Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Smarter than the average bear?

A lot has been written about the intelligence of dogs and most of it has been written by people who know more about the subject than me. But Jennie’s comment last week about how intelligent dogs are harder to train than “slightly dim” dogs got me to thinking. Here are a few of those thoughts. As usual, I probably have more questions than answers.

Remember the study that came out a few years back that said border collies were the smartest breed? Ask any BC owner and they’ll tell you that doesn’t mean they’re automatically a breeze to train or live with!

Measuring canine intelligence is a dicey proposition and too often we tend to decide which breeds are smart or not by the numbers of each represented among winners in the obedience ring. Somewhere along the line, the ability to win in the obedience ring has come to equate a higher level of intelligence.

Of course this is ridiculous. Folks who have played the obedience game with an open mind know every dog is an individual and words like smart or dumb often reflect the person holding the leash much more than the dog.

A more accurate declaration would be “Easier to train” equals “Wins in the obedience ring.” There’s a reason golden retrievers, not whippets, dominate the obedience scene. How many times have you heard someone say, “I’m getting a golden/sheltie/fill-in-the-blank next time because they’re easy to train”?

I think most folks would agree, some breeds ARE easier to train than others, especially for higher-end competition where tiny performance details may separate the top four winners. At a recent trial I attended, golden retrievers accounted for nearly 2/3 of the entry in Open and Utility. This is not an accident. They are well suited for demanding obedience competition.

Notice I did not say some breeds are EASY to train. I said EASIER. Even if done well, with patience, respect, realistic goals and a lot of time, training ANY dog to the UDX level or beyond is never easy. It takes a tremendous amount of effort and dedication on the handler’s part to make it happen. And that’s never easy. If it were, everyone would have an OTCh.

But some breeds seem to excel, while others rarely make an appearance in the obedience ring. Is it because certain breeds are so mentally superior they understand what we are trying to communicate in spite of our clumsy and often flawed training efforts? Or is it because they don’t object to the constant repetition/correction approach some trainers feel is necessary? Or because they are willing to tolerate heavy-handed training methods that would have other breeds saying, “Screw this, I quit.”

I’ve always felt that the relationship between dog and trainer was more responsible for a team’s success than the dog’s genetic material. But let’s not deny the facts — if you get a puppy from a litter with OTChs. going back for generations on either side of the pedigree, chances are that puppy is going to be extremely “trainable,” regardless of the breed.

The pedigree proves that genetic line is mentally predisposed to successfully work with humans and physically able to do so for long enough to earn high-end titles. This is a wonderful thing. Breeders would be foolish not to make it part of their programs and exhibitors who enjoy that particular breed would be foolish not to recognize it. Does this mean everyone should rush out and get a golden retriever or sheltie from a specific kennel so they can "win"? Of course not. Not unless you truly, truly love goldens or shelties. But if you love Fluegelhunds, then keep loving and training Fluegelhunds.

I don’t think an OTCh.-loaded pedigree necessarily means those dogs are “smarter” than dogs who might not be achieving on such high levels - they are just very amenable to working happily with humans and have been trained by experienced owners, leading to a high rate of success, as measured by titles and scores, in competitive venues. Which, ideally, is what many of us want.

We often don’t recognize intelligence when it’s living with us. The “slightly dim” dog is willing to keep repeating things over and over, exactly the same way each time, while we tell him how SMART he is, while the “smart” dog may start asking questions or re-inventing the wheel or doing God knows how many crazy ass things that make the trainer think “What is WRONG with that dumb dog?”

Looking back at the dogs I’ve trained as an adult, I think my shelties were of average intelligence but they possessed a joie de vivre for training and showing that amplified it. I do feel my Belgians have been on the higher end of the intelligence scale (some of their problem solving has been freaky scary) but Phoenix is by far the most difficult dog I’ve trained. Although a lot of that is of my own doing, he is a free-thinker, creative, inventive, pushy, sensitive, reactive and absolutely un-interested in doing the same old, same old day after day. This is not a recipe for an "easy" dog to train.

He can be a total sweetheart or a complete challenge to live with. One thing is for sure, now that I’ve come to realize he needs more from me than commands and consequences, our training is NEVER boring.

Regardless of how brilliant or dim-witted we think our dogs are, we need to be more invested in building a relationship with them that allows us to learn together. Phoenix has made it very clear that I need to learn more about HIM — not just what I can train him to do — before our obedience ring work is going to improve.


  1. Love this post! So eloquently written. Completely agree that it is more than how well your dog can work but how well you know your dog/your relationship with your dog!

  2. This is a great post and so true. Oreo was probably the smartest dog I had but sooo very stubborn and littered with "issues." Then there is Legend-so talented and with so much potential but so difficult to get a good performance out of in the ring. And Lyric-I think I could teach her anything with food. Does they make het smart? Maybe. Easy? Absolutely! And Zodiac, he's smart and easy :)

  3. I've always said smart dogs are not the same as easy to train dogs. My dog Koira is very smart. She figured things out for herself. But, she takes longer to train. She doesn't often see the point in doing something over and over, and once a behavior is learned, it can be hard to convince her it is a good idea to repeat that behavior.

    Pallo on the other hand learns very quickly. He is smart enough to pick up on new tasks easily, but doesn't over think things. If I ask him to "line up" he will do so, even if he already did it a million times. Koira would go take a nap instead. But, he doesn't think about things on his own or come up with new ways to do things or new things to do.

  4. Great post. I always wonder what defines intelligence - in people and dogs. I think mine are very intelligent, but they think too hard. When I try to teach them something - they often seem to overdo things! Either way - of all the many great points you made - I always have believed the POINT is to love the dog and find things you can do together. Thanks for this post.

  5. Absolutely! Give me a slightly dim, but highly biddable dog any day and twice on Sunday. I'd like one that if I asked it to run it's head into a wall 50 times in a row, it would do so. Rather than the dog that does it twice and then starts to question me...LOL I had one GSD that I spent 10% of the exercise time teaching it and the other 90% convincing him it would be fun for him to do it. He was scary smart and also my poorest scoring dog in the ring because I just couldn't find the key to unlock the "want to" with that one.

  6. What a great post!!! I have a driven and wicked smart Rottweiler who will start inventing things with repetition. If he does an exercise in obedience or a sequence in agility right...we end it and celebrate.

    He isn't the easiest dog to train...but man, is he fun. Going back to another one of your recent posts...he will make me a better trainer.