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Canine Intelligence—Breed Does Matter

A dog's relative intelligence depends on the specific behaviors tested.

Source: Clipart

Just as everyone wants to have smart kids, most people want to own clever dogs. However, whether a dog is "smart" or "dumb" depends on the specific aspects of its behavior we consider. For example, was Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Einstein intelligent? Obviously, to derive the theory of relativity required a mathematical genius. Yet Einstein was so bad at simple arithmetic that his checkbook was always out of balance.

Intelligence has a variety of different dimensions. In human beings, we might subdivide intelligence into verbal ability, numerical ability, logical reasoning, memory, and so forth. The intelligence of dogs also has several different aspects, among which we recognize three major dimensions. The first is called instinctive intelligence. This really refers to what a dog was bred for. For example, herding dogs were bred to herd animals. Their ability to round up animals, keep them close together, and drive them in a particular direction is inborn and only requires human intervention to keep it under control and to give it a bit of direction.

Different breeds obviously have different types of instinctive intelligence. Guard dogs watch over things, retrievers fetch, hounds track or pursue, pointers sniff out birds and indicate their location by pointing, while companion dogs are attuned to human social signals and respond to our moods to provide comfort. Every dog has an instinctive intelligence, but it is senseless to make comparisons across breeds as to which are "smarter" in this respect—their abilities are simply too different to compare.

The second dimension of dog intelligence is adaptive intelligence. This is a measure of what a dog can learn to do for himself. It includes learning and benefiting from experience with his environment, solving new problems, and so forth. Adaptive intelligence can differ among individuals of the same breed. Thus, all Golden Retrievers have the same instinctive intelligence, yet while most are quite clever you will occasionally encounter one that seems totally clueless and makes the same mistakes over and over. The difference between the various Golden Retrievers is a matter of difference in adaptive intelligence, and this can be measured by using the appropriate tests.

When most people think of dog intelligence they often think of the dog working his way through complex obedience exercises in an obedience ring or on a stage. They might also think of highly trained animals such as police dogs, guide dogs for the blind, hearing assistance dogs, or search and rescue dogs. A dog responding appropriately to his master's commands and signals tends to give us the impression that we are viewing the peak of dog intelligence.

Thus, when a dog demonstrates through his response that he understands what particular commands from a human mean, he is demonstrating one of the most important aspects of his intelligence. It is important because if dogs did not respond to human instruction, they would not be capable of performing the utilitarian tasks that we originally valued them for, which means that they would never have been domesticated and wouldn't be with us now. This third type of intelligence in dogs is appropriately called working and obedience intelligence. It is the closest to what we might call school-learning ability and is based upon what the dog can learn to do when instructed by humans.

It should be possible to actually rank dog breeds in terms of their working and obedience intelligence. Using statistics from kennel club records based upon obedience competition trial results doesn't work, because it gets mixed up with popularity. For example, in one recent year, according to American Kennel Club (AKC) trial records, Otterhounds earned no obedience degrees while Golden Retrievers earned 1,284. This doesn't tell us that Otterhounds are stupid, however, because there were approximately 670,000 Golden Retrievers registered with the AKC, while in that same year there were only 300 Otterhounds. Even if Otterhounds were the most brilliant of all dogs, and if every single one of them earned an obedience degree in the test year, that would amount to only 300 obedience degrees as compared to the 1,284 degrees for Golden Retrievers.

While their records can't help us assess dog intelligence, the kennel clubs do provide us with another resource, namely the dog obedience judges themselves. These individuals are trained to observe and evaluate how dogs perform under controlled conditions. It is not unusual for a judge to spend 12 to 20 hours on any given weekend judging and scoring dogs of various breeds. In addition, most judges are also dog trainers, spending many more hours observing and working with dogs. Because of this extensive experience watching and evaluating dogs, if any one group of people should have the accumulated knowledge of the relative performances of various breeds, it is them. They see each dog perform under the same conditions, and should be able to separate out the quality of the performance from the number of competitors.

For my book The Intelligence of Dogs, I contacted all of the dog obedience judges registered with the AKC and the Canadian Kennel Club and provided them with a long questionnaire that allowed them to rank the various breeds in their working and obedience abilities. Despite its length, 199 judges provided the information we needed, which is approximately half of all the obedience judges listed in North America. If we limit ourselves to breeds for which at least 100 judges provided assessments we ended up with a ranking of 133 breeds.

The degree of agreement among the judges was amazingly high, suggesting that there were real observable differences that were being reliably detected. For example, when we consider the dogs ranked highest in obedience or working intelligence, we find that 190 of the 199 judges ranked the Border Collie in the top 10. There was somewhat less agreement as to which breeds showed the poorest working or obedience intelligence, yet even here the degree of agreement was still high among my sample of experts. Of the 199 judges, 121 ranked the Afghan Hound in the bottom 10.

According to the judges' rankings the top 10 dogs in terms of working and obedience intelligence are, in order:

  • Border Collie
  • Poodle
  • German Shepherd Dog
  • Golden Retriever
  • Doberman Pinscher
  • Shetland Sheepdog
  • Labrador Retriever
  • Papillon
  • Rottweiler
  • Australian Cattle Dog

While according to the rankings of the dog obedience judges the bottom 10 dog breeds (moving downwards) are:

  • Basset Hound
  • Mastiff
  • Beagle
  • Pekingese
  • Bloodhound
  • Borzoi
  • Chow Chow
  • Bulldog
  • Basenji
  • Afghan Hound

Does this mean that everyone should rush out and get one of the top 10 breeds of dogs? Definitely not. While a smart dog will learn everything that you want the dog to know, it will also learn everything that it can get away with. This means you may have to spend much more time "civilizing" your clever dog so that it learns the limits of behavior in your household.

Does this mean that we should stop breeding the dogs low in the rankings to improve the species? Definitely not. Every dog has an instinctive intelligence for which it was bred. Thus the Afghan Hound, at the bottom of the list, was bred to spot, pursue, and pull down antelope and gazelle. If you ever saw one of them running you would appreciate how refined his skill as a running hunter is. Also, most dogs in our urban society are chosen as companions. Did you take the time to give an intelligence test to the last person that you were considering as a possible spouse, lover or companion? Well, the Beagle, which is seventh from the bottom is one of the most loving and sociable of all dogs.

In addition, some of the dogs lower in the intelligence list have other qualities. The Afghan Hound is arguably among the most beautiful of dogs. I notice that every year People magazine has a special issue presenting "The 50 Most Beautiful People in the World." I don't ever remember People ever having an issue featuring "The 50 Most Intelligent People in the World." Just think about what we consider to be the most important aspects of humans. The same often applies to dogs.

Copyright SC Psychological Enterprises Ltd. May not be reprinted or reposted without permission.


Stanley Coren is the author of many books including The Modern Dog, Why Do Dogs Have Wet Noses? The Pawprints of History, How Dogs Think, How To Speak Dog, Why We Love the Dogs We Do, What Do Dogs Know? The Intelligence of Dogs, Why Does My Dog Act That Way? Understanding Dogs for Dummies, Sleep Thieves, The Left-hander Syndrome.

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