Dogs can be pretty smart. They learn tricks, obey commands, work alongside humans in serious jobs and even sniff out drugs, bombs and cancer! On the other hand, we’ve seen enough dogs that have eaten chocolate, golf balls and drawing pins to know they can be pretty silly at times too… Where does your dog fall? Are they a brainy pup or a dim dog? Read on to discover 8 signs your dog might be smarter than average.
Table of contents
How do We Measure Intelligence?
Before we get into if your dog is smart, let’s discuss how we measure intelligence in dogs at all. As you might imagine, it is quite difficult. The Oxford English Dictionary defines intelligence as “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills”. Numerous studies involving dogs have looked at their intelligence. These ranged from surveying and interviewing owners, training different kinds of dogs, and even performing complex puzzles. These tests have revealed a lot of interesting information on dog intelligence, which may even have practical uses for owners. No science is perfect and although we are learning new things all the time, there’s a lot going on inside dogs’ heads that is still a mystery.
Criteria for Intelligence
One of the first in-depth studies in intelligence across breeds looked at ‘working obedience intelligence’ (more on this next). The study asked dog obedience trial judges to rank breeds based on performance in obedience. There was a consensus, and common dog breeds could be placed in a ranked order from most to least intelligent.
The study found that, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Border collie ranked consistently very highly, placing it first on the list. Other breeds in the top 10 include poodles, German shepherds, Rottweilers and Labradors. At the bottom were breeds like bulldogs, Chow Chows, Mastiffs, Beagles and Bassets.
Although the study was based only on surveyed opinion, it is generally regarded as a good foundation for assessing canine intelligence. There has been criticism, mainly that surveying opinion is not a good method for assessing intelligence, but it is still widely regarded. A subsequent study using more complex methods mostly agreed with the ranking.
Where does your dog rank on this list? High or low? Remember it is just an average of breed intelligence, and individuals can vary highly.
Learning New Commands
The study above ranked dogs based on how quickly they learnt new commands. The smartest took fewer than 5 repetitions to learn a command while those at the bottom needed 80 to 100! To prove that the collie may be top dog for intelligence, another study looked at Chaser, a working collie who could understand over 1000 words and commands. Even more impressively, Chaser could understand multiple words in sequence, basically understanding sentences! While most dogs can’t quite reach Chaser’s level of understanding, being able to differentiate different sounds we make and process them into commands is a true sign of intelligence.
There are limitations in dogs’ understanding of human commands, as they cannot distinguish between actual words and nonsense words that sound similar. Researchers have said this places dogs on par with 14-month old humans.
Can your dog learn commands easily? Do they know lots of commands?
It’s all well and good learning something but if you don’t obey the command later, the lesson isn’t much use! The first study also assessed dog breeds based on how often they obeyed a learnt command first time. The most intelligent breeds respond to a command the first time over 95% of the time. As the list moves towards less intelligent breeds, owners often must repeat a command multiple times before the dog obeys.
Both being able to learn multiple commands and implement them afterwards is a good sign of intelligence, as Chaser demonstrated. Other animals, such as dolphins and chimpanzees can remember commands seemingly for no reward, and are also considered intelligent animals.
One school of thought postulates that because dogs sometimes perform commands without a reward, instead wanting to do it to please their owner, it is a sign of the strong links between humans and dogs (more on this later). And likely this has evolved in dogs through interaction with humans. Only an intelligent animal would selflessly obey commands in the knowledge they will please another animal. However, a counterargument is that dogs always obey commands in the hope of receiving a reward, whether it is food or just praise from the owner. If so, this demonstrates perhaps less social intelligence, and more basic animalistic intelligence where perform trick = food, rather than a complex “if I do this, my owner will be happy and this is good.”
As an aside, obeying orders isn’t generally linked to having a good or poor memory
We know that dogs do have good memories. They have ‘associative’ memories, where rather than remembering specific memories, they remember associations. For example, the first time your dog watches you get a can opener out and they receive food, they will make the association between a can opener and food. Now, every time you get the can opener out, their memory will recall receiving food and they will beg, even if the can isn’t for them.
Does your dog obey commands first time? Do they do it even with no reward?
Problem-solving in dogs is perhaps not quite as advanced as you might think. Certainly, to be working dogs, certain breeds must have a good level of problem solving. But overall, dogs have poorer problem solving abilities than other intelligent animals, such as dolphins, elephants and, interestingly, wolves.
In some studies, dogs and wolves were faced with puzzles. In one, 8 of 10 wolves could solve the puzzle, while only 1 in 20 dogs could do so. More interestingly, dog puppies appeared to be better at problem solving than adult dogs. This may indicate human interaction actually reduces problem solving abilities in dogs. Since puppies retain the ability to some degree, it may indicate the ability to problem solve is still present. But dogs do not learn the habit as they grow and interact with their humans. Is this likely because every unsolvable puzzle is solved by a human, so their associative memories connect success with a human?
We know this is true because in a study where dogs are presented with an unsolvable puzzle, most dogs will look to their owner for help. Human-socialised wolves did not do this. This clearly demonstrated that dogs understand humans can be used to solve problems; something wolves have not learnt and cannot learn even after training. Interestingly, more than one study has shown working dogs often spent more time trying to solve the puzzle before looking to their owners. So although human interaction has resulted in dogs relying on humans, rather than their own intelligence, for problem solving, certain dogs are more willing to keep trying to fix the problem before relying on their masters.
Can your dog solve puzzles? Do they keep trying for a while before asking you for help?
Emotions are a key component of intelligence, more advanced than automatic reactions of pain, hunger or fulfilment in less intelligent creatures. Studies have shown, and you probably have noticed it yourself, that dogs can show a range of complex emotions, ranging from happiness, upset, anger, fear and even jealousy.
Jealousy was previously thought to occur only in primates, but two studies demonstrated even dogs can be jealous. One study trained pairs of dogs to ‘shake paws’ for a treat. They then stopped giving one dog a treat after it performed the trick. The dog who was refused a treat quickly refused to shake in return. They proved this was not just because the dog was unhappy it did not receive a treat, but was actual jealousy, by repeating it alone; dogs on their own still presented their paws longer without a treat. Another experiment showed dogs getting frustrated when their owners gave attention to toys instead of the dog.
However, their emotions do have limitations. The classic ‘guilty’ look of a dog that has done something wrong may not actually be dogs feeling guilt. In a study where dogs were watched after being trained to not eat food, dogs that had broken the rules and eaten the food did not act differently to dogs that had not eaten the food. Basically, the dogs did not understand right and wrong and act accordingly. The only response was after being told off by their owners, which likely indicated dogs get sad if they have misbehaved and see us disappointed, but do not directly know what the bad behaviour was.
Can your dog demonstrate complex emotions? Or are some of them only perceived by us as emotions?
Learning from Others
Learning from others, rather than just via experiences, is a good demonstration of social learning and intelligence. And your dog will likely already have done this plenty, even if you didn’t notice it.
As a puppy, your dog will have learnt how to eat solid food and drink water from their mother, as well as how to play from the other puppies. The learning doesn’t stop in puppyhood. We know dogs can learn from others at all ages, though of course the younger dogs are in the best learning period of their life to do so.
One example you may have seen online is of a young dog struggling to work up the courage to go down the stairs. Even with human help, they can’t manage it. But then their older sibling steps in and shows them how to descend safely, and the younger dog learns how to do it successfully. Another is how new dogs will often copy how the current dog toilets. This makes housebreaking a new dog much easier than alone, as they learn from the older dog where and where not to toilet.
Did your dog learn to do something from an older sibling? Can they copy tricks from them too?
This is a critical aspect of dogs, and is what has allowed them to become so reliant on and useful to mankind.
There have been studies where humans hide a treat and point to where it is. Although pointing at something might seem like an obvious gesture to us, there is no reason animals will correlate an outstretched finger to mean “look”. In fact, chimpanzees and even human babies cannot understand this gesture – dogs can. Some dogs have been shown to react to eye movements in a similar way. One study even found dogs can understand human emotions by looking at a face. Though they concluded this was likely based on memory of previous experiences, not fully understanding the expression.
Other studies involved a puzzle that resulted in a reward. In one, a human demonstrated to puppies how to solve a puzzle – pressing a lever released a ball to play with. Again, there is no reason dogs would connect an unnatural object (the lever) with the reward (a ball). Yet after demonstrating, three quarters of the puppies tried pushing the lever, and half managed to release the ball. A control group that had no demonstration showed only 6% worked the puzzle out themselves.
Perhaps even more telling, remember than when faced with an unsolvable puzzle, most dogs instinctively looked to a human for assistance. This is all down to thousands of years of evolution and social learning alongside humans, where they have learnt that a human is the best solution to a problem.
Does your dog understand pointing, eye movements or even your facial expressions? Can they solve problems? If they struggle, do they look to you for advice?
All animals are aware of their environments, but some take it to a higher level by recognising individual objects, and even their absence.
Object permanence is the ability to understand that objects still exist when not visible. Human babies are not born with this ability, which is why peekaboo works so well! They tend to learn object permanence by around 2 years of age. Dogs follow a similar development, and understand object permanence by around 8 weeks of age. We know this via tests such as hiding food under a cup – animals without object permanence would not understand the food was still there, but dogs do.
An even more striking example of dogs recognising objects is their ability to discern different types of dogs from other animals. Dogs come in all shapes and sizes, so there is no reason that a rottweiler would know a picture of a chihuahua was also a dog. Yet an experiment where dogs had to decide between two images, one of a dog and one of another animal (after having been trained to pick dogs) learnt to pick the dog correctly. They even did the reverse, and made it so the correct choice was the non-dog, demonstrating dog’s abilities to discern dogs from other animals.
Does your dog understand where the treats are once you’ve hidden them? Can they recognise other dogs?
We still have a lot to learn about dog intelligence. Certainly, they are not the most intelligent animals – chimps outperform them in certain tasks, and we are of course leagues ahead. But it is clear they demonstrate a lot of intelligence far beyond similar animals, enhanced via thousands of years of interactions with humans. If you have answered ‘yes’ to most of the questions above, your dog may be a little canine Einstein! And if not, they can still be lovable, even if they aren’t the brightest boy at the dog park.