weeks ago, someone asked me a question along the lines of which breeds (or kinds of dogs) were “smart” and which ones were “not very smart”. Not even a few weeks before that someone else proposed the same type of question as we were discussing her dog’s ability to work out a new puzzle toy she got for her dog.
It has been a topic of discussion a lot over the years and a question I’ve pondered about various animals for quite some time. We talk about how some animals are “smart” like dolphins, elephants, parrots, and apes and how some are, well, not very smart at all. We use the scale of human intelligence as a cannon to measure most of the time.
I’ve always been fascinated by this large question in life. Behaviorists are making great strides on measuring intelligence in animals and I am grateful so that perhaps the stereotypes and misinformation can slowly dissolve.
But back to dogs. If you do a quick search on your favorite internet search engine, you’ll find dozens of thoughts and articles on canine intelligence and most of them come back to Dr. Stanley Coren. How trainable are they? What are their problem solving abilities? Are dogs smarter than cats? (Don’t get into a heated debate with the cat lovers in your life!) I like to remember that different dog breeds were created by us humans to do different things. For example, herding dogs were selected to be highly trainable, very attuned to humans, and sharp in general. “Kali, turn right. Get that sheep that has fallen back.” “Okay!” Some of the working dogs were selected to guard. They watch over whatever they were trained to, don’t pay attention to much else going on and wear a poker face. “Spike, down.” “Down? I have sheep to watch and it’s getting late. I don’t have time for down.” The physicality of dogs bred to do a certain job vary according to what they need to do so of course the brain power and temperament do as well. Just because your dog can’t learn to get you a soda out of the refrigerator in a day doesn’t mean it isn’t smart at something else, like getting you to get his favorite treat out of the refrigerator with a simple “look”.
So if your Mastiff or Papillon can’t quite get that really fancy new puzzle on the first few tries (or months of trying) remember what kind of dog you have and what he was bred to do. Also remember that there are different ways to quantify intelligence. I always thought my dearly departed Harley was really “smart” being a Border Collie mix of some sort until I repeated found her frolicking in the mud, which always resulted in a bath. She hated bath time.
In fact, there’s even Dognition, a new citizen science project that aims to help researchers understand dogs as a whole. You perform experiments with your dog, not to measure his IQ, but rather assess how your dog navigates the world. The data that you collect from these experiments helps researchers and allows you to profile your dog based on its results.
Of course, what really matters is how happy your dog is and how much we love them whether we think they are “smart” or “not so smart”. My guess is they are smarter than we think.