Do We Love Smarter Dogs More?

In recent weeks there have been several news pieces in the popular press addressing the intelligence of dogs.  The great thing about both is that they presented the science of comparative intelligence and dog cognition very, very well.

One was an article in the New York Times “To Rate How Smart Dogs Are, Humans Learn New Tricks” by Jan Hoffman.  The second was a segment on NBCs “The Today Show” inspired by the Times article.  As both pointed out, dog owners seem to be almost obsessed with how smart their dogs are, giving their dogs “intelligence tests”, reading books such as Stanley Coren’s “How Dogs Think” and “The Intelligence of Dogs,” and even participating in research projects aimed at better understanding the cognitive abilities of dogs.

There has been a surge in interest among behavioral scientists in the cognitive processes of dogs as well. Research labs devoted to the study of dogs have popped up all over the world in the last 20 years.  Older research such as the classic studies of J.P. Scott and John Fuller, “Genetics and Social Behavior of the Dog,” have been reintroduced to a new generation of dog lovers and researchers.  The recent research isn’t just concerned with intelligence, but the broader area of how dogs think, feel and perceive the world.  The phrase cognition covers them all.

Why all this interest among scientists and dog lovers in the psychological processes of dogs?  It’s probably a combination of 1) cultural changes with people treating their dogs more like members of the family and not just backyard pets, and 2) new research revealing that the behavior and psychology of dogs are more complex and more like people than we ever thought.

Hoffman interviewed a number of canine behavioral researchers for her Times article. They pointed out several common misconceptions about animal intelligence and dog behavior. First, intelligence is a slippery term with a variety of meanings to different audiences.

Intelligence isn’t just a single trait with humans having a large dose of it and other animals having lesser amounts. Even in reference to people, experts recognize there are different kinds of intelligence.

Most dog owners think of intelligence as related to trainability or obedience, but researchers investigate a variety of abilities including problem solving and communication.  The second misconception is that differences among species, among breeds of dogs and among individual dogs are not that important.  As trainer Andrea Arden said during the Today Show, there is significant variability in behavior within breeds and even within litters. For most of us, the intelligence of our dog isn’t going to affect how good a companion she is.

As Dr. Clive Wynne, a psychologist from Arizona State University said, intelligence is over-rated. What people really want from their dogs is affection.   The exceptions, of course are for working dogs such as livestock herding dogs or explosives detection dogs. But even here the dogs are not tested for general intelligence, they’re screened with aptitude tests that directly relate to the jobs they are going to do.

Another important point, often misunderstood by the public, was illustrated on the Today Show.  This was a really funny segment in which the show’s hosts put their dogs through three different tasks:

1. Following their pet parents’ gestures to get a hidden food treat
2. Throwing off a towel placed on their head, or
3. Opening a puzzle toy to get a treat

One of the dogs solved his task very quickly, but the other two did not.  However, the point is that these differences in performance may have nothing to do with intelligence.  Careful observation of the dogs shows that all three were very distracted by all that was going on in the studio, and that the hosts were plying their pets with treats before testing.  Both factors were likely to interfere with good performance.  Performance is not a reliable measure of intelligence.  More factors than just intelligence influence the performance of a learned task – ask anyone who has tried to speak, act, sing or play music in front of an audience.

The take home lessons from these two news pieces about canine intelligence and performance are that intelligence isn’t just simple or one dimensional.  It can be defined differently, even by experts, and it is not so easily measured.

In reality, differences in intelligence mean very little to most pet parents, and friendliness and affection are far more important.  In fact some trainers like to say that less intelligent dogs are easier to live with and have fewer behavior problems because they aren’t smart enough to think of ways to get into trouble.  And finally, because performance of a trained task is influenced by facts such as physical ability, fear, and more, it shouldn’t be taken as the best or only measure of intelligence.

If you want to read the Times article or watch the Today Show segments, go to the following links.

Click HERE for the NY Times article

Today Show – How Smart Is Your Dog – Click HERE

BY THE WAY if you are interested in learning more about what science knows about the intelligence and cognitive abilities of dogs and other animals, and details of recent research we invite you to join us in Behavior Education Network.  “The Intelligence of Dogs and Other Critters”, and “Amazing Feats of Canine Intelligence” are both two session webinar courses.  In addition we have audio interview with Dr. Clive Wynne about his research into canine cognition, reviews of three science articles having to do with dog cognitive abilities, reviews of books on cognition by Wynne and by Bradshaw, and MORE!

And that’s just one of dozens of topics we have in depth resources about.  So join us in Behavior Education Network – no risk to you, you can cancel at any time.




  • Suzanne-Dan

    January 26, 2017

    Hey Deb, thanks for your comment. It’s fun to speculate about all of this, isn’t it? I think there is a difference between “emotional” (sort of drama queens/kings and “fly off the handle easily) dogs and dogs that are “smart” (learn tasks easier, are good problem solvers). Dogs that you describe as “blunted” seldom have the chance to flex their “intelligent muscles”, so I would speculate that in the absence of anything better to do, they revert to some pretty basic/default/fall back behaviors to keep themselves occupied – the vocalizations, chewing/destructiveness as you describe. Sporting dogs likely have a more physically active lifestyle, but think about all the words, cues for example, “lap” dogs might learn from maybe very close interactions with their owners. Whadda ya think?

  • Deb

    January 26, 2017

    Hi Suzanne and Dan,

    Thinking off the top of my head, stream of consciousness here…I always wonder if dogs that are more reactive in their environments are really “smarter” than those that are not. What I question is, are these reactive dogs seeking information about the environment and because they aren’t getting it from either their handlers or the environment itself, they then go into conflict and maybe reactivity? They need to process info and are prevented from it?
    Anecdotally, the dogs that I see in my area have such “blunted” lives and most of the calls I get are about destruction, vocalization, etc.
    So are hunting dogs smarter than lap dogs? Does the lap dog suffer from not being given the education/ training as the hunting dog?

    Interesting all around. Have we dumbed down our dogs?

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