Measure Your Dog's Smarts
By Elizabeth Wasserman
Most dogs behave in ways that may seem downright dumb. Drinking water from the toilet bowl. Eating grass. Sniffing the waste of other canines. But there are reasons for these behaviors: Dogs prefer cold water over stagnant water that's been sitting in a dish, grass is natural roughage and may induce vomiting if they have a stomachache, and urine and poop are the newspapers of the dog world, communicating who did what where and when.
Dogs may actually be far more intelligent than we think. Stanley Coren, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and a best-selling author of books on dogs, including The Intelligence of Dogs (Free Press), thinks so. He says that dogs display intelligence in a variety of ways -- reading social cues, learning new tasks, understanding language, solving problems and more. He even argues that you can measure your dog's smarts.
Dog Smarts Debate
The theory that canine intelligence can be tested is still controversial. "We can't measure their intelligence," says Bonnie Beaver, DVM, a former president of the American Veterinary Medicine Association and a professor of veterinary medicine at Texas A&M University. "They will do things that are programmed into their genetic makeup because they're canines or because they are a certain breed of canine. There is no doubt in my mind that there is a difference between how one German shepherd reacts compared to another, but is one smarter than another? I don't know that there's any proof."
Other experts agree with Coren that there can be a canine equivalent of the IQ test. "You might be very good verbally and weaker at math and someone else might be good at music but not at logic. Dogs are no different in so far as they share some of our domains," says Jean Donaldson, author of Oh, Behave!: Dogs from Pavlov to Premack to Pinker (2008) and director of the San Francisco Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal's Academy for Dog Trainers. "One dog may be good at problem solving and another may be a quick study at learning new tasks."
Establishing Your Dog's IQ
How do you find out your pup's strengths and weaknesses? How can you assess what they need to work on? And where does your pet stand on the overall intelligence spectrum?
Here are some simple tests, suggested by various experts, that you can give your furry friend to find out if its brain is sharper than its bark:
- Problem Solving Donaldson suggests that you hide something your dog loves -- a toy or ball or biscuit -- underneath a sofa, and see if it can figure out how to retrieve the object. She says dogs may go through several strategies, including digging with paws or using snouts.
Score Five points for getting the item with its paws in less than 30 seconds; four points if it uses paws and takes more than 30 seconds; three if it uses paws but fails; two if it uses its head but doesn’t try paws, and one point for dogs that try to use their head but then give up. It gets no points if it does nothing.
- Learning Rate How many times do you have to repeat a task with your dog before your pal masters it? Donaldson recommends a test involving detour taking. You need a fence that your dog can see through with a gate open at one end. With you on the other side of the fence, call your dog and see whether it can figure out how to get around to the other side.
Score Five points if it goes around the fence in a minute or less; four points if it succeeds right away after you take a few steps in that direction and gesture; three if it succeeds in 30 seconds after the prompts; two if it succeeds between 30-60 seconds after prompts, and one if it succeeds but requires even more prompting and time than that.
- Social Cues Coren developed the "smile" test for an Australian TV program to see how smart your dog is at picking up social cues from humans. Start with your pet sitting a few yards away from you. Stare at your pet's face. Once you make eye contact, count to three and then smile very broadly.
Score Five points for coming to you with its tail wagging; four points for coming part way; three points for standing or rising; two points for moving, and one if your doggie dunce pays no attention at all.
- Inference Challenge A canine version of the shell game. With your dog on a leash or in the stay position, use treats and two different bowls set a few feet apart, Donaldson says. Smear the treat on both bowls. Then very dramatically put the treat underneath one bowl. Release your pet and see what happens. Repeat this 10 times changing which bowl you put the treat under. Repeat another 10 times without letting your dog see where you're stashing the treat, but DO let the pup see you enthusiastically lift the other bowl up each time.
Score Five points if the dog goes to the correct bowl and gets the treat each time; four points if it masters the first 10 and improves over the course of the second 10; three if the first set is perfect but not the second set; two if the dog improves during the first and second rounds, and one if the dog is initially not very good but improves over the first round and completes the second round by going to the bowl you lifted.
- Language Comprehension Coren developed this test to determine how well your dog understands what you are saying. Start with your dog sitting in front of you. Using the tone of voice you use to call your dog's name, call "refrigerator." Try this again, calling "movies."
Score Five points if the dog doesn't respond to those words but comes after you call its name; four points if the dog comes the second time you call its name; three if the dog starts to come; two if the dog comes to "movies" but not "refrigerator,” and one if the dog simply doesn't come to any of the calls.
Your Dog's Score
Gifted and Talented (25-31) Consider your dog brilliant and then…watch out! Smarter dogs are often harder to live with because as soon as you teach them new skills, they try to get around following your orders. You may also inadvertently teach them bad behaviors.
Clever Canine (18-25) On the higher end of the intellectual spectrum, these are good listeners who will likely perform tricks well at parties or in obedience class.
Sharp, But Slow (10-18) You will find them trainable -- even if it takes numerous repetitions to master a skill.
Doggie Dropout (Less than 10) Let's hope that you selected your pet for its beauty as opposed to its brains, but since anyone can have an off day, give your furry pal a good pat on the head, and maybe try the tests again at a later date.
Elizabeth Wasserman, a Washington, D.C., area-based freelancer, has been writing about pets, among other topics, for more than 15 years. Her love of dogs, in particular, was handed down through the generations from her great-grandfather, Eric Knight, who wrote the book Lassie Come Home in the 1930s.