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Smart Dog, Dumb Dog – Can You Really Tell?

Smart Dog, Dumb Dog – Can You Really Tell?

Lots of people will insist that their border collie is the next Einstein or give you a helpless shrug because their Pekingese is sweet and lovable, but as dumb as a cotton ball. But is that fair? Is one truly smart and the other dumb?

Smart Dog, Dumb Dog?

I’m not going to present a list of the smartest or dumbest dog breeds. That’s not fair because all pure breeds have been created by man to excel at one thing, often at the expense of others. A great guard dog has no reason to share your urgency of a distraction from his important job to play a silly game of fetch. A scent hound may have no concept of agility trials. But they’re both great at what they do and super smart in their own way!

What Makes a Dog Smart?

Defining canine intelligence is complex. Trainability and obedience are two markers of intelligence, but you have to consider your dog’s breed and whether the dog is being tested generically or to its strengths. Your dog might be a scholarly type who’s more interested in thoroughly examining and cataloging the scents of the world than he is in trotting at your side on a leash. So why punish him by calling him dumb for not being interested in leash training or for being an aloof companion, when he’s doing what he does best… what he’s been bred to do… hunting for important clues?

In 1994, Stanley Coren, Ph.D. ranked over 100 dog breeds in his book The Intelligence of Dogs according to three specific types of intelligence:

The Intelligence of Dogs: Canine Consciousness and Capabilities
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The Intelligence of Dogs: Canine Consciousness and Capabilities
  • Stanley Coren
  • pets
  • dogs
  • Hardcover Book
  • Coren, Stanley (Author)
  • Instinctive intelligence: ability to perform tasks it was bred to perform, for example, herding, hunting, or guarding. Any purebred dog tested for its breed’s “job” will likely perform well in this test.
  • Adaptive intelligence: the ability to learn independently from previous experiences and problem solve. Some dogs are especially stubborn and may not do well in this area (an example would be invisible fence training), likely because the instinct bred into them is too strong.
  • Obedience intelligence: the ability to learn when being taught by humans. This is the measure by which many dogs “fail.” But read on and you’ll see why.

According to Dr. Coren, Border Collies topped the canine genius scale on all three markers and Afghan Hounds got the dubious award of being the “dumbest.” But that doesn’t necessarily make Border Collies the best pets or Afghans the worst!


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The Reality of Measuring Intelligence

“How smart you appear to depend on the test,” says Nicholas Dodman, former program director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “Until quite recently, I had two dogs. One of them was hyper and the other dog would sort of lie around like a lump. You would say Jasper was not as smart as Rusty. But once you were out on a trail, Jasper lit up. He was doing the job that nature intended him to do because he was a coonhound, and he was using his super-intelligent nose. He was brilliant at his job, but not so good at some other things.”

Think about how you did in school. There were subjects you loved and excelled at. There were others that you had zero interest in, and so you struggled. Maybe you loved art, but couldn’t wrap your head around math. If a page full of math formulas made your head hurt but you created masterpieces in art class, your math teacher might say you were dumb, but your art teacher might say you were a genius!

It’s not that you were “dumb” at math you just weren’t wired to excel at everything! Maybe math wasn’t taught to your learning style. Maybe you weren’t motivated by shiny gold stars or good grades. Maybe you didn’t care to learn math beyond what you were forced to learn because it wasn’t your thing.

And that’s cool! Imagine if everybody in the world was great at everything. We would not need each other. I wouldn’t need an auto mechanic or a hairdresser because I would be so awesome at those things that I would cut my own hair and replace a failed alternator on my own.


Nobody is wired to excel at everything. And no dog breed, or individual dog, is going to excel at everything so using standardized testing isn’t a fair judgment of intelligence.

Some dog breeds appear to be smarter because their owners understand what they’re good at and what they love to do, and work to the dog’s strengths and the dogs who appear dumb, just aren’t in the environment where they are allowed to shine at what they’re bred to do. Also, the motivation used in training may be of no interest to the dog (for example, not all dogs are food motivated).

The point is that intelligence has many forms. You can, with infinite patience, teach your dog to do practically anything. The learning process will simply be longer if you’re trying to get the dog to do something it just isn’t wired to do or if you’re using motivational techniques the dog doesn’t care about! Dogs that are bred to be independent thinkers won’t be as eager to please you. You may need to teach a command 100 times before it’s obeyed 25% of the time… but maybe you’re asking the dog to be something he’s not.

So let’s give the “dumbest” dog (according to Dr. Coren)—the Afghan Hound—some love. They’re sighthounds, bred to hunt with exceptional eyesight and speed. They are independent problem solvers and think for themselves on the job. They don’t have time for small talk. But when it comes to chasing down prey… they excel!

Bringing Out Your Dog’s Genius

Asking a dog to be something he isn’t, is like asking you to be something you’re not. It’s not that you can’t learn or perform you just don’t care to. And that’s the real secret to successfully bringing out the genius in your dog.


Ultimately it’s up to you to:

  • Choose a breed or mixed-breed that is most suited to your lifestyle and what you really want from a canine companion: Do you want a snuggle bug always by your side or in your lap? A hunter to keep the rodent or rabbit population down? A faithful retriever for duck season? A herder to mind your flock? A guard dog to watch over your alpacas? A workout buddy? A pal for adventures and road trips? What you want may not mesh with what the dog cares about so choose carefully. 
  • Learn what motivates your dog so you can make the training process easier and more fun for both of you. Treats? Pats on the head? Walks? Affection? Playtime?


Final thoughts:

Is a dog ‘smarter’ because he will blindly obey every command or ‘smarter’ because he’s an independent thinker? The ‘smartest’ dogs aren’t always the best pets!

Smart Dog, Dumb Dog… Can You Really Tell?
– What do you think about your own dog? Please share your thoughts or experience with us about your canine friend.

Written by Johannes


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