So Is There Such A Thing As A ‘Dumb’ Dog?
Why May It Feel Like Some Canines Are Harder to Train Than Others?
Have you ever wondered whether your dog is “not smart” compared with other pooches?
Dogs are able to solve complex problems and are more like humans as well as other higher primates than previously thought.
Many people base their judgement of a dog’s intelligence on the animal’s trainability. But the idea of breeds being easy or difficult to train is relative, as different breeds were developed to perform specific jobs.
The discussion about difficult breeds to train—possibly implying the breed is not known for being ‘smart’—is bound to offend someone, who is likely the breeder.
The key aspects to think about when it comes to training your dog is what your breed was created to do and what kinds of training you want to do with your puppy.
If you want to train your dog to hunt and you choose a terrier, you might end up thinking your dog is not trainable, when it is actually you who is not so smart.
Can Dog Intelligence Be Measured?
It’s certainly possible to measure a dog’s intelligence level but it’s important to note there are many different types of intelligence.
For example, wolves are quite intelligent and great at solving problems but lack the “social intelligence” that most dogs have, which makes them able to understand and use human social cues. Some dogs may have a good working memory but have poor spatial reasoning or vice versa.
The differences we see in dogs in these specific measures of intelligence tend to vary more at an individual level than a breed level, even when the specific skills that were selected for in each breed (e.g. herding, retrieving, pointing, sledging) mean dogs of specific breeds tend to have more of an innate drive to perform certain behaviors.
There are three types of dog intelligence.
- Instinctive intelligence (what the dog is bred to do)
- Adaptive intelligence (how well the dog learns from its environment to solve problems)
- Working and obedience intelligence (the equivalent of “school learning”)
It’s hard to define dog intelligence because it depends on the criteria, which is set by humans.
The idea of measuring a dog’s ‘intelligence’ is just too fuzzy to be of much use. If we measure intelligence based on the speed of training, this changes through time with the dog’s experiences, so it can’t be described as a fixed trait.
If we mean speed of problem solving, then what kinds of problems? Finding pieces of food hidden under cups? The least talented dog is so vastly much better at this than the most talented human that we can barely even talk about it intelligibly. And anything we try to measure may simply be a measure of how well we humans can predict how a dog may respond to a given situation.
Do Dogs Have Common Sense?
There is no evidence that certain breeds lack ‘common sense. Some breeds aren’t ‘expected’ to be smart, so those owners may not spend time training them, therefore, they ‘aren’t smart’.
Larger dog breeds have larger brains and they have shown some evidence of higher executive functioning but not intelligence.
They were also shown to have greater short-term memory than smaller breed dogs. While statistically significant, it probably is not clinically significant.
Are Certain Dog Breeds ‘Smarter’ Than Others?
Based on data from 208 dog obedience judges from the U.S. and Canada showing the differences in working and obedience intelligence of dog breeds: Border collies are number one; poodles are second, followed by German shepherds. Fourth on the list is golden retrievers; fifth, dobermans; sixth, Shetland sheepdogs; and finally, labrador retrievers.
For the most part, how difficult it is to train a certain dog has very little to do with its intelligence and everything to do with its temperament and motivation.
Breed only explains only about 20 per cent of the variation in trainability across dogs. The remaining 80 per cent of the difference not attributed to breed simply means that environmental factors, or genetic factors not fixed in the breed, are the cause of the differences.
An example of this is the mutation in the POMC (proopiomelanocortin) gene found in some labrador retrievers. This gives some labradors a much higher food motivation which, in the right environment, could make them a lot more trainable than dogs that are less motivated by food.
However, this also means that without the right training and environment, these labradors are more prone to obesity or swallowing inappropriate objects, highlighting how trainability and common sense can be two very different things.
Overall, how easily trainable or “smart” a dog is cannot be judged according to the breed, as it differs depending on the individual dog, according to experts.
While there are certainly physical and behavioral characteristics associated with different breeds, so much depends on the traits of each individual dog, such as their age, health, socialization and previous experiences.
When it comes to training dogs, and canine behavior in general, I think it’s important to focus on the individual, and not make presumptions about what that dog can or can’t do based on their breed.
Dog breeds that have been identified as highly trainable or not so trainable have often been named as such based on studies that have sometimes fallen into the category of pseudo-research. Some authors have ranked breeds based on how well they do in obedience competitions. However, not all breeds are geared to competitive obedience training.
There’s no point in trying to predict how easy or difficult it will be to train a dog (or how “smart” it is) based on their breed, because many dogs have various breeds in their ancestry, so it’s more difficult to associate any given trait or their trainability down to a single breed.
A few studies have attempted to correlate the human perception of ‘trainability’ by breed, but there is simply no way to account for the numerous confounds involved to make such an effort productive.
Every dog is an individual dizzying combination of environmental and genetic factors that interact and influence how they respond to the world.
Training is simply a question of how good we are at setting up situations that will result in our dogs wanting to do the things we want them to do. The differences are just what happens to motivate a given individual most strongly.
Can Dogs Get ‘Smarter’?
All dogs who’ve had a bit of training can become “smarter” the more you train them, “smarter” in the sense of quicker to catch on to what particular game is in play at the moment.
Once a dog has learned that it can do something in exchange for something it wants, it will start trying various behaviors until it hits the one you want, thinking “Are we playing the sit game? the lie down game? the come game?”.
10 Dog Breeds That Can Be ‘Difficult’ to Train
Typical traits: Aloof, dignified, affectionate, sensitive with a strong hunting instinct.
Typical traits: Independent, smart, poised, intelligent, “catlike” and can lose interest quickly.
Typical traits: Endearing, agreeable, independent and can be stubborn.
Typical traits: Stubborn, affectionate, even-tempered, friendly, independent and sensitive.
Typical traits: Affectionate, agreeable, calm, independent, intelligent and can be stubborn.
Typical traits: Friendly but dignified, calm, dignified and good at tricks (skateboards and surf).
Typical traits: Charming and sassy, confident, intelligent. They can do obedience and other sports well.
Typical traits: Dignified, serious-minded, reserved, discerning with strangers and can be stubborn.
Typical traits: Affectionate, loyal, self-important, opinionated and can be aloof, independent.
Typical traits: Independent and spirited, confident and bold, determined, loving and gentle with people. They can have a stubborn streak and can stop responding if they get bored.