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The Intelligence Level of Dogs

How smart is your dog? Is your dog’s intelligence level equal to human ages? For example, when dogs are seven years old, are they similar to seven year old children? Do dogs experience “teenage years?” Can dogs reason and make sense of things? Can dogs think about past behaviors and change their ways to be “better behaved” in the future? Can dogs possess “emotional intelligence?”

How Humans Perceive Dog Intelligence

Ask dog owners how smart their dogs are and you will get a diversity of responses. As a dog trainer, we discuss this topic with each and every client. Often times, owners relay stories about how their dogs “know” they did something wrong and are remorseful. Or their dogs “know better,” but are defiant or resentful. There are training methods that use “time outs” so dogs can “think about” their actions to modify their future behavior. Some behaviorists even contend that dogs possess an advanced awareness called Emotional Intelligence.

The Intelligence of Dogs

Believe it or not, the intellectual abilities of dogs are similar to that of two-year-old toddlers. Yes, that is correct. The intelligence of adult dogs is akin to the dreaded “terrible twos” of children. Does this shock you? This is not just my humble opinion. Stanley Coren, PhD, professor of canine psychology at the University of British Columbia, wrote the book The Intelligence of Dogs (1994). In 2009, Cohen presented research using several behavioral measures that suggests the intellectual abilities of dogs are similar to young, two-year-old toddlers.

Aspects of Dog Intelligence

Coren defines three aspects of dog intelligence: Instinctive Intelligence, Adaptive Intelligence and Working/Obedience Intelligence. Instinctive Intelligence refers to dogs’ knowledge of what they were bred to do (herding, retrieving, protecting, etc.). Adaptive Intelligence refers to their ability to problem solve. Working/Obedience Intelligence refers dogs’ abilities to learn from humans. While all three aspects of dog intelligence indicate animal smarts, the working/obedience intelligence is the category used for breed comparisons.

Ranking Dog Breeds on Intelligence

Coren ranks the intelligence of 138 AKC-recognized dog breeds based on evaluations of nearly 200 AKC obedience judges. These rankings are based on Working & Obedience Intelligence only. Border Collies are the unanimous selection for smartest dog breed. Rounding out the top five smartest breeds are Poodles, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers and Doberman Pinschers. The lowest rankings dogs are Bulldog, Basenji and Afghans. These rankings are a great resource if intelligence level is an important component in your selection of dog breeds.

The Minds of Toddlers and Dogs

Sigmund Freud introduced three distinct parts of the human psyche: ID, Ego, and Super-Ego. For humans, these three components develop at different life stages. The ID represents the primitive and instinctual minds of animals that involve both sexual and aggressive drives. The psyche of young children and dogs is represented by the ID. As human children grow up, they develop a realistic mind and moral consciousness, represented by the Ego and Super-Ego, respectively. As dogs grow up, their minds remain instinctual. Possessing emotional intelligence requires self-awareness and control of one’s emotions, which are attributed to the realistic mind of the Ego. For these reasons, dogs and young toddlers do not possess emotional intelligence.

Teaching Toddlers and Dogs

As a teacher or trainer, it is imperative that you understand the intelligence level and limitations of students, including dogs. At the “Terrible Two” life stage, kids are ego-centric, in that they perceive the world as revolving around them. The mantra of these young toddlers is “Give Me, Give Me … Mine, Mine.” Sharing is not part of their social etiquette. They have no concept of manners and social graces. The job of parents and caregivers is to teach toddlers manners and social skills. Same with a dog. Dog training involves teaching lots of manners and social skills, even before you start worrying about obedience skills.

The Fido Method

FIDO is an acronym that represents the methods we use to train dogs. The “F” stands for Focus. Both dog and human need to be present and pay attention when training. The “I” of FIDO represents the word ID, along with Interactions, Information and Intention. Our techniques do not assume dogs possess higher levels of intelligence. The “D” of FIDO represents Directions. We believe directing or guiding dogs towards the right behaviors and away from the wrong behaviors. Observational Learning represents the O of FIDO. “Monkey See Monkey Do” training. We don’t expect dogs to figure things out on their own. We show them what we want them to do through gentle guidance. The FIDO Method recognizes and applies the intelligence levels of dogs for fast and effective dog training.

Kathryn R. Gubista, PhD is an evolutionary biologist, college biology instructor, former zookeeper, author and certified professional dog trainer with Lucky Dog Training Asheville. She can be found on Instagram @TrainingLuckyDogs and @KyloRenPup; or at 828-423-9635.


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