Stereotypes seep into nearly every discussion of canine worth, whether we mean them or not. What adjectives come to mind when you imagine a border collie? Which words pop up when you consider a pug? For most people, the answer to the first would be intelligent, acrobatic, and fun — and the answers to the second probably wouldn’t coincide with any of the above. But is this split-second determination of intelligence fair to the dogs who share our homes and hearts? The answer is probably no. Every dog owner has their ideas about how “smart” or “dumb” their pup is, but it coming to an unbiased conclusion on the matter can be difficult. A study published in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Veterinary Behavior found that 45.7% of surveyed dog owners believed that their dog’s cognition equaled that of a 3-5-year-old human child; however, these higher intelligence determinations also seemed to correspond with owner-dog closeness. In other words, your positive relationship with your pup might be clouding your objective judgment when it comes to determining how clever the dog truthfully is. Luckily, you might not be on your own in your quest; scientists have found that measuring dog intelligence both possible and more complicated than most dog owners expect.
The problem with simplified labels such as “smart” and “dumb” is that they come with limitations. Would you call a human child who zips through math problems unintelligent because he struggles with spelling? No — because intelligence is more complex than that. The same holds true for dogs, albeit in a different way. As canine cognition researcher Brian Hare explains in an article in Scientific American, “There’s still this throwback to a uni-dimensional version of intelligence, as though there is only one type of intelligence that you either have more or less of […] different dogs are good at different things.” Hare takes the cognitive approach in his research by acknowledging that dogs, much like humans, are a mix of intellectual strengths and weaknesses and can’t be shunted into oversimplified categories.
Another canine intelligence researcher, Dr. Stanley Coren, breaks these multiple intelligences down into three general categories: instinctive, adaptive, and working. In his book, Intelligence of Dogs, Coren defines the first as an intelligence the dog possesses as a function of their breed. Herding dogs, for instance, have an instinctive ability to gather animals and need little guidance from humans on how to do so. Adaptive intelligence is more individualized and depends on an individual dog’s ability to problem-solve and learn from their experiences and environment. Lastly, Coren determines working intelligence by assessing what the dog can do after being taught by humans; this category has a rough parallel to “school learning” for humans.
If we use these three broad categories to assess a dog’s aptitudes, we achieve a better understanding of their overall strengths, rather than sheer intelligence. Take two hypothetical border collies as an example; both have the same instinctive intelligence when it comes to herding, but if one is better at picking up working cues from their handler while the other tends more towards independent problem-solving and mischief, their owner might consider that dog to be “more intelligent” than the second. Both dogs are clever in their way — but the human’s perspective can sway the overall perception of that intelligence.
This isn’t to say that some dogs aren’t objectively better than others when it comes to cognitive tests. Some research does point to a general factor of intelligence in dogs, regardless of breed or training. In 2016, researchers Rosalind Arden and Mark James Adams put 68 Welsh border collies, all of whom had similar backgrounds as herding dogs, through a series of puzzle tests and cognitive challenges. They found that dogs who tended to do well on one test generally were more likely to do well on others and that those who performed well were also more likely to complete challenges quickly. These findings indicate that yes, some dogs may be better-equipped to handle cognitive hurdles better than others, even outside of Coren’s three categories.
That said, we shouldn’t take this g-factor determination as the be-all, end-all conclusion for a dog’s intelligence or worth. Too often, we take the canine ability to understand our gestures and respond in a way that communicates their needs and wants for granted. Dogs are more than animals we let into our homes; they’re our social partners and empathetic companions. As with humans, canine social behavior is influenced by the oxytocin system. When we pet our dogs, their oxytocin, more commonly known as the “hug hormone,” levels begin to rise, giving them a boost in happiness and positivity. This response influences how a dog interacts with its owner and unfamiliar humans and shapes their empathetic responses towards our behaviors.
The importance of empathetic intelligence can’t be understated; it defines the core of our relationships with our pups and has likely played an evolutionary role in how dogs came to be such a regular presence in our homes. Brian Hare, the canine researcher referenced earlier, perhaps put it best: “The pug drooling on your shoe may not look like the brightest bulb in the box, but she comes from a long line of successful dogs and is a member of the most successful mammal species on the planet besides us. Rest assured – she is a genius.”