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The Intelligence of Dogs

 ON GOOD BEHAVIOR - OCTOBER 1994 by Gary Wilkes

According to a recent book, Border Collies are the smartest of canines while Afghan Hounds are at the bottom of  the intelligence scale. Before you decide that your dog is a genius or an idiot, you might ask this important question - what exactly is intelligence?

 Most people would agree that intelligence has something to do with the ability to think. Some people would go farther and suggest that intelligence is the ability to "figure things out". Few people would consider a person's keen  eyesight or fast reflexes as intelligence, yet dogs are often given credit for possessing intelligence based solely on their non-mental, physical attributes.

 A good example of this is a dog's ability to anticipate when his owner is going to return home from work. Many dog owners are amazed that a dog will pace whine and go to the door as much a 30 minutes before its owner is  expected. Is this a sign of intelligence or the ability to sense daily routines? Ivan Pavlov, the Russian physiologist, settled this issue over 80 years ago. He fed a dog punctually each morning for several weeks. Then, one morning, he  withheld the dog's breakfast until after the usual time and watched closely for the dog's reaction. Within 20 seconds of the appointed time, the dog began to wag its tail and salivate - in anticipation of breakfast. Further tests confirmed  that this was not an isolated incident. Dogs have an extremely accurate ability to sense daily routines. This ability to sense a daily pattern is not automatically a sign of intelligence, however. If you doubt this, remember that the same  dog that goes crazy ten minutes before you get home from work is the same critter that wakes you up at five o'clock in the morning on Saturdays. The dog is capable of predicting a daily pattern, but incapable of understanding days of the week.

If we assume that intellect is the ability to solve problems, the particular physical attributes of dogs can skew the test data. In the 1940's, blood hounds were tested against beagles to see which had the better sense of smell. A test  track was laid that included a place where a "fugitive" stepped up on a fallen log and walked several yards, elevated above the ground. Filmed evidence of this test showed remarkable reactions from the dogs. Every one of the beagles  lost the scent at the point where the fugitive left the ground. Each of the bloodhounds lost the scent momentarily and then lifted its head and found it again. The conclusion of this test indicated an important fact - beagles are not less  intelligent than bloodhounds, they are merely shorter. Had this test been used to rate these dogs' "intelligence", the bloodhounds might have mistakenly been considered "smarter".

 A study of genetics and dog behavior in the 1950's took a more scientific look at this phenomenon. Drs. John Scott and John Fuller examined five breeds of purebred dogs and how they behave. Beagles, Cocker Spaniels, Basenjiis,  Shelties, Fox Terriers and their hybrid offspring, took part in the experiment over a 12 year period. The findings of this study pointed to some obvious conclusions. Each of these breeds showed differing abilities at almost any given  behavior. In a test using a large maze, Fox Terriers and Shelties had very slow scores initially, while Beagles and Basenjiis excelled. The primary reason for the Beagles' superiority was that they were highly likely to offer rapid and  variable investigation of their environment - a trait that is of major importance when hunting small game. Basenjiis did almost as well as Beagles in the maze test for a completely different reason. The researchers concluded that the  Basenjiis were slower to investigate by moving around, but more likley to use visual clues to solve the puzzle. The common sense conclusion would be that beagles and basenjiis are somehow smarter than Fox Terriers or Shelties -  an assumption that would be premature. The researchers discovered over a series of tests that the Fox Terriers and Shelties improved their performance by being able to easily learn repetitive sequences. The Beagles had trouble  because they have difficulty performing consistent routines. It is not that Beagles solved the maze faster because they are smarter, it is that their behavior is more variable. When consistency is needed, Beagles fall far below other  breeds in "intelligence". The more accurate conclusion is that these breeds are not more or less intelligent than each other, but genetically programmed to learn different tasks with greater or lesser ease.

 To test your dog's intelligence, here are several easy behavioral games that can rate Rover's performance. If your dog does not already know how to sit or lie down, substitue some other behavior.

  Clap your hands twice and then say "sit". Give Rover a treat if he sits. Repeat this behavior ten times. Now clap  your hands twice and see what happens. If Rover picks up the idea that clapping twice is the same as the word "sit",  in only 10 repetitions, he is very bright indeed. If clapping twice does not cause him to sit, try another set of ten repetitions. If he learns the association in under 50 repetitions, his brain is working perfectly.

  Hold your fist in front of Rover's face. Quickly open and close your hand and then say "sit". See how long it takes for Rover to develop and association to a visual signal.

  Dip a cotton swab in some vanilla extract. Wave the swab in front of Rover's nose and then say "down". Repeat  this sequence exactly as you did with "sit". After Rover seems to be getting the hang of this, wave a clean swab in front of his nose. If Rover lies down, even without the correct scent signal, walk away and ignore him for 30 seconds  and then try the test again. This process tests Rover's ability to discriminate one scent from another and to associate a particular behavior to a particular "scent command".

 If your dog does not do well on these exercises, do not despair. These little tests are just as arbitrary and just as inaccurate as anything you will find in the popular media. Dogs come in hundreds of basic types and millions of  individual personalities. There is no basic test that can fairly rate the intelligence of dogs. The fact is that the average Afghan hound gets fed, bathed, brushed, walked on a leash and pampered without having to lift a paw. By contrast,  the border collie has to chase sheep all day, skip meals and live outdoors in driving rain or scorching heat. It appears that intelligence , like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.


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