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Understanding Your Dog's Intelligence

Mirror mirror on the wall, what is the smartest breed of all?


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All trainers recognise that there are definite differences in intelligence and trainability of the various breeds. However, they also note that there is a lot of individual variation among dogs. Hence, all winners are not collies and all collies are not winners.

A lot has to do with the person training the dog. 'You can start with a dumb breed and make them really quite clever if you are a good enough trainer.' The difference among the various breeds is how easily each can reach a certain level of performance and what the absolute maximum is that a dog of a given breed may be expected to achieve. Stanley Coren set about to rank 133 breeds of dog as to which are the brightest. There was no data so he sent out questionnaires to every judge in North America and remarkably got almost half back. Here are the results of his research.


The Brightest Dogs

Ranks 1-10 are the brightest dogs in terms of obedience and working intelligence. Most dogs will begin to show an understanding of simple commands in less than five (5) exposures and will remember new habits without noticeable need for practice. They obey the first command given by their handler around 95% of the time. Furthermore, they respond to commands within seconds after they are given, even when the owner is a distance away.


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

Excellent Working Dogs

Ranks 11-26 are excellent working dogs. Training of simple commands should take around five (5) to fifteen (15) repetitions. The dogs will remember commands quite well, although they will show improvement with practice. They will respond to the first command 85 % of the time or better. For more complex commands, there may sometimes be a slight but occasionally noticeable, delay before the dog responds. These delays can be eliminated with practice. Nevertheless, virtually any trainer can get these breeds to perform well, even if the handler has only minimal patience and not much experience.

11. Pembroke Welsh Corgi
12. Miniature Schnauzer
13. English Springer Spaniel
14. Belgian Tervuren
15. Schipperke
 =   Belgian Sheepdog
16. Rough Collie = Keeshond
17. German Short-haired Pointer
18. Flat-coated Retriever
 =   English Cocker Spaniel
 =   Standard Schnauzer
19. Brittany Spaniel
20. American Cocker Spaniel
21. Weimaraner
22. Belgian Malinois
 =   Bernese Mountain Dog
23. Pomeranian
24. Irish Water Spaniel
25. Vizsla
26. Cardigan Welsh Corgi

Above Average Working Dogs

Ranks 27-39 are above-average working dogs. Although they will begin to show a preliminary understanding of simple, new tasks within around fifteen (15) exposures, on average, it will take up to twenty five (25) repetitions before relatively smooth performance is obtained. Dogs in this group benefit from extra practice, especially at the beginning stages of learning. After they learn a habit, they generally retain it well. They will usually respond to the first command around 70% of the time or better, and their reliability will depend upon the amount of training that they have received. All in all, these dogs act like the excellent dogs in the group above. They simply respond a bit less consistently, and there is often a perceptible lag between the command and the response. They will not respond reliably beyond a certain distance from their handlers , and at long distances, they may not respond at all. Inconsistent or poor training by inexperienced handlers result in definitely poorer performance for these breeds.

27. Chesapeake Bay Retriever
 =   Puli
 =   Yorkshire Terrier
28. Giant Schnauzer
 =   Portuguese Water Dog
29. Airdale
 =   Bouvier des Flandres
30. Border Terrier = Briard
31. Welsh Springer Spaniel
32. Manchester Terrier
33. Samoyed
34. Field Spaniel
 =   American Staffordshire Terrier
 =   Gordon Setter
 =   Bearded Collie
35. Cairn Terrier
 =   Kerry Blue Terrier
 =   Irish Setter
36. Norweigan Elkhound
37. Affenpinchers
 =  Silky Terrier
 =  Miniature Pinscher
 =  English Setter
 =  Pharaoh Hound
 =  Clumber Spaniel
38. Norwich Terrier
39. Dalmatian

 


Average Working Dogs

Ranks 40 - 54 are average dogs in terms of their working and obedience training. During learning, they will begin to show rudimentary understanding of most tasks after fifteen to twenty (15-20) repetitions. However, reasonable performance will take between twenty-five to forty (25-40) experiences. Given adequate practice, these dogs will show good retention, and they definitely benefit from additional practice at the time of initial training. In the absence of extra practice, they may seem to lose the learned habit. These dogs will respond on the first command more than 50% of the time, but the actual performance and reliability will depend on the amount of practice and repetition during training.

40. Soft-coated Wheaten Terrier
 =   Bedlington Terrier
 =   Smooth-haired Fox Terrier
41. Curly-coated Retriever
 =   Irish Wolfhound
42. Kuvasz
 =   Australian Shepherd
43. Saluki
 =   Finnish Spitz
 =   Pointer
44. Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
 =   German Wire-haired Pointer
 =   Black-and-tan Coonhound
 =   American Water Spaniel
45. Siberian Husky
 =   Bichon Frise
 =   English Toy Spaniel
46. Tibetan Spaniel
 =   English Foxhound
 =   Otter Hound
 =   American Foxhound
 =   Greyhound
 =   Wire-haired Pointing Griffon
47. West Highland White Terrier
 =   Scottish Deerhound
48. Boxer
 =  Great Dane
49. Dachshund
 =   Staffordshire Bull Terrier
50. Malamute
51. Whippet
 =   Chinese Shar-Pei
 =   Wire-haired Fox Terrier
52. Rhodesian Ridgeback
53. Ibizan Hound
 =   Welsh terrier
 =   Irish Terrier
54. Boston Terrier = Akita

Fair Working Dogs

Ranks 55 - 69 can be rated as only fair in their obedience and working ability. It may sometimes take up to twenty-five (25) repetitions before they show the glimmering of understanding when presented with a new command, and they may require between forty (40) and eighty (80) experiences before achieving reliable performance. Even then, the habits may appear to be weak. Extended practice, with many repetitions, may be required for them finally to master the commands and show solid and reliable performance. If they do not get several extra sessions of practices, these breeds often act as if they have forgotten what is expected of them. Occasional refresher sessions are frequently needed to keep performance at an acceptable level.

With average training levels, these dogs will respond to the first command only 30% of the time. Even then, they work best when their trainers are very close. These dogs appear distracted much of the time, and they may seem to behave only when they feel like it. Owners of these dogs spend a lot of time shouting at them, since the dogs seem totally unresponsive if there is much distance between them and their handlers. People who own these dogs usually rationalise their dogs' behaviour with the same arguments that cat owners use to explain their animals' unresponsiveness, claiming that the animals are 'independent, aloof, easily bored' and so forth. These breeds are not for first time owners. An experienced dog trainer, with lots of time and firm but loving attention, can get these dogs to respond well, but even an expert dog trainer will have a hard time getting one of these dogs to perform with more than spotty reliability.

55. Skye Terrier
56. Norfolk Terrier
 =   Sealyham Terrier
57. Pug
58. French Bulldog
59. Brussel Griffon
 =   Maltese Terrier
60. Italian Greyhound
61. Chinese Crested
62. Dandie Dinmont Terrier
 =   Vendeen
 =   Tibetan Terrier
 =   Japanese Chin
 =   Lakeland Terrier
63. Old English Sheepdog
64. Great Pyrenees
65. Scottish Terrier
 =   St. Bernard
66. Bullterrier
67. Chihuahua
68. Lhasa Apso
69. Bull Mastiff

The Most Difficult to Train

Ranks 70 - 79 are the breeds that have been judged to be the most difficult, with the lowest degree of working and obedience intelligence. During initial training, they may need more than thirty (30) or forty (40) repetitions before they show the first inkling that they have a clue a to what is expected of them. It is not unusual for these dogs to require over one hundred (100) reiterations of the basic practice activities, often spread over several training sessions, before any reliability is obtained. Even then, their performance may seem slow and unsteady.

Once learning is achieved, practice sessions must be repeated a number of times; otherwise, the training seems to evaporate, and these dogs behave as if they never learned the exercise in the first place. Some judges cited some of these breeds as being virtually untrainable, while other suggested that the difficulties probably lie in the fact that, with average handlers, the initial learning sessions and practice were not being continued long enough for the behaviours to work themselves into becoming permanent habits. Once a habit is learned, these breeds still show unpredictable failures to respond. Sometimes they turn away from their handlers, as if they were actively ignoring commands, or fighting their owner's authority. When they do respond, they often do so quite slowly and seem unsure about, or displeased with, what they are supposed to be doing. Some of these dogs are reasonable workers on lead and are not trustworthy when free. Of all the breeds, these need the most competent and experienced handlers.

70. Shih Tzu
71. Basset Hound
72. Mastiff
 =   Beagle
73. Pekingese
74. Bloodhound
75. Borzoi
76. Chow chow
77. Bull dog
78. Basenji
79. Afghan Hound

But what about Mixed Breeds or Crosses

Here the dog judges whose job it was to asses the behaviour of purebred dogs, were less sure. Judges as well as those who were also trainers and ran obedience classes seemed to feel that it was possible to make rough predictions and rankings eve of mixed-breed dogs. Their general feeling was that a mixed breed dog is most likely to act like the breed that it most looks like. Thus if a beagle-poodle cross looks like a beagle, it will act much like a beagle. If it looks most like a poodle, its behaviour will be very poodle-like.

On the other hand, most mixed breeds have some predispositions and behaviours that are characteristic of both breeds which contributed to it. The more of a blend the dog that the dog's physical appearance seems to be, the more likely that the dog's behaviour will be a blend of the two parents.


 About the author
Stanley Coren
is a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia and author of the highly acclaimed The Left-Hander Syndrome In addition, he is a prize-winning dog trainer and authority on canine intelligence.

Editor's note: Is there a case for introducing a Titling system as used in other parts of the Agility world so that everyone, with whatever breed they choose, can enjoy the sport. Or will we keep it just for the collies?
Extracted from: The Intelligence of Dogs by Stanley Coren (1994), Headline Book Publishing.
Pen-and-ink drawings by Paul Brown from Gallery of American Dogs (1950), McGraw-Hill Book Company, Inc (USA).
Author photo: Gary Steel

Feedback

Ian Watts...
I have to challenge the article on dog intelligence though:  This guy is not measuring intelligence - in fact, on the contrary, he is testing what I would call gullibility in humans!  If you told a human to jump off a cliff and he/she did it on the first command you would think they were pretty stupid!  However, someone who looked back at you and said "why the heck would I want to do something like that?" and walked away from the cliff, would be considered relatively intelligent.

Our Afghan Hound - ranked 79 in that survey - is by far the most intelligent of our dogs and all our others are apparently ranked number 14. He knows exactly how little or how much he has to do to get fed and watered every day, and has shown extraordinary intelligence in problem solving in the past:  For example, working out that if he trotted 30 metres back down the garden, climbed up onto a shed roof (via a compost heap) and then jumped down the other side he could overcome the 5-foot high fence between him and next door's rabbits! The Belgians just barked and lunged at the fence.

Incidentally, Stanley Coren also seems to be somewhat confused as to the difference between Belgian Sheepdogs, Terveren, and Malinois...  Aren't they all Belgian Sheepdogs?   (30/03/09)

Margaret Malone
Surely the really intelligent dogs are the ones who can get their owners to do what they want! (07/03/08)

Hillary Alexander...
But having the particular dog (ASD) that I do, I would rank him in the top five.  He's positively scary in that he learns so very quickly. Then, he wants to do the obstacles on his own. It's as if he is offering his services to you. (07/12/00)

Rocky Baudo...
There is a big difference between a dog being smart and a dog that is  trainable. Asking judges there opinion to see what dogs are smart is just that, an opinion. Unless you see for your self or gather more data, it is a poor ranking.

The Australian Shepherd was not even ranked. Yes, we do own Australian Shepherds, they are very much as smart as Border Collies without the intensity. They both perform the same jobs. Anyone that does herding, OB or agility will tell you that. Which is smarter depends on the individual dog.

To leave out Mix Breeds is also an injustice to those dogs. These dogs, all though they cannot be classified, have been some of the most intelligent of dogs. Evidently this gentleman did not to much about dogs.

From Julie & Glyn Bolt...
Unless I missed it , I did not see Lurcher in you list of intelligent agility dogs , My lurcher cross is very bright - and we are regularly beaten by excellent agility Lurchers so don't forget this excellent group of dogs !

From Laurie Viager
I've feel there is a big difference between intelligence and being well trained. I have seen beagles who didn't know how to sit on command, keep a herd of cattle contained when there was an opening in the fence that the farmer was unaware of. I have also seen obedience champs not be able to find a tennis ball if you hid it under a towel.

I presently have a lab mix (a rescue) who is average in obedience but extremely intelligent. She seems to have an innate sense of the world around her. She can open any kennel latch that she comes across. I have actually seen her sit and study it prior to opening it. She will also run and sit by the door when a friend is arriving and I have yet to see their car come down the road. I believe she can determine the difference between friend's car motors and others. She will grab your hand and lead you to her empty water dish. She will approach small children, the elderly and dog haters calmly. Everyone else is greeted with exuberance. She is definitely a student of human nature.

The point I am trying to make is that perhaps problem solving skills and human/canine communication (as it applies to day to day living) should be part of the equation. (17/08/02)