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How Smart Is Your Dog?

Does canine intelligence equate in any way with animal intelligence? How are they similar or different?

For one thing, dogs are motivated to please their owners – that’s where the food comes from, after all! Also, some dogs are smarter than others.

About dog intelligence

The smart your dog may be doesn’t indicate how trainable it will be. Dogs have minds of their own, and your dog may not accept you as the alpha animal of your pack. He may believe HE is the boss and do exactly as he pleases! Such dogs are said to be “spoiled.”

Training a dog involves teaching that when you give a command, he is expected to respond to it; in other words, do what you have told him to do. The dog doesn’t need to “understand” the command the way we would; he only needs to obey it. The dog doesn’t know anything about the repercussions of his actions or what will happen if he does or doesn’t obey (other than punishment/lack of reward or reward).

It’s a fair indication that a dog has intelligence above the norm if he uses his paws to find or bring out a treat or a ball that has rolled under a chair or sofa. Some dogs that seem intelligent enough may be handicapped by physical limitations, such as short legs, inability to jump, or poor eyesight.

Is your dog smart?
Is your dog smart?

Some experts believe dogs are much more intelligent than we give them credit for. For a long time – thousands and thousands of years – dogs were perceived as workers, as aids in hunting, or as protectors. Nothing more was expected of them; they were thought to operate on instinct alone and to be untrainable. However, at some point or other, humans noticed that dogs responded positively to commands if rewarded, so dog training began. Eventually, in recent years, scientists have begun to look at animal intelligence with a more focused eye. The first results were amazing: Animals could grasp abstract concepts such as affection and anger and deal appropriately with symbols and new concepts and commands. They proved able to analyze problems and react appropriately.

Which Dogs Are the Smartest? The Dumbest?

There are three types of canine intelligence:

Adaptive: learning and problem-solving. This is inherent in the individual
animal and can be measured by IQ tests.

Instinctive: same

Working/Obedience: Breed dependent

Studies in the 1950s involved Beagles, Shelties, Fox Terriers, Cocker Spaniels, and Basenjiis. Over a 12-year period, these breeds were tested for intelligence using a large maze. The results showed a wide variety of abilities at various problem-solving activities. The Fox Terriers and the Shelties began with low scores, while the Beagles and Basenjiis scored high. The Beagles showed initiative by fully exploring the environment, while the Basenjiis used visual clues to good effect. However, the Fox Terriers and Shelties quickly improved their scores via repetitious activities. Beagles are not so talented at learning by rote and are often held to be “not as intelligent” as Beagles, yet it is more accurate to say that certain breeds are gifted in different ways – just like people!

Here are the rankings:


  1. Border Collie
    2. Poodle
    3. German Shepherd
    4. Golden Retriever
    5. Doberman Pinscher
    6. Shetland Sheepdog
    7. Labrador Retriever
    8. Papillon
    9. Rottweiler
    10. Australian Cattle Dog


  1. Shih Tzu
    70. Basset Hound
    71. Mastiff
    72. Beagle
    73. Pekingese
    74. Bloodhound
    75. Borzoi
    76. Chow Chow
    77. Bulldog
    78. Basenji
    79. Afghan Hound


Dogs learn language quickly. They watch us constantly and observe our movements, gestures, and voice commands. It is difficult to deny, watching them, that they are studying us with the view to being able to predict our future behavior. Tobi, a Silky Terrier, has been studying people’s speech and behavior for 10 years – his entire life. He knows whether his owner is going outside for just a moment or whether she will be gone for hours. He can tell when his owner is talking to her next-door neighbor, whether the neighbor answers or the phone is answered by someone else. These marks of “intelligence” are easily understood: if his owner is going outside for just a moment, she does not take her purse. If she changes clothes and does take her purse, he is ecstatic – he wants to go, too! He can also read her tone of voice in its many nuances.

People say it is silly to apologize to a dog, but Tobi’s owner has found that if she apologizes (for stepping on his foot, for example), he does not whine, bark, or give her dirty looks; if she does not apologize, he will. Animals are creatures of habit: Tobi loves to rest on the furniture, but he knows he is not supposed to until his blanket is laid on the sofa. If his owner does not get the blanket, he will stand and look first at the sofa, then at his owner, then at the blanket, and he will continue to repeat that behavior until the blanket is fetched.

And don’t forget body language! Although limited, dogs have a few facial expressions available – a growling dog, teeth bared, is sending a warning! Ear position (laid back ears = “Leave me alone.” Full up = “I’m interested – want to play?”). The position of the tail can suggest submission.

Can Dogs Tell Time?

The reported instances of dogs who know when their owners are on their way home, when it’s feeding time, bath time, or time for an expected company to arrive are legion. I once dog-sat a little Bichon whose owners went on vacation without saying much about the dog’s habits. “He’s no problem at night,” they told me, “just put his carrier at the foot of your bed.” They did not tell me what time they usually retired for the night, but I soon found out. Promptly at 9:15 p.m. every night, the Bichon would run and scratch at the bedroom door. If I went to bed at the same time, all remained quiet, but if I shut the door on the dog, a great whining and crying shortly followed. Obviously, he didn’t want to go to bed alone.

Rusty, a mixed-breed female, was very fond of her owner. He was a fisherman and was often away fishing. His wife could always tell when he was coming home because 5-10 minutes before he arrived, Rusty would become excited, spinning around, barking, begging to be let out. Her owner, interested in this phenomenon, kept a record and found that Rusty anticipated him by at least 10 minutes 88% of the time. No one knows how dogs are able to do this, but examples abound.

Some other unusual abilities dogs are reported to have:

The ability to:

See dead people
Predict earthquakes
Predicting seizures
Sniffing out diseases
Detecting mines


All right, there seems to be no doubt that dogs are intelligent, at least to some degree, but what about emotions? When you come home from work, does your dog jump up and down or try to climb into your arms? Does this mean she is happy? Excited? Does it have anything to do with you, or is he simply anticipating going out?

Studies have indicated that animals do have and display emotions. This is believed to be important in social situations. Dogs began as members of a pack and interacted with other members according to their status. Low-ranking dogs show respect for their pack leaders (even if human), while the leader makes sure of their submission by forcing them into submissive postures.

People quickly form emotional bonds with pets. Seniors who have lived long in nursing homes seem to come alive when a pet visits. Dogs react strongly to expressions of love in humans. Unlike humans, dogs do not desert their owners for a better deal – even if humans withhold food, shelter, and companionship, dogs will not willingly leave them. The bond is emotional.

Testing your dog’s intelligence

You can easily test your dog’s intelligence by playing games with her. If your dog hasn’t been trained to sit or lie down on command, this is a good time to begin this training. It will work best if the dog is at least a year old and has lived in the house for several months. The person with whom the dog is most familiar (the owner) should do the training. Use a 10-point system:

  1. Blow on a whistle or clap your hands three times and say, “Sit.” If your dog obeys, give her a treat. Do this ten times, then blow on your whistle and see if the dog obeys without the command. If she does, give her some 1-10 points. It may take 20 repetitions or up to 50 (if you get that far, forget the tricks – just enjoy your dog).
  2. Dip a piece of paper into some strong-smelling liquid (perfume, peppermint extract, etc.) and let the dog smell it. Say, “Down.” Then, offer the dog an odor-free piece of paper and say, “Down.” Repeat as for the “sit’ command until the dog gets the idea. Give her points accordingly.
  3. Put on your coat, grab your purse or car keys, and get the leash. Wait. If your dog comes running or goes to the door all excited, give her 1-10 points.
  4. Show the dog a treat, then, with the dog in another room, cover it with a scarf. If the dog quickly gets her nose under the scarf and gets the treat, she gets points according to how long it took her to get the treat.
  5. With the dog out of the house, change some of the furniture around, add something new, or move her food/water bowl to a different locale. Time how long it takes your dog to notice. She should start looking and smelling within a minute or two.

Don’t be upset if your dog doesn’t score as well as you thought she did. She may not be feeling well, in the mood to test, or simply prefer to do something else. Dogs come in different sizes, breeds, personalities, and degrees of willingness. Forget the tests, and instead, pay attention to how your dog tests your intelligence.

You might be surprised at what you find!

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