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Dog Intelligence: Science, Truth and Journalism

Science doesn't support the claim that dogs are becoming dumber.

I was startled to see a headline in the Los Angeles Times Newspaper that read "Are dogs getting dumber? Swedish researcher says yes." Apparently this article was triggered by a report published in the London Telegraph which had an equally dire headline. As someone who has done extensive research on canine intelligence (see my book "The Intelligence of Dogs") I recognize that different breeds of dogs show systematic differences in intelligence and trainability. Thus the data suggests that the Border Collie, Poodle, German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Doberman Pinscher, Shetland Sheepdog and Labrador Retriever top all other breeds in terms of their trainability. However it had been my impression that dogs in our modern era are actually more trainable and that many of the newest breeds and lines of dogs appeared to be brighter than their predecessors.

The newspaper article references a piece of research by the ethologist Kenth Svartberg, who is listed as being at Sweden's Stockholm University. It claims that Svartberg blames the dumbing down of dogs on modern breeding practices which are progressively producing generation after generation of successively less intelligent dogs.

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The article describes Svartberg's research as involving the testing of 13,000 dogs and it reports that he used the data to rate the intelligence of 31 breeds. It goes on to say that he found that those dogs that were bred for appearance, and especially for dog shows, displayed lower levels of intelligence. Furthermore the article claims that Svartberg's research showed that some breeds that were originally intended to perform important jobs requiring skill and intelligence - such as the smooth collie, bred for herding, and the Rhodesian ridgeback, bred for hunting - were among those hardest hit by the trend of breeding for looks.

I was surprised that I had missed such a significant set of findings since I search the scientific literature for new findings about dogs and dog behavior on a weekly basis. After a good deal of checking, I found that the research being reported as new in 2009 was actually based on an article published by Svartberg in the Journal of Applied Animal Behavior in 2006. I had read that article and had no recollection of it dealing with canine intelligence at all, but rather with the personality of dogs. However memory being fallible (especially at my age) I did go back and check the original publication.

It turns out that this time my memory was correct and intelligence was not measured. As the article notes "breed scores were calculated for four behavioural traits: playfulness, curiosity/fearlessness, sociability and aggressiveness. These traits have previously been found to be stable and valid, and hence regarded as personality traits in the dog." Notice that there are no intelligence measures involved.

According to Svartberg his findings demonstrate that dogs bred mainly for appearance and for use in the confirmation show ring tend to be more easily frightened and are less curious and playful in unfamiliar situations. He warns that since people tend to like dogs that more sociable and playful, and less easily frightened, breeders should pay more attention to the temperaments of their dogs. He advises breeders to not sacrifice personality qualities which are desirable for animals designed to be pets and companions, just for the sake of good looks in the show ring. He does not say anything at all about intelligence or problem solving abilities in dogs.

I wondered why Svartberg did not respond to these apparently erroneous reports and interpretations of his work, especially since his findings were being broadly disseminated and used in a campaign attacking the breeding of purebred dogs in general. I came to understand why there were no recent quotes or responses from Svartberg when I attempted to contact him through the University of Stockholm. He was not listed on the school's roster of personnel which is probably why reporters had not found him. Pursuing the matter further, an employee in the Biology Department provided a clue on how to reach him. Apparently, based on his success as a canine behavior researcher and the prestige that it provided him, Svartberg had left the University and started a successful dog training and assessment business.

When he was eventually contacted through his training academy he confirmed that the study cited by the London Telegraph and the Los Angeles Times were in fact based on the research he published three years earlier. He appeared to be quite annoyed by the press treatment of his results and the way his research was being reported. Verifying my reading of the material he confirmed that "The study had nothing to do with intelligence in dogs, per se." He had not read the Los Angeles Times report, but had read the one in the Telegraph. He insisted that the paper had "misrepresented" his findings and suspects it did so in order to contribute to an ongoing debate in the UK about the breeding of so-called "hand-bag" dogs. These are typically small dogs, such as Chihuahuas, Yorkshire Terriers and Papillons, that appear to be used as fashion accessories as they are carried around by celebrities such as Paris Hilton, Madonna and Britney Spears. The BBC has aired several programs blasting this use of dogs and the practices of dog purebred dog breeders in general.

So what can we conclude? First there is no need to send your pure bred dog off to a special school for retarded canines, nor to worry that purebred dogs are becoming successively dumber due to poor breeding practices. Second one should conclude that scientific research as reported in the popular press often disagrees with what the authors actually wrote and published in scientific journals. I wonder what the response would be to a newspaper headline that began with the question, "Are successive generations of news reporters becoming dumber?"

Stanley Coren is the author of many books including: Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History: Dogs and the Course of Human Events, How Dogs Think : Understanding the Canine Mind, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome.

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