Our two dogs are sweet, lovable, and have completely bonded with us. Those are some of the traits they share. A trait they do not share is intelligence. I have had the great good fortune of sharing my life with a menagerie of animals with a wide range of behaviors and characteristics. Of all the animals I’ve ever lived with, however, the big boy I have now is, well, he’s the least smart of the bunch. That’s right, he’s just not that bright.
Not bright, but so willing to please. We call him “the little gentleman” (even though nothing about him is little) because he’ll come and sit down right in front of you as if to say “what do you want me to do now?” If there’s a group of us standing around talking, he’ll walk into the middle of the group and sit properly with his ears and eyes alert, just waiting for someone to tell him what to do. This dog will do anything you ask of him, if only you can get him to understand the request. That’s where things start to break down. He just doesn’t get it. In fact, he doesn’t get much.
I know this is just his nature because we have another dog that is bright. She understands our requests, responds well to training and commands, and clearly exhibits thinking characteristics. She makes wise decisions and seems to know what is expected of her with minimal urging. She has a large vocabulary. I would classify her as a smart dog.
Border Collies are consistently among the top ten on those “smartest dog breed” lists, and they often rank number one depending upon who put the list together and the criteria used to assess canine intelligence.
What would happen then, when a Border Collie puppy gets adopted by a retired psychology professor with a penchant for scientific research and new discoveries in canine intelligence? Add to that, the man’s desire to help his smart dog unlock her full potential, so much so that he’s willing to devote four to five hours a day on training and teaching her?
The result is Chaser, a dog who knows more than a thousand words; that’s more than any other animal except human beings! Her trainer and constant companion is John Pilley, and he’s written a wonderful account of his experience with this incredibly intelligent dog in the book Chaser, Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words.
Skidboot was an extraordinary dog that entertained people everywhere he went as the World’s Smartest Dog. A crowd pleasing trick involved Skidboot listening to his owner, David Hartwig, count to three before retrieving a ball, but Hartwig mixed up the counting in an attempt to stump his dog. In the end, Skidboot eagerly focused on the ball and pounced on it when Hartwig said three. People were convinced the dog could count. Jim the Wonder Dog was also famous for his ability to recognize numbers, but can canines really understand simple math?
Quantitative thinking is something most people don’t believe dogs are capable of. It’s the concept of analyzing mathematical data in relation to quantity or number and having the ability to figure out if one thing is larger than another. One early experiment that researchers conducted was to see if dogs understood quantity. They used a large and small ball of hamburger, each on a separate plate, and tested dogs to see which one they would choose. When the plates were set at different distances, the dogs took the one closest to them regardless of its size, but when both plates were of equal distance they always chose the larger ball of meat.
Researchers concluded dogs didn’t understand quantitative thinking and couldn’t determine the difference in size. However, what they failed to account for is the opportunistic nature of canines and seemed to discount the fact that dogs picked the large ball of meat when the two plates were side by side.
Over the years, I’ve had plenty of conversations with non-pet owners telling me why dogs and cats aren’t intelligent. I’d love to know where they get their facts from, because there have been many times I’ve racked my brain trying to outsmart a pet. We may be smarter, but there are times when a pet’s intelligence – or their persistence – presents us with a challenge.
The Window Screen Incident
I love the smells of spring, and when nighttime temperatures stay in the upper 60’s, I leave my screened windows open day and night. It’s not clear why my cat Bailey waged war on my bedroom window screens, but it quickly became a challenge to stop her. Bailey is persistent like any feline, but she takes it to a whole new level. She had already destroyed one screen in the middle of the night. I caught her as she was going through it, and begrudgingly closed the bedroom window. I opened the other window since an inspection of the screen found no holes or defects. Problem solved? Nope! Bailey started in on that screen. So I closed the window just enough to keep her out, or so I thought. She managed to squeeze in behind it and got trapped between the window and screen.
Accepting the challenge of outsmarting my cat, I was determined that this window was going to stay open, and she wasn’t going to destroy it. However, she got around all of my fixes. I finally built a barrier out of wood and wire that sat in front of the screen, and was confident I had won. Yeah, in my dreams! She could climb on top of the barrier and slip behind it, which left her pushed up against the screen. I added a block of wood on top of the barrier to stop her from climbing over it, but she found a gap to wiggle through. An old slipper wedged in the gap finally did the trick! Read More »
The Border Collie sits at the top of the “smartest dog breeds” list, and the Australian Cattle Dog rounds out the list at number 10. The top ten breeds are quick to pick up things because they are intelligent, but there’s plenty of other breeds farther down the list that can also learn quickly – with the right motivation. The list is compiled by the American Kennel Club by looking at each breed to determine how many repetitions it takes for a member of a specific breed to learn new commands. For those at the top, it was five or less repetitions, and some learned a new command on the first try 95% of the time. But does that mean the smartest dog breeds are better pets?
Canine intelligence for the average dog is equal to that of a 2 year old child, and dogs that take longer to learn new things can master 165 words, signals and gestures. The smartest dogs are capable of learning even more words, which puts them at the learning capability of a 2½ year old child. You might think smarter dogs are easier to train and make better pets, but their IQ can be a double-edged sword when they use their smarts to manipulate us.
Even breeds with average intelligence are smarter than they are given credit for. Canines lower on the list of smartest dogs may take more repetitions to learn, but that doesn’t mean they can’t problem solve to figure how to escape from a fence, or “smooth bark” us into giving them a handful of CANIDAE Pure Heaven dog treats. Hounds, like the Beagle, place at the bottom on intelligence, but these breeds have no problem finding creative ways of escaping their enclosures.
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