Have you ever wondered how smart your dog is? Does your dog show problem solving abilities that astound you and then do something so silly you find yourself wondering if there’s a working brain in there at all?
In this guide to canine intelligence, we’ll explain how dog intelligence is measured and some of the simple dog IQ tests you test your dog with that will give a better understanding of your dog’s particular brain power.
A brief introduction to the canine brain
Canine brains are different to ours because a dog's brain works primarily by using the area known as the midline.
This is an especially useful trait as dogs, unlike us, are not exclusively relying on sight or hearing to perceive the world around them.
There are, however, some challenges involved in this unique ability.
Because the midline is more widely distributed than that of a human brain, a dog's brains need to be forced to flex to make this work.
This typically involves neurological training or, as we more commonly refer to it, dog training.
Dog intelligence vs human intelligence
It is a bad habit of ours that we judge dog intelligence by our own standards. We assign them human value systems and expect them to conform to them.
We can’t very well ask how my smart my dog is by challenging them to learn advanced mathematics. But we can evaluate our dog’s intelligence by testing how clever they are at problem solving in a uniquely canine way.
It is an error to try and measure the intelligence of a dog based on human criteria.
This is why many people mistakenly think their dog is not as clever as they actually are.
In the wild, dogs needed the intelligence to not get killed and to find food. Those that did so were smart enough. Their smarts - some might describe them as ‘street smarts’ - demonstrated they had the intelligence to survive and thrive in their environments.
In the wild, dogs needed the intelligence to not get killed and to find food. Those that did so were smart enough.
When man came along and decided he wanted dogs to help with hunting and guard settlements, we took instincts, not intelligence and used them for our advantage.
Dog experts and owners, however, seem unable to agree on how to measure intelligence in dogs because like people, we can be clever in different ways.
Intelligence in dogs can be defined as the ability of a dog to learn new behaviours and to work out how to solve problems.
Dog Intelligence: What's going on inside your dog's mind?
Most dog fanciers agree that there are three types of intelligence in dogs – instinctive intelligence, adaptive intelligence and obedience intelligence.
The ability to do what they were bred for. This includes their sensory cognition, which is simply their senses - smell, hearing, taste and touch.
There is no argument that a dog that learns obedience commands quickly and performs well in obedience competition, is extremely intelligent.
However, dogs that aren't known for their obedience success, are extremely talented at following a scent for many miles. That is a different type of intelligence.
The ability to use their past experiences to solve problems. This includes their physical and spatial cognition. Simply, their ability to interact with their surrounding environment and remembering places.
Personality plays a big role in apparent intelligence in dogs. When it comes to problem-solving, some individual dogs have a lot of drive and won't give up. Other dogs quit and they don't appear quite as clever.
Some breeds and some individuals are keen to please their owners and will work hard for their praise. Others are aloof and aren't too bothered about doing as they are asked. They may be just as smart, but look like they are a bit slow.
The ability to learn behaviours in response to their training. This includes their social cognition. Simply put, it is their response to gestures, facial expressions and learning by watching other animals.
The ability to learn quickly is a characteristic that is important to those who own working dogs. Breeders have often chosen the smartest dogs for their breeding program, which has resulted in a general increase in the ability of their offspring to learn.
With other breeds, obedience has been less important and breeders have carefully chosen dogs that have a good nose, or that can run extremely fast.
When judging how clever your dog is, don't forget that labelling a dog as stupid can be as unproductive and damaging as labelling humans the same way. Some people may remember the stigma that surrounded the ‘not so clever’ Dalmatian breed.
Little did people know that they were dealing with dogs that were deaf, an all too common trait in the breed and not ignorant or stupid dogs.
If an animal is labelled dumb, the owner often gives up trying to teach the dog new skills. The label then becomes self-fulfilling because if his owner won't train him, the dog really won't know anything.
Perhaps canine intelligence is not measurable, particularly when the criteria for intelligence are measured on another species' yardstick.
Fortunately, regardless of breed, the great majority of dogs are intelligent enough to grasp basic obedience commands when training is intelligently presented.
A trainer armed with motivating training methods and a good understanding of the principles behind canine learning can shape a dog's behaviour into desirable conduct.
Top 25 most intelligent dog breeds
Stanley Coren is a psychologist and professor and the author of the renowned book, The Intelligence of Dogs.
Professor Coren ranked the world's top 25 'most intelligent' dog breeds as:
1. Border Collie
3. German shepherd
4. Golden Retriever
5. Doberman pinscher
6. Shetland Sheepdog
7. Labrador Retriever
10. Australian Cattle Dog
11. Pembroke Welsh Corgi
12. Miniature Schnauzer
13. English Springer Spaniel
14. Belgian shepherd
15. Schipperke - Groenedael
16. Keeshond the wolf spitz
17. German Short Haired Braco
18. Flat-Coated Retriever - English Cocker Spaniel - Medium Schnauzer
19. Brittany Spaniel
20. American Cocker Spaniel
21. Weimar Brace
22. Belgian shepherd laekenois - Belgian shepherd malinois - Bernese Sheepdog
24. Irish Water Dog
Sensory Capabilities: The world according to your dog
Understanding the sensory capabilities of dogs is key to being sympathetic to your dog’s understanding of the world.
The dog was given a set of tools similar to our own, but different enough that they cannot be compared to our own when measuring intelligence.
The world according to your dog's eyes
Dogs also differ from humans in their ability to focus on near objects, to perceive and distinguish detail and to see contrasts between light and dark.
Some of these differences are relatively minor, but some must result in a highly altered version of reality. The most remarkable feature of the human eye is its extraordinary power of "accommodation."
Dogs have a much more limited power of accommodation, generally, not more than 2 or 3 dioptres, which means they can focus on close objects only if they are no nearer than a foot or two. Anything closer than that will unavoidably be a blur.
That may well explain why dogs generally try to sniff or touch objects at close range: they simply cannot see them very well. If the relaxed lens normally brings a distant object's image into focus behind the retina, the result is hyperopia or farsightedness.
The world according to your dog's ears
Dogs have much more sensitive hearing than we do, but their hearing abilities diminish at a faster rate.
When we hear a sound, we have a library of sounds in our head to which we compare the sound in order to assign it a source. We automatically know when a sound is normal or abnormal and we respond accordingly.
When a dog hears a sound, they go through a similar process, but they are listening out for danger first and foremost. It takes a long time for a dog to be comfortable and confident enough to ignore sudden sounds.
Even those sounds which are inaudible to us can put dogs on high alert. For survival reasons, nature gave all dogs a default response setting, which means that any sound is treated as threatening or dangerous until proved otherwise.
This is why dogs are quick to respond to new sounds in a manner that we’d rather they didn’t.
The world according to your dog's nose
The best analogy for comparing human and canine senses of smell is this. If we can smell ‘sausages’, dogs can smell pork, leek, fat, salt, pepper, additives and much more besides.
In short, we can identify a common smell. Say, sausages. Our dogs can smell the individual particles in those sausages.
The dog has evolved to rely on their nose to a much larger extent than we have, which is why they are governed in their actions by what they can smell.
Think about this the next time you're tempted to hurry your dog along when they are distratced by a scent. To a dog, a scent is like a story. We'd be pretty annoyed if someone pulled us away from a really interesting part of a book we were reading. For dogs, the world via their nose is like reading a great book.
Dog intelligence: does brain size matter?
Dog's with larger brains learn differently and retain the things they've learned differently.
This doesn't mean dogs with large brains are more intelligent. Just that their way of learning is different to dogs with smaller brains / skulls.
Scientists at the University of Arizona have discovered that dogs with larger brains outperform smaller dogs in some cases, but not all. In particular, they discovered that larger dogs have better short-term memory and self-control than smaller dogs.
How smart is my dog? Try these two dog intelligence tests
Below are the two games dogs played, so you can have some fun and test how smart your dog is.
A game to test your dog’s self-control
What you need:
• Dog treats
- Tell your dog to ‘sit’ and with your dog sitting in front of you
- Place a treat in front of them, letting them know they are not to take it.
- Then, watch your dog and see how they react.
- Test for a second time by covering your eyes
- Test athird time by turning away from your dog, noting each time how long it took for your dog to wait before eating the dog treat you placed in front of them.
A game to test your dog’s short term memory
What you need:
• Dog treats
• Two cups
- With your dog watching you, turn the cups upside down.
- Lift one of the cups up and put a treat underneath before putting the cup back down over the top of the treat.
- Wait 60 seconds and release your dog, giving them the signal to get the treat.
- Repeat three more times, this time waiting for 90 seconds, 120 seconds and 150 seconds before giving your dog the signal to get the dog treat.
K9 Magazine's publisher Ryan O’Meara shared some insight into the canine mind based on his experiences as a professional dog trainer.
“As a dog trainer, one of the things you need to constantly avoid is giving unconscious clues to your dog. It’s so easy to do. You have hidden something and you want the dog to use their own skills and innate talents to find it, but because you know where it is some dogs can read you well enough to get clues from your behaviour."
“As a way to avoid this, you find ways to really test your dog’s ability to think and work for themselves. In this process, I have discovered that some dogs really do have remarkable memories.”
So, what does this all mean?
While it’s quite interesting to read and learn that a dog’s brain size may play a key role in how smart they are, how they learn and react in certain situations, it isn’t conclusive in all scenarios.
The study's findings reflect what scientists have previously learnt through studying primates - that brain size is associated with executive functioning, but not other types of intelligence.
It is also fair to say that a dog's owner has a huge impact on their pet's perceived intelligence. A dog that lives in the back yard, where their only interaction with their owner is when they are thrown a bowl of food, won't learn as much as a dog whose owner is more involved in their day to day life.
A dog owner who invites their dog into their home and takes the time to teach him a variety of behaviours and commands will result in a dog that appears very clever, no matter what their breed.
A dog's learning ability (a little bit of science)
A dog's ability to learn is best defined by the hedonic index, which factors in the subjective feeling of pleasure or suffering, or their "hedonic appeal", after a single reward or punishment for a particular behaviour.
Dog intelligence: a summary
To summarise canine intelligence, the most important thing to consider is the structure of the brain. It is not just that they are greyhounds and not poodles. It's not just that a border collie works things out differently to a labrador. It is not just that they have big teeth and little tails.
To understand dog intelligence we have to recognise a dog's brain structure and what it does to affect their behaviour.
We, as humans, are much more akin to dogs than apes.
We too have spines rather than ribs. We too can bend a knee to the ground. We too have a neocortex, and the place in the brain that is responsible for all the calculations and reasoning that we are so good at.
So, dogs and humans have a lot more in common than we would like to think. They may have a more sophisticated understanding of our behaviour than we do. And we have a lot to learn from them. But to compare dog intelligence and human intelligence is the wrong way to do it.