Is My Dog Smart?

Dog intelligence is a difficult thing to measure and is also a difficult thing to talk about, especially if you have one of those breeds that isn’t even close to the top of any one’s list of intelligent dogs.

IQ Tests

Even though we have been at it since 1904, we have not established a universally accepted IQ test for humans. Alfred Binet developed an IQ test, now called the Binet Scale, to help determine which children  needed additional teaching and help. In this test, a ratio of mental age to chronological age is established. One hundred is considered normal. So if you have a child who is 6 years old and has the mental age of an 8 years old you would have an IQ of 8/6 X 100 or 130.

Other people tweaked this test and eventually the Stanford-Binet test became accepted worldwide as a test of intelligence and was used in the schools extensively. 

Many of the people who contributed to the development of this test were advocates of eugenics. Creating a better human being through selective breeding was the goal of eugenics. Selective breeding is of course what dog breeders do, though breeding for intelligence is not generally a consideration.

Why do I bring this up at all?  I stumbled upon Stanley Coren’s website and I found that  my breed, the Bulldog,  was at the low end of the spectrum.  Let me clarify. The Bulldog was  actually just two breeds away from being the leader of the dumb club.

So I began to  reread his book,  The Intelligence of Dogs. I actually like some of the things that Stanley has to say about dogs but it had been awhile since I read this very popular book. It is quite outdated in some ways and refers often to dominance theory using the same language and terms as Cesar Milan. By that I mean, lots of “alpha,” and “pack leader” references. For the most part, dominance theory has been discredited when it is used with pet and family dogs.

In a way I found that rereading his book was actually very comforting. Since many of theories he relied on are no longer considered valid, it eased the frustration I feel when I see Bulldogs at the bottom of his “intelligence” lists.

Dingoes And Domesticated Dogs

I came across a reference to a more recent study of dog intelligence in DVM:The Newsmagazine Of Veterinary Medicine and written by Stephanie Skernivitz.  This study was done in Australia with dingoes and more domesticated pet dogs and measured their problem-solving abilities.  It was found that dingoes were more quickly able to solve a spatial problem in order to get their food. A transparent barrier was set up so that the food reward could be seen but the problem was getting at it, and this involved some problem-solving.  The dingoes were able to figure it out in 20 seconds whereas the domesticated dogs often got confused.

Bonnie Beaver of Texas A & M University asserts that we really need to think of “environmental intelligence.” The dingoes are of course shaped by their environment and are successful in it.  Our domesticated dogs  are successful in their environments as well. They each succeed in their particular environments. 

 In some ways I see a similarity between this test and some human IQ tests  which are “culture-bound.” In these IQ tests disadvantaged children score lower, not because they are less intelligent , but because the test does not account for the environment in which they have been immerse. Tests have been developed which take this into account, and are called “Culture-Fair” tests, as they attempt to eliminate any advantages or disadvantages that may be associated with a particular economic level, culture, or language.

Dinner Time

In thinking about this test I started thinking about my dogs and their relation to food and how they get it.  They clearly don’t work for it. Sometimes I ask them to “sit” but even that much work is infrequent. If a bit of kibble gets away from them, they may lower their shoulders, peer under the table, and attempt to reach it…but only if it isn’t too far away. In fact, I don’t know of very many people who ask their dogs to work at getting their food at all. Most just hand it over and some even soften it  with water or moist dog food so that they don’t even need to work very hard chewing. Easy street!

Dr. Andrew Luescher of Purdue University points out that we have been domesticating these companions for a very long time. And we often don’t look for or breed selectively for trainability or intelligence in our family dogs.  They may instead have been bred for their docile nature, cuddle-ability, for being lap-sized, or their perpetually child-like mugs, or neoteny.


So take heart in knowing that it has taken many years to get here.  Many of the breeds we love and live comfortably and companionably with were not necessarily bred for trainability. Although we may not ask much of them as far as trainability goes, we do ask them to allow us to be “caregivers” and sometimes uber-caregivers. And for that I am very happy.

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2 Responses to “Is My Dog Smart?”

  1. Ken 03. Nov, 2010 at 6:49 pm #

    Another inciteful blog. Glad I have a smart dog!

  2. Michelle S 03. Nov, 2010 at 8:39 pm #

    Tank is smart – he passed your training with flying colors! Missy, well, she’s pretty anyway. (Actually, I think she’s the smartest as she has us all believing she’s as dumb as a box of rocks!)

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