How Smart Is that Doggie at My Table? A Measurable Fido IQ

An exciting new study has discovered a generalized intelligence factor for dogs

Posted Feb 10, 2016

Soloviova Liudmyla/Shutterstock
Source: Soloviova Liudmyla/Shutterstock

A new research paper by Rosalind Arden and Mark Adams called "A general intelligence factor in dogs" has rocked the field, and numerous popular summaries have been published globally. This is hardly surprising, because dogs are "in" and people are eager to learn as much as they can about these amazing beings. 

Arden works out of the London School of Economics (LSE) and the LSE summary of her study—"Mensa mutts? Dog IQ tests reveal canine 'general intelligence"—is a very good and easy read. It nicely lays out how the team conducted the study and provides some of their significant results.


"The researchers created a prototype dog ‘IQ test' which they used to assess the intelligence of 68 working border collies. These tests included: navigation, tested by timing how long it took the dogs to get food that was behind different types of barriers; assessing whether they could tell the difference between quantities of food; and their ability to follow a human pointing gesture to an object. The researchers found that dogs that did well on one test tended be better at the other tests. Furthermore, dogs that did tests faster were likely to do them more accurately."

Here's the summary for the original work:

"Hundreds of studies have shown that, in people, cognitive abilities overlap yielding an underlying ‘g’ factor, which explains much of the variance. We assessed individual differences in cognitive abilities in 68 border collies to determine the structure of intelligence in dogs. We administered four configurations of a detour test and repeated trials of two choice tasks (point-following and quantity-discrimination). We used confirmatory factor analysis to test alternative models explaining test performance. The best-fitting model was a hierarchical model with three lower-order factors for the detour time, choice time, and choice score and a higher order factor; these accounted jointly for 68% of the variance in task scores. The higher order factor alone accounted for 17% of the variance. Dogs that quickly completed the detour tasks also tended to score highly on the choice tasks; this could be explained by a general intelligence factor. Learning about g in non human species is an essential component of developing a complete theory of g; this is feasible because testing cognitive abilities in other species does not depend on ecologically relevant tests. Discovering the place of g among fitness-bearing traits in other species will constitute a major advance in understanding the evolution of intelligence."

Some key highlights of the study include:

  • The structure of cognitive abilities in dogs is similar to that found in people.
  • Dogs that solved problems more quickly were also more accurate.
  • Dogs' cognitive abilities can be tested quickly, like those of people.
  • Bigger individual differences studies on dog cognition will contribute to cognitive epidemiology.

As the researchers concluded:

"Learning about individual differences in animal intelligence is a first step in understanding how cognitive abilities fit into the fitness landscape. It will provide crucial information on the relationship between intelligence and health, aging, and mortality. Data from non human animals are essential if we are to develop a complete understanding of intelligence, one of the most important traits in the entire animal kingdom."

How might we relate this study to humans? In the LSE essay we read:

"... [D]ogs are one of the few animals that reproduce many of the key features of dementia, so understanding their cognitive abilities could be valuable in helping us to understand the causes this disorder in humans and possibly test treatments for it."

One caution I'd put forth is that we really don't know all that much about psychological disorders such as dementia in other animals, including wild individuals. It's likely they are more common than people believe. (For more, please see "Do Wild Animals Suffer From PTSD and Other Psychological Disorders?" and "Psychological Disorders in Animals: A Review of What We Know.") It's very difficult to gather detailed data on psychological disorders in nonhumans, although, for example, it's well known that animals of many different species suffer greatly when in captivity. (For more scholarly papers on this topic, click here).

What about breeds other than border collies, and other species?

While one might quibble that the study only included border collies, the authors note, "We chose a single breed to avoid confounds arising from differential selection." I think this was a good move, but we also need to study other breeds and hybrids to see just how robust the findings prove to be. And, of course, conducting comparative research on individuals of other species is necessary as well. This would provide a more complete picture of the evolution of intelligence and possible species differences that lifestyles and life-history strategies might explain. In one study of chimpanzees at different captive facilities, researchers did not discover a general intelligence factor. (See "Natasha Einstein," the Chimpanzee Valedictorian.)

In their essay, "Are there geniuses among the apes?" Esther Herrmann and Josep Call advocate for:

"an approach based on testing multiple individuals (of multiple species) on multiple tasks that capture cognitive, motivational and temperament factors affecting performance. One of the advantages of this approach is that it may contribute to reconcile the general and domain-specific views on primate intelligence."

Free-running dogs and multiple intelligences 

I also wonder how these data transfer over to dogs outside of controlled laboratory situations, such as at dog parks or other venues where they have to adapt to changing social contexts and physical environs. This study also brought to mind Howard Gardner's work on multiple intelligences in humans.

Along these lines, I like to think of intelligence as being the ability to adapt to different situations and do what's needed to survive. A friend of mine once told me about the free-running dogs she knew in a small town in Mexico who were very street-smart and could survive in difficult conditions, but didn't listen to humans all that well. Some were very skilled at finding food and avoiding dog catchers and unfriendly dogs and people. Some were very good at "playing" humans for food, whereas others weren't. (For more on this, see Urban Dog: The Ultimate Street Smarts Training Manual.) I've known some very intelligent and adaptable dogs who weren't very street-smart and likely couldn't make it in such an environment.

The list of questions is seemingly endless and there are numerous studies just waiting to be done. There is a lot of exciting research to be conducted in this arena, and I hope to see more comparative studies in the future. There still is so much to learn about the fascinating animals with whom we share our world, including those who share our homes, beds, cars, dinner tables, and couches. 

Note: As I read the original research essay and some summaries I noted that the team referred to dogs as "that." In a previous essay, "Is an Unnamed Cow Less Sentient Than a Named Cow?" I argued that nonhuman animals (animals) should be referred to as "who" or "whom" rather than objectified as "that," "which," or "it." I hope research like this will help move this trend along because it nicely complements other reasons for not viewing dogs and other animals as objects. 

Marc Bekoff's latest books are Jasper's Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson); Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation; Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation; Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence; and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson).

(Homepage:; @MarcBekoff)