The Intelligence of Dogs
This article from When Pigs Fly is a follow up to DeeJays thread .
Sit down, because this is going to come as a shock to you. No breed of dog is inherently
better at learning than any other breed or mix of breeds. That's right — despite
all the flashy behavior that certain breeds offer, despite the fact that some breeds
of dogs are literally waiting around for you to tell them what to do, they are no
quicker to learn than any other dog. That is not just my opinion — Scott and Fuller
in their seminal work Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog (Chicago: University
of Chicago Press, 1965) did extensive experiments with Basenjis, Shetland
Sheepdogs, Beagles, Cocker Spaniels, Wire-Haired Fox Terriers, and all manner of
crosses of those breeds. The tests consisted of various complicated combinations
of obstacles and mazes that the dogs had to negotiate in order to get to a food reward.
Scott and Fuller found that, when it came to problem solving and learning,
no breed or cross of breed is quicker to learn than any other is. In their words:
... (A)ll breeds show about the same average level of performance in problem
solving, provided they can be adequately motivated, provided physical differences
and handicaps do not affect the tests, and provided interfering emotional
reactions such as fear can be eliminated. In short, all the breeds appear quite
similar in pure intelligence.
Wait, it gets better. I am going to go out on a limb and guess that people consider
a Basenji to be one of the hardest to train dogs, and a Sheltie to be one of
the easiest. If you attend obedience or agility trials, you will see lots and lots of
Shelties, and powerful few Basenjis. Some people will attribute this to superior
intelligence and learning ability on the part of the Sheltie. Here is what Scott and
In general, the four hunting breeds (beagles, basenjis, terriers, and cockers) performed
best on the tests. This is probably because most of the tests were deliberately
designed to test independent capacities motivated by food rewards...By
contrast, the Shetland sheep dogs, whose ancestors have been selected for their
ability to perform complex tasks under close direction from their human masters,
performed rather badly. Indeed, in many of the tests, the shelties gave the subjective
impression of waiting around for someone to tell them what to do, (Emphasis
The Basenji learned faster than the Sheltie. The Sheltie was waiting to be told
what to do, and the Basenji was out there figuring it out on his own. So, if the
Basenji is just as capable, if not more capable, than the Sheltie of learning, why is
it so devilishly hard to get a Basenji to actually do what we want them to do? The
answer is that traditional training models were designed with the biddable dog
(like the Sheltie) in mind. Those methods rely heavily on "showing" or "telling"
the dog what to do. If you have a dog who is pre-programmed through hundreds
or thousands of years of breeding to be receptive to being told what to do, those
methods might get you somewhere. If you have a dog who has only ever been bred
to think for himself, you will find yourself beating your head against a wall. The
problem is not the dog, but the method used to teach him. Instead of compelling or
showing the dog what you want him to do, you need to learn a system of training
that will tap into your dog's ability to excel at independently motivated problem
solving, just like the dogs in Fuller and Scott's study.
Please note that the fact that the Sheltie was reluctant to problem solve does not
mean that the Sheltie was more or less intelligent than the other dogs. It only
means that the Sheltie had a natural preference to be told what to do in that context.
I think we must be careful not to ascribe labels like "intelligent" or "unintelligent"
to dogs, because the assessment of a dog's intelligence is going to depend
on your preconceived notions of what a dog "should" be.
Dave and Molly
Ian Dunbar was awarded the Outstanding Achievement Award from I.P.D.T.A. Here's a picture of me accepting the award on his behalf.
Member of IAABC ,International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants , Member of Pet Professional Guild