Dog intelligence is the ability of a dog to learn, think, and solve problems. Dog trainers, owners, and researchers have as much difficulty agreeing on a method for testing our canines as they do for human intelligence.
Certain breeds, like Border Collies, Poodles, German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers, are generally easier to train than others. It is worth noting that these descriptions are relative to other dogs, not relative to the world at large. The ability to learn and obey commands is not the only possible measurement of intelligence.
Dogs are pack animals. They understand social structure and obligations, and are capable of interacting with other members of the pack. Adult canines train their young by "correcting" them when they behave in an unacceptable manner (such as biting too hard or eating out of turn) and reward them for acceptable behavior, by playing with them, feeding them, or cleaning them.
They are also den animals. This means that they can easily learn behavior related to keeping the den clean (such as housebreaking) and relaxing in an enclosed area (such as a crate during travel or for training).
Some breeds have been selectively bred for hundreds or thousands of years for the quality of learning quickly. That quality has been downplayed for other breeds in favor of other characteristics like the ability to track or hunt game, or to fight other animals. However, the capacity to learn basic obedience and complicated behavior is inherent in all dogs. Owners must simply be more patient with some breeds than with others.
Inherited behavior is not necessarily an indicator of intelligence. For example, a sheep herding breed, like the Border Collie and Australian Shepherd, would be expected to learn how to herd sheep very quickly and might even perform the job with little training. The same breeds, however, would be a challenge to train how to point and retrieve game. A Pointer often points to game instinctively and naturally retrieves game without damaging it, but most likely could not be taught to herd sheep.
The meaning of "intelligence" in general, not only in reference to dogs, is hard to define. Some tests measure problem-solving abilities and others test the ability to learn in comparison to others of the same age. Defining it for dogs is just as difficult. It is likely that dogs do not have the ability to premeditate an action to solve a problem. Some dogs may, however, have more drive to keep trying various things until they accidentally reach a solution and still others might have more ability to make the association between the "accident" and the result.
For example, the ability to learn quickly could be a sign of intelligence. It could be interpreted as a sign of blind subservience and a desire to please. In contrast, some dogs who do not learn very quickly may have other talents. An example is breeds that are not particularly interested in pleasing their owners, such as Siberian Huskies. Siberians are often fascinated with the myriad possibilities for escaping from yards, catching small animals, and figuring out on their own numerous and often ingenious ways of doing both.
Assistance dogs, are required to be obedient at all times. They must learn a tremendous number of commands, understand how to act in a large variety of situations, and recognize threats to their human companion, some of which they might never before have encountered.
Many owners of livestock guardian breeds believe that breeds like the Great Pyrenees or the Kuvasz are not easily trained because their stubborn nature prevents them from seeing the point of such commands as “sit” or “down”. Hounds may also suffer from this type of ranking as well as several other ranks in the bottom tier of "The Intelligence of Dogs" list (such as Beagles, Bloodhounds, and Basset Hounds). These dogs are bred to have more of a "pack" mentality with other dogs and less reliance on a master's direct commands. While they may not have the same kind of intelligence as a Border Collie, they were not bred to learn and obey commands quickly, but to think for themselves while trailing game.
Certain intelligence tests involve the dog's ability to recognize and respond to a large vocabulary of commands. Other tests involve their desire or ability to respond to different situations.
Various studies have attempted to confirm the intelligence of dogs in a rigorous manner. A recent example is animal psychologist Juliane Kaminski's paper in Science that demonstrated that Rico, a Border Collie, could learn over 200 words. Rico could remember the names of several items for up to four weeks after its last exposure (Kaminski eliminated the Clever Hans effect using strict protocols). Rico was also able to interpret phrases such as "fetch the sock" in terms of its component words (rather than considering its utterance to be a single word). Rico could also give the sock to a specified person.
In his 1996 book, Good Natured, ethologist Frans de Waal discusses an experiment on guilt and reprimands conducted on a female Siberian husky. The dog had the habit of shredding newspapers, and when her owner returned home to find the shredded papers and scold her she would act guilty. However, when the owner himself shredded the papers without the dog's knowledge, the dog "acted just as 'guilty' as when she herself had created the mess." De Waal concludes that the "guilt" displayed by dogs is not true guilt but rather the anticipation of the behavior of an angry superior in a given situation.
A recent study surveying dog owners concluded that dogs can feel complex emotions like jealousy, getting in between their owners and other sources of attention.
Psychologist Kathy Coon ranked dog breeds by intelligence in her book, The Dog Intelligence Test, based on a standardized intelligence test for dogs.
Stanley Coren ranked dog breeds by intelligence in his book, The Intelligence of Dogs, based on dog trainers. The article contains a summary of those rankings.
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