By Naomi Kane


Unfortunately there is a list.  Number one is the Border Collie and waaaaaay down in last place is the Afghan Hound.  Endlessly quoted and misquoted this list has been used to rank dogs as smart or stupid when it’s author Dr. Stanley Coren clearly entitled it Working or Obedience Intelligence.  On Dr. Coren’s list the “smartest” dogs, are the ones that “…will begin to show an understanding of simple new commands in less than five exposures and will remember these new habits without noticeable need for practice.”  The list was compiled by interviewing Obedience Judges and for it’s purpose, judging obedience intelligence, it was better than no information at all.  The list has been used out of context and dog intelligence has been defined as simply the ability to learn and obey commands.  If we look at the ability of dogs to live in the human world and manipulate their environment the definition of intelligence becomes wider.

Ask the owner of any one of the dogs in the lower rankings and every single one of them will adamantly maintain their dog’s brilliance.  Aside from favouritism and partiality there is ample evidence that obedience is not necessarily intelligence. 


Dog breeds have been developed to work with human beings in a cooperative partnership unlike any other.  Dogs are helpers hunting, retrieving, herding, guarding, killing vermin, warming feet, guiding the blind, the list is almost endless. Many of the jobs dogs do are instinct driven.  Herding is an instinct some dogs have it and some don’t.  People don’t teach dogs to herd they teach them the names of herding behaviours that the dogs already do instinctively then they can work together to manage a flock.  A good Hearing Ear dog will be one that reacts to sounds and can be trained to get the attention of the person who is hearing impaired.  A dog that isn’t very reactive to sound will be harder to train for that job, perhaps not impossible but certainly not talented.  On the other hand the less sound sensitive dog might make a stellar bomb sniffer where the yapping reactive dog may be too high strung.  So depending on the job part of ability would be having the suitable instincts and personality for the task.  Different dogs may have equal “intelligence” but different instincts and talents. 


Large brain size used to be thought of as a sign of intelligence a huge brain must be smarter because there is more of it. The term bird brain is meant to denote stupidity but birds although they have very small brains show some of the most remarkable intelligence.  There are countless anecdotal stories about Ravens and Crows doing incredible things but one of the most remarkable and also scientifically documented cases would be Alex the African Grey Parrot who understood the concept of same and different, taught other birds to talk, and communicated his needs by the use of words he had been taught, all of which are supposed to be abilities of the “higher mammals”.  Oh yes bird brained for sure, stupid like a fox as the old saying goes and by the way foxes aren’t so generous in the brain box department either.   


I have to declare my own bias since I live with two “stupid” breeds.  The Italian Greyhound, small and a Sighthound so by all the “conventional” measures huggable and vacuous and an Afghan Hound, bottom of the list supposedly as dumb as a post.  Only neither of them is stupid at all.  Both of them come when called something that Sighthounds are supposed to be unable to grasp and they learn things that have relevance to them with astonishing speed.  The IG learned to get up on a chair to have her coat put on after one previous experience and no practice and the Afghan tells me when the other dogs have tipped over the waste basket or made a mess.  I am not sure if she is whining because they didn’t leave any treats for her or because she is offended by the mess but she is my “hall monitor”.  Both dogs are resourceful and very good at communicating their affection and their wants and needs and both do what I ask without much formal training.  How well either would do in an Obedience ring is anybody’s guess since they don’t see the importance of tasks performed in the exact same way, over and over again for no reason that makes sense to them.


A good trainer can teach any dog to do tricks whether it be walking at heel or jumping through hoops but what about self directed behaviours created by the dog versus “tricks” taught by rote.  All behaviour of this sort is learned, but some is learned by deliberate training and some is learned by creative problem solving by the dog.  It is one thing to teach a dog to open a door and another for a dog to observe a person opening the door, put two and two together, and try the knob itself.   Many of the breeds known for their lack of obedience, such as Siberian Huskies, Basenjis and Afghan Hounds are masters of door opening and other creative activities.  More trainable dogs, while very willing and eager, sometimes need more direction before they do things.   Following the obedience theory to it’s logical conclusion the dog that can be trained to open a door might be considered the most “intelligent” but by another measure the dog that figured it out on it’s own seems to be smarter.  The ability to learn and follow commands is useful, a dog has to be fairly intelligent to learn the signals and movements required, but it seems that there is a fair argument to be made that the most trainable dog may not always be the most intelligent. 


In their book “Dogs” Raymond and Lorna Coppinger observed that wild canids are much more likely to learn from observation and are notorious for getting out of their enclosures.  Wolves and coyotes watch humans and figure out how to open gates and latches very quickly.  Domestic dogs for the most part don’t bother except for the ones everyone has heard of, or lived with, that escape from just about anywhere.  Wolves are supposed to be quite intelligent and fast learners but it is well nigh impossible to train them to do anything useful to humans.  So are dogs stupid or are wolves stupid?  To observe an animal’s intelligence the animal must be adequately motivated.  A dog that is comfortable in a cage isn’t going to try to escape.  We have to look at the behaviour from the perspective of what’s in it for the animal.


Wolves want to get out of confinement and must be hand raised to even tolerate human beings; their whole attitude is “Lemme outta here!”  Doing tricks for praise or food from humans just does not compute in the wolf brain.  What makes dogs so special is their ability to transfer social loyalty and cooperation to a different species.  They are motivated to do stuff with humans and are happy to stay where they have access to humans to do stuff with.


Positive motivational training has turned some of the ideas about trainable dogs upside-down.  Some dogs don’t seem to mind pops on the choke chain or physical manhandling to teach a position they have a “Whatever you say boss” attitude.  Breeds or individuals that are sensitive or independent thinkers, the “stupid” ones, get markedly “smarter” with positive training.  Making the activity rewarding and desirable for the dog changes the dog’s attitude from stubborn or fearful resistance to cheerful participation.  Maybe you could train a wolf to sit on command in exchange for freedom.


Intelligence tests for dogs are designed to measure the ability of the dog to solve a problem within a specified time limit.  One test is to put a “blanket” over the dog’s head and shoulders and see how long it takes for the dog to “free” itself.  My Italian Greyhound would be marked as vegetative because she wouldn’t free herself, she would probably crawl under it.  Tests for problem solving, such as placing a treat under a barrier so the dog cannot just grab it, score dogs that don’t try for long as low intelligence.  How do you score dogs that try a bit and then look at their humans having learned that we are awesome at getting things out from under couches?  Humans are considered smart when they can get a dog to do a job.  How smart is the dog that can get a human to do a job?  Makes you think doesn’t it?


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