The Three Types of Dog Intelligence

October 9, 2010

By Linda Cole

Most dog owners have some idea how smart their dog is. Every dog can learn basic commands as long as we make the commitment to teach them. Most dogs also know at least one trick you can show off to guests. However, some dogs take a little longer to learn, which can try an owner’s patience. And sometimes, a dog just doesn’t seem to get what an owner is trying to teach. Scientists and animal behaviorists have been studying dogs for many years, and have come up with three types of dog intelligence. One type of learning is a specific kind each dog breed has that helps them learn according to who they are and what their breed characteristics are.

Dog intelligence is defined as the ability to learn, think and problem solve. It’s easy to come up with a list of the smartest dogs, but in order to determine a dog’s intelligence, how quickly they learn is just one part of the equation. A specific breed’s characteristics and what they were bred to do plays a large role in their intelligence, and understanding this makes training a dog easier. Intelligence shouldn’t be confused with stubbornness though, and hard-to-train dogs need a consistent owner with plenty of patience and understanding along with a firm, yet gentle hand.

The first type of dog intelligence is instinctive intelligence. The Border Collie is born to herd, but as a hunter or retriever, this dog wouldn’t make the top of either list. Bloodhounds are generally on a list of the dumbest dogs, but put one on a trail and there’s none better at following and sticking to a scent. This dog’s instinctive intelligence sets him apart from any other dog breed in doing what he was bred to do. One common characteristic in dogs listed in the top smartest or dumbest dogs is their tenacity, which enables them to do what they were born to do, when or if it’s required of them.

The second type of dog intelligence is adaptive intelligence. This is how well a dog can problem solve and learn from their environment, from other animals and us. I had a dog who learned on his own how to open the back door that led into the basement, so he could let himself in when he was tired of being outside. Always the perfect gentleman, he not only opened the door, but stood against it so his sister could go inside ahead of him. Dogs do adapt to their environment and are capable of problem solving to get things they want, to devise ways to escape from their enclosure and even find short cuts to get them to their favorite place outside. We’ve all heard stories of how dogs, and even cats, alerted their owner to danger and were able to lead their family out of a burning home. Mixed breed dogs who were never trained in search and rescue, have found people who needed help. Some dogs learn on their own how to turn on lights or open a refrigerator door – and it’s not for a cold brew. They even learn how to ma
nipulate us to get what they want!

The third type of dog intelligence is obedience and working intelligence. This is how well a dog can learn not only basic commands, but how easily they can learn commands related to specific jobs they are asked to do. A good hunting dog has to be able to learn the tools of his trade to aid his owner. Border Collies may instinctively know how to herd, but it’s their handler who perfects the dog’s ability into a dog who can move a herd of sheep without harming them. Dogs who compete in agility competitions need to learn how to follow their human in order to run a smooth course for the best time.

Every dog is born with certain breed characteristics that determine their intelligence. In order to know how smart your dog is, you need to put the entire package together. Consider what they were born to do, how well they can think for themselves, and how they learn basic commands or instructions related to the job they may be doing. The whole picture gives you the pieces you need to understand how intelligent your dog is. Mixed breeds may have two or more other breeds in them, but they too can show specific characteristics of one or more of the different breeds.

However, dog intelligence is still only part of the whole dog. His personality, loyalty, trust and devotion to his owner completes his psyche as an individual dog who will stand by his owner’s side through thick and thin.

Read more articles by Linda Cole

The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.

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  1. Anonymous says:

    Amen! My Beagle Sophie does the exact same thing!

  2. We joke around that our remaining dog is not very smart, but that is just her unique personality. She is soooo smart, but she’s also pretty hardheaded, and thinks that instead of sitting for a treat if she ignores the command we will give in and give her the treat anyway. It often becomes a whole game of waiting her out until she decides to do what I ask. Other times as soon as she sees me go to the treats she will run in and sit, even give me her paw. She knows what is expected, but she’s like a cat when it comes to doing what a human wants.

    1. Miss Cellany says:

      She probably has very low working intelligence and high adaptive intelligence (like cats do).

      Cats are often pegged as unintelligent when I think in reality, they’re excellent problem solvers (well, not the Persians and other inbred breeds, but the moggies for sure).

      My cats learned to open cupboards and doors on their own. When the door is locked they even try to turn the key (they never manage to do it but it shows they know that the key is what is preventing the door from opening). They are hard to train however, although I DID manage to train one of them to fetch (after about an hour of training), the skill was forgotten a couple of months later (with no refreshments of training in that time).

      My border collie (supposedly the smartest dog breed) has never learned to manipulate his environment on his own, aside from pushing an ajar door further open for him to pass (never figured out how to turn handles like the cats did). Yet he understands almost everything I say and can obey commands I haven’t even finished giving. He obviously has higher working intelligence and lower adaptive intelligence than the cats. I taught him to fetch in about 2 mins, and every trick he’s learned he learnt in under 10 minutes (even the hard ones).

      I think I prefer an animal with high working intelligence over an animal with high adaptive intelligence for everyday life. When you cannot keep your cats out of the kitchen or the kitchen cupboards, and they can open food packaging with their claws… well… coming home to food strewn all over the floor and 3 huge furry stomachs on legs isn’t fun… :/