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Are Intellectually Gifted Dogs More or Less Playful?

Data show that extremely gifted dogs are more playful than their counterparts.

Key points

  • There is a stereotype that people with intellectual genius tend to be solitary and unhappy with little inclination to play or interact.
  • Longitudinal studies have shown that very intelligent people are generally happier, enjoy social contacts, and like to play.
  • New data show that gifted word-learning border collies are much more playful than their cousins with normal intellectual abilities.
Nikola Čedíková / Pexels
Source: Nikola Čedíková / Pexels

Ernest Hemingway once said, "Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know."

It appears that our culture loves the stereotype of the mentally tortured, solitary genius, working through his angst by writing, painting, or composing in an empty loft, or perhaps spending friendless unhappy hours pushing back the frontiers of science in a laboratory. Despite his genius, he is socially inept and has no inclination to engage in play or other leisure activity. This would be consistent with our view of people like Alan Turing, Virginia Woolf, Bobby Fischer, Howard Hughes, and Edgar Allan Poe.

Given the similarities in the psychological makeup of dogs and humans, this would lead us to typecast particularly intelligent dogs as being similarly moody and socially unresponsive. However, the widespread stereotype of the personality characteristics of gifted humans has been proven to be wrong, and some new data from the Department of Ethology at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, suggest that intellectually superior dogs may actually be more playful than their less-gifted cousins.

Do Geniuses Have Flawed Personalities?

Lewis Terman, one of the developers of the Stanford-Binet intelligence test, set out to answer the question if higher degrees of intelligence made any difference in anything other than academic performance. He wanted to know if there were real personality, emotional, and social impacts of greater intellect. In 1921, he initiated the Genetic Studies of Genius, which was a long-term study of gifted children. It was published in five volumes over a period of 35 years, making it one of the longest longitudinal studies in psychology. He started with a sample of 1,528 California school children. He was looking for pupils with an IQ of 140 or more (80 of whom had IQs above 170), so he really was dealing with the intellectually gifted—the top one-half percent of the population.

Terman's results shattered the myth that gifted individuals are lonely, reclusive, and unhappy individuals. In fact, he found that, generally speaking, not only were his geniuses more successful than their less mentally endowed contemporaries, but they were also more sociable, had a broader circle of friends, and were less likely to be divorced. One other thing that he noted was that when these individuals were children, they tended to be more playful. More recent research has confirmed that as they grew older these gifted students showed a greater sense of humor than others without their cognitive abilities.

What Is a Gifted Dog?

If we can extrapolate from the human results, this would suggest that the brighter dogs might also be more playful than similar dogs who are not gifted. Claudia Fugazza led a team of researchers who decided to look into any personality and behavioral differences that might be associated with greater intellect in dogs.

Their measure as to whether a dog fit into the "gifted" category was based upon word-learning ability. These researchers have found that only a few dogs worldwide show the cognitive skill of being able to learn multiple object names. Specifically, these dogs can learn the names of many of their toys. The criterion for dogs being classified as "Gifted Word Learners" was that they could learn and retain the names of at least 10 different toys. The researchers restricted their investigation to border collies since research (such as my own, which ranked canine intelligence in various breeds) has shown that these may be the brightest of dogs. However, it is important to point out that, even in this intelligent dog breed, not all border collies show this talent. (There are a few dogs of other breeds that have this cognitive skill; however, they are exceedingly rare.)

Does Canine Intelligence Influence Personality?

The researchers asked the owners of 21 dogs that met the criterion of being Gifted Word Learners to fill out the Dog Personality Questionnaire. This questionnaire looks at a number of personality traits including various aspects of fearfulness, aggression, excitability, trainability, sociability, and also playfulness. These data were then compared to data obtained from a matched sample of 144 dogs that differed only in that they were not Gifted Word Learners.

In a bit of a surprise, the researchers found that for almost all of the behavior and personality dimensions that they measured, canine intelligence did not seem to matter, and the Gifted Word Learners and their more typical compatriots were very similar. The one place where there was a significant difference was in terms of playfulness. The researchers found that the gifted border collies were rated by their owners as significantly more playful than other dogs of their breed.

The researchers point out that, in general, working dogs are more playful than nonworking dogs. The border collie was selected to be a working dog; thus, it is expected that a typical border collie would already be very playful. Yet, this study reveals that the gifted dogs are even more playful than what can be expected for this working breed.

So, on the basis of the data, we can write off of the belief that human geniuses are angst-driven, dour people with little inclination to engage in pleasant pastimes. Similarly, these recent data indicate that genius dogs are not burdened by excessive negative emotional characteristics either. Gifted dogs still have a desire to play and interact, apparently even to a greater extent than dogs without their cognitive abilities.

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Coren, S. (2006). The Intelligence of Dogs (revised edition). New York: Free Press.

Fugazza, C., Turcsan, B., Sommese, A. Dror, S., Temesi, A. & Miklósi, A.(2022). A comparison of personality traits of gifted word learner and typical border collies. Animal Cognition.

Holt, DG. & Willard-Holt, C (1995). An exploration of the relationship between humor and giftedness in students, Humor 8 (3), 1995, 257-272.

Terman, LM. (1925). Mental and Physical Traits of a Thousand Gifted Children. Genetic Studies of Genius Volume 1. Stanford (CA): Stanford University Press. (First volume of the series).

Terman, LM, Oden, M. (1959). The Gifted Group at Mid-Life: Thirty-Five Years' Follow-Up of the Superior Child. Genetic Studies of Genius Volume V. Stanford (CA): Stanford University. (Final volume of the series).

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