The ‘Intelligence’ of Dogs

Good Dogma

By Lisa Ellman

A friend told me that she wants to adopt a dog. She wants a German Shepard and that she’s looking for an “intelligent” dog, one that will fetch, be protective and (for some reason) “tilts its head.”

She seems to be under the impression that head tilting is a sign of intelligence, as in, if the dog tilts its head when you talk to it, its comprehension of what you’re saying is clearer.

I took issue with her definition(s) of intelligence, explaining that the qualities she’s looking for do not necessarily indicate intelligence and that in fact, head tilting may have more to do with listening than anything else.

My friend is not alone in her thinking. Many of us who live with dogs like to think that the dog’s behavior stems from its “intelligence” and this is not always the case.

According to the Random House Collegiate Dictionary, the first definition for intelligence is: “Capacity for reasoning,” and that is the definition I will apply to dogs in this column.

As much as we want to believe that our dogs have the capacity to reason, they don’t. Dogs are reactive animals, that is, they react to situations. What we refer to as their intelligence is really linked to instinct; learned or conditioned behavior and past experiences.

As much as we like to “anthropomorphize” our dogs, meaning attribute human qualities to them (like emotions and reasoning abilities), they just don’t have the brain for these attributes. Dogs simply react.

A dog learns early on from its mother, litter mates and experiences with other animals including humans, how to respond to and interact with other beings.

In the past couple of decades, research into multiple intelligences has shown that humans are more likely to learn subject matter easier and or faster when using specific mediums — movement, visualization, and language — for which their brains have been somewhat prewired. By using these intelligences as a guideline for dogs, via different methods of training, it makes sense that different breeds have some predisposition to excel at certain tasks or learn a task faster than others.

For example, Beagles are sharp in terms of their alertness and quickness for picking up new routines, but they can also have a one-track mind (nose to the ground) and be excessively stubborn. This means training may take a longer and more concentrated effort on the part of the owner than it might for other breeds, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the intelligence of the dog.

Your dog may be brilliant, for a Beagle. All dogs can be taught the same commands, but not all dogs will have the ability to learn them as quickly as others.

What it comes down to is not the intelligence of the dog, as we know the word, but what they have been prewired or predisposed to learn or how to behave, by their breeding.

The majority of today’s dog breeds have been bred via artificial selection for decades. That is to say humans have been breeding certain qualities and characteristics into them for specific desired behaviors, color, size, etc.

We have pretty much bred out the hunting instinct, because most families that have hunting breeds don’t hunt. The same was done with border collies and other breeds that originally had a job to do. These working dogs are now house pets. That doesn’t make them any less intelligent; they just don’t have the opportunity to use what they really know.

Lisa Ellman has been working with a wide range of animals for over 20 years. Her passion, however, is dogs, and in 1996 she founded Good Dogma Obedience Training. With a foundation built on positive reinforcement, Good Dogma provides basic obedience training and behavior modification for the family dog and human members of the pack. Lisa’s comprehensive theory on training is a simple one: “Train the human, condition the dog.” Good Dogma is a monthly feature of Simply Clear Marketing & Media.

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