My dog, Millie, can learn any new trick in a heartbeat, find a hidden toy no matter how well it’s camouflaged, and is incredibly responsive to obedience cues no matter the environment.
My other dog, Olive, can’t figure out how doors work.
Does that mean Millie is smart and Olive is dumb? According to Dr. Brian Hare, professor of cognitive neuroscience at Duke University and co-founder of Dognition, the idea that a dog is either “smart” or “dumb” is a throwback to a linear way of thinking about intelligence, as if canine IQ is a “cup of coffee that’s more or less full.” Though Millie might have a better handle on the skill sets that my dog trainer brain appreciates, it’s clear to me that Olive has a depth and breadth of comprehension that Millie lacks.
Veterinary behaviorist Dr. E. Kathryn Meyer says that dogs come in a vast array of temperaments, learning styles and abilities, which means that Millie’s impressive obedience skills are just a facet in the canine intelligence spectrum. Olive might have a tough time mastering “roll over,” but she can air scent like a bloodhound, track down any animal from a field mouse to a herd of deer and has emotional intelligence that enables her to chart and respond to her human caregivers’ every mood swing.
Much like human intelligence, canine intellect is the sum of the* entire scope*of a dog’s abilities and shouldn’t be narrowly defined by responsiveness to cues like sit, down and stay. Your obedience school drop-out is probably just as clever as the class valedictorian, he just demonstrates his brainpower in novel ways.
Understanding a Dog’s Intellect: Two Tests to Try
Hare states that different dogs use different strategies for problem solving. For example, if your dog’s ball rolls under the couch, does he bark at you to come fetch it for him or does he contort himself until he reaches it on his own? If your dog wants to grab your sandwich from the coffee table, does he check to see where you are before he steals it, or does he brazenly take it like he’s the king of the household? According to Hare, some dogs excel at communicating, some have better memories and others are better at taking their owner’s perspective. Understanding your dog’s skillsets gives you a window into your dog’s mind, and might make you look at your furry best friend – and your relationship with him - in an entirely new way.
Want to learn more about your dog’s problem solving abilities? Laurie Santos of Yale’s Canine Cognition Center suggests two games that are fun to play and can help you start to assess your dog’s unique gifts:
- The point test: Will your dog look to you for help finding a hidden treat? Put your dog in a stay while you get ready for this test, or have a helper to hold your dog. Grab two opaque cups and place a treat under one of them. Point to the cup with the treat beneath it and watch to see if your dog follows your hint, or opts to find the treat without looking to you for guidance. Repeat this test about twenty times. Did your dog maintain the same strategy throughout the whole test? Did he realize that following your point made finding the treat easier?
- The counting test: Can your dog tell the difference between one and many? To test this, let your dog watch you as you place varying amounts of food in two different cups. For example, place a single treat in one cup, then three treats in the other cup, making sure that the cups are equidistant from your dog as you’re loading them and that he can clearly see what you’re putting in each cup. Repeat this test about twenty times, always varying the number of treats that go in each cup. Did your dog select the cup with the most food? Or did he seem to pick the cup at random?
Trying the Intelligence Tests on My Dogs
I tried these deceptively simple tests with Millie and Olive and was amazed (and delighted) by the results. For the first test, I expected Millie to be 100% tuned in to me to puzzle out my hints, and I figured Olive would ignore me and focus more on the potential treat under the cup. I discovered that both of my dogs watched me intently as I set up the cups, looking at my rather face rather than at the cups until I pointed. And, happily, both dogs followed my point nearly every time. I even made the test more challenging by adding minor variations; in some trials I didn’t look at them at all so my face wouldn’t betray emotion, in some I put them out of the room so they couldn’t see where I placed the treat and had to rely on the point alone, and in others I faked them out by pretending to put a treat under each cup. The pointing worked nearly every time.
The second test was an eye-opener, as both dogs were once again on par with each other, but this time for the worse. I expected Millie to be able to tell the difference between one treat and four treats, but the sad fact was that neither of my dogs could count. I was shocked to discover that there was no correlation between the number of treats per cup and the cups they selected. Sometimes they went for the last cup filled, others they went for the first cup, no matter how many treats were in it.
The tests were a ton of fun, and my dogs loved the process. I not only learned something new about how they problem solve, I also discovered that my impressive little obedience robot had trouble holding her stay when faced with such excitement and my less-than-perfect remedial student’s stay was rock solid despite the tasty temptation just a few feet away (plus, Olive’s stay was adorable: she placed her head on top of her paws as if to say, “I will not move no matter what!”)
Santos says that canine intelligence is a multi-faceted trait, so before you give your dog a label he doesn’t deserve, consider how many ways your dog excels every day. Whether it’s his amazing sniffer that finds the tiniest crumb on the kitchen floor, his ability to charm your friends with his good manners or his phenomenal memory that helps him recall that you put his favorite bone on top of the refrigerator, it’s time to give proper credit to the canine genius at your feet!