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Is My Dog Smart?

Jun 27, 2024

Submitted by:
Brian Sposato, Bond Vet
640 Bloomfield Ave., Montclair
brian.sposato@bondvet.com
(973) 782-2995

Does it really matter how smart a dog is? After all, even doggy geniuses won’t be writing computer code or taking college courses any time soon.

However, intelligence can mean so much more than just “book smarts.” It’s an ability to learn new things, retain information, and adapt to the environment. For your pup, that might mean they use their intelligence to stay out of dangerous situations, learn the rules of the house, or communicate with you in their own unique way.

Read on to discover how to tell if your dog is smart and ways to keep their mind sharp and engaged.

 

IS MY DOG SMART?

Every dog is probably smart in some way. But there are many different types of intelligence. Stanley Coren, Ph.D., of the University of British Columbia—a psychologist, canine researcher, and author of several books including The Intelligence of Dogs—claims dogs are about as smart as a 2-2.5 year old human child. The average dog can learn 165 words, while some can learn up to 250 words.

Maybe you’ve heard that quote by Phil Pastoret, “If you think dogs can’t count, try putting three dog biscuits in your pocket and then giving him only two of them.” According to Dr. Cohen, there’s some truth to this. Dogs can count up to four or five and understand simple arithmetic (such as knowing the third dog biscuit is unaccounted for!).

The researcher further divides dog intelligence into three main categories: instinctive (what a dog is bred to do, such as helping their owner hunt), adaptive (problem solving and learning from the environment), and working/obedience (formal learning like training).

Arguably, dogs can demonstrate their intelligence in other ways, too. They just process the world differently than humans. For example, although dogs can't read the alphabet, they pick up tons of information via smell. Plus, many anecdotal stories suggest that dogs can sense hurricanes and other weather phenomena before they happen.

So, measuring dog intelligence is surely different from doing an intelligence test in humans. But here are some of the ways dogs can show us how smart they are…

 

He Remembers Commands You Haven’t Practiced In a While

This demonstrates an ability to retain information and apply it. It speaks to memory, comparable to you remembering something you learned in school years ago.

Similarly, dogs might have a memory for experiences they perceive as “good” or “bad.” Maybe they remember positive interactions with a houseguest they haven’t seen in a while. Or, maybe you’ve just taken out a suitcase for your first trip in several years—and your dog remembers that suitcase and knows you’ll be leaving soon.

He Learns New Commands Quickly

In our society, we are quick to designate humans as “smart” if they perform well in school. We tend to make similar associations with dogs who learn commands.

It’s true that learning commands can be a sign of intelligence. But if your pup resists training, don’t assume it’s due to a lack of brain power. Quite the opposite might be true. Some of the smartest dogs misbehave because they get bored easily. Some dogs can learn but are stubborn. Some have days where they don’t feel like performing. Finding the right type of reward can help, whether that means a different kind of treat, toys, or attention. You can also try training in shorter increments, so it remains fun.

All these factors can, ironically, reveal a dog’s cognitive ability. They are selecting activities they do or do not want to participate in, deciding whether the reward is worth their time, etc.

He Looks to You for Guidance

Many dogs have a high degree of social intelligence. Looking to you can be a manifestation of their social skills. They might rely on you for safety or simply try to impress you and earn your approval.

He’s Good at Problem Solving

Problem solving is another classic measure of intelligence. It requires deductive reasoning skills, and it’s crucial to adapting and surviving in any environment.

Your dog can demonstrate problem solving in a number of ways. For example, maybe he learns games and figures out puzzle toys or feeders. Or, maybe it’s a too-smart-for-their-own-good scenario, where your pup has mastered opening the treat cabinet and helping himself.

He Aces Cognition Tests

While there’s no formal IQ test like there is for humans, there are many examples of “doggy IQ tests” online that can give you some idea of your pup’s cognitive abilities—not to mention being a fun activity to do together.

Some examples of tests are listed below. You can also participate in formal testing, which contributes to research and our collective knowledge of dog intelligence, at Dognition or Yale’s Canine Cognition Center.

He’s Good at Hide-and-Seek

Learning any game can be a sign of intelligence. Even catch and tug-of-war require understanding of patterns like bringing the ball back to you. Some pups also demonstrate an understanding of what the toy is used for by bringing it to you when they want to play.

Some games, like hide-and-seek, can be more complex. Many dogs learn (and enjoy playing) these games—a sure sign that your pup’s brain can process more abstract ideas than simply playing with a toy.

He Masters Treat Puzzle Toys

Puzzle feeders or puzzle toys are a bit like brain teasers. Dogs have to figure out how to manipulate the object to get the reward (treat or toy) out.

This can keep a dog’s mind engaged and help prevent boredom. But some pups figure out the answer very quickly.

He Tries to Communicate

Although dogs can’t talk, they have many ways to communicate with dog owners. In addition to their natural body language, dogs learn to interact with the human world.

Examples might include going to the door when they need to go to the bathroom, waiting by the food bowl when they’re hungry, bringing you a toy when they want to play, or giving you “puppy eyes” when they want a bite of whatever you’re eating.

He Figures Things Out Quickly

For example, maybe your pup was quick to learn potty training and the household sleeping schedule.

Or, maybe they make positive or negative associations with objects and situations. Maybe they recognize words like “walk,” “car,” “bath,” or “vet” and react accordingly. Or maybe they’ve learned to avoid skunks or porcupines if they’ve previously had a bad encounter.

He’s an Escape Artist or Otherwise Gets Into Trouble

Some very smart dogs might not seem intelligent because they do stuff that could put them into danger, or at least result in a frustrated pet owner. However, intelligent dogs tend to be very curious and get bored easily.

So, they might get into things to entertain themselves and have fun. They might even know exactly what they’re doing by getting a reaction (i.e., attention) from you—which is actually pretty smart, since they’ve figured out how to get what they want!

They’ve Got You Wrapped Around Their Paw

Many smart dogs know exactly how to manipulate their owners. This isn’t malicious. It can be natural for a dog to try to push the boundaries and see how much they can get away with, similar to how a toddler might.

For example, maybe they know which person in the household is most likely to cave into a request for people food. Or, maybe they know how to get fed twice, by going to someone else in the home and acting like no one’s fed them yet.

Yep, dogs can certainly outsmart us sometimes!

 

WHICH DOG BREEDS ARE MOST INTELLIGENT?

Although there is variation amongst individuals of the same breed, some dog breeds are generally recognized as very intelligent.

A lot of breeds on the list have a classic “job” they’ve been bred for, like herding, retrieving, hunting, guarding, drug or bomb sniffing, etc. Border Collies frequently top the list. Other commonly recognized breeds include Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Poodles, Collies, Australian Shepherds, and many more. And of course, Labrador Retrievers are recognized as a common breed for seeing eye dogs, who can learn a ton of complicated commands and instructions for helping humans.

It’s easy to measure intelligence in these breeds, since they have recognizable jobs and training. But remember, dogs have many different types of intelligence. So there are many dogs who are very smart, even if they’re not on these lists—including many mixed breed dogs!

HOW SMART IS MY DOG? HOW TO TEST YOUR DOG’S IQ AT HOME

Many dog intelligence tests have been suggested online. The original creators aren’t clearly noted, although some have been attributed to Dr. Coren.

You can always create your own. But here are a few examples to get you started…

  • Towel test: Let your dog sniff a large towel, then place it over their head.

If your dog removes the towel quickly, give them 3 points. Give 2 points for taking 15-30 seconds, and 1 point for over 30 seconds.

  • Let’s go for a walk test: Pick up your dog’s leash at a time you don’t normally go for a walk.

If your dog hears the noise and gets excited or goes straight to the door, give them 3 points. Give them 2 if they don’t realize until you reach the door yourself, and 1 if they’re not sure what’s happening.

  • Cup test: This tests your dog’s memory. Place three empty cups upside down. Place a treat under one of them. Then, distract your pup for a moment.

Give your pup 3 points if they go straight to the correct cup, 2 points if they flip one wrong one over before finding the correct one, and 1 point if the cup with the treat is their last guess.

  • Furniture test: This is for problem solving. Place a treat under a piece of furniture that is low enough to the ground that your pup can place their paw/limb under it but not their head.

Give your dog 3 points for using their paw to get the treat out, 2 for trying to fit their nose or head under but still figuring it out and reaching the treat with their paw, and 1 for giving up.

  • Barrier test: Create a cardboard barrier that’s too tall for your dog to jump over. Cut a small hole in it. Throw a treat through the hole, and encourage them to get it.

Give your pet 3 points for walking around the barrier right away, 2 for taking 30 seconds or more to figure it out, and 1 for giving up or “cheating” (climbing or bulldozing).

Here’s how to interpret the final score. If your dog got…

13-15 points: You just might have a doggy genius!

10-12 points: Your pup is pretty darn smart.

7-9 points: Your pup won't be winning a Nobel prize, but they understand a lot.

5-6 points: Your pet might not be top of the doggy training class, but that doesn’t matter because they’re a loving, loyal friend.

If your pup scored lower, don’t worry. Remember, this is supposed to be fun! And every dog is intelligent in their own way.

It’s also possible you have an intelligent pup who’s either stubborn, not interested in these particular games, or not motivated by treats! And certain health disorders (like hearing loss, arthritis, and cognitive dysfunction in seniors) could interfere with a dog’s participation.

 

Helping Your Dog Learn

No matter what a dog’s formal intelligence level, they need mental enrichment to keep their mind sharp, prevent boredom, and help them be emotionally healthy.

So, continue to play games with your pup. Give them puzzle feeders or toys. Train them if they demonstrate an interest in learning. Take them on walks or to explore new places. Consider activities like “nose work” (training based on scent-tracking skills) or agility courses.

And if you have any concerns or questions about your pup, don’t hesitate to give us a call or to schedule an in-person or virtual appointment, to get all your questions answered.

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