On the intelligence of dogs

The smartest of them all? Click for source.

Many people like to cite Stanley Coren’s now notorious list of “the most intelligent dog breeds.” People who have breeds in the top 10 like to remind other people of such and tease those who have dogs who fall anywhere below Coren’s top 10.

Stanley Coren’s Top 10 Most Obedient Breeds

  1. Border collie
  2. Poodle
  3. German shepherd
  4. Golden retriever
  5. Doberman pinscher
  6. Shetland sheepdog
  7. Labrador retriever
  8. Papillon
  9. Rottweiler
  10. Australian cattle dog

*Cited in his book, The Intelligence of Dogs. Links are to my “Breed Love” posts.

I think the problem with this list is the title. As many before me have pointed out, and as Coren’s own study acknowledges in the fine print, this oft-cited list measures canine intelligence by how quickly or effectively dogs obey humans. His study is a nice measure of obedience, but that’s primarily what it is. A more accurate title might have been “the most obedient dog breeds.”

Hounds rank very low according to this list, but that’s because Coren’s study cannot measure the independent-thinking and creativity that is employed by most hounds, especially scent hounds.

I’ve noticed this with hounds, even in my short tenure as a volunteer at the SPCA. Our SPCA has a ton of scent hounds, because we live in a part of the countryside that is popular with hunters who employ large packs of hounds and then don’t keep track of them if one goes missing. That said, I spend a lot of time at the SPCA walking hounds. These hounds are notably unresponsive to humans. They often seem to look right past you at something else (or, more accurately, at some other, more interesting smell). But this doesn’t mean they’re unintelligent; it just means they’re harder to train. These hounds are rather adept problem solvers. They figure out what they want then they plot how to get it, with or without any human aid.

Sight hounds, in my limited experience, are also very intelligent but prefer to follow their own direction. (The Afghan hound is famously ranked last on Coren’s list, in terms of what he calls intelligence.) When you ask a sight hound to do something, I imagine their internal response to be something like Bartleby the Scrivener: “I would prefer not to.” They are independent and self-directed and seem to weigh the pros and cons of following your commands.

Selfishly, I’ve always really loved dogs from the herding group, because these are some of the most human-responsive dogs of all (many in the herding group are in Coren’s top 30 “most intelligent” breeds). My favorite breeds–Australian shepherds, German shepherds, and border collies, to name a few–are incredibly attuned to their people. These high-energy dogs were made to watch human faces, study human body language, and follow human directives in their line of intense work. I’ll probably always prefer these dogs, mainly because they are so easy to train, but I think this just means that I’m lazy/afraid of how frustrated I’d get with a less responsive dog.

But at the end of the day, this list doesn’t matter. Because we know the truth: We all have the smartest dog in the whole world.

Gallery of hounds

Can you tell that I’m very partial to sighthounds? I adore them and yet they are extremely mysterious to me. I feel like I don’t understand them at all, but I want to. Some years down the road, I’m quite serious about adopting a former racing greyhound. Reading Tales and Tails also makes me believe that it would be possible for two such divergent dogs as a German shepherd and a greyhound could happily and peacefully coexist.

(Click on a photo to be taken to its source.)

Borzoi

Borzoi

Gypsy Rose Lee and her Afghan hound

Afghan hound

Greyhounds

Greyhound

Saluki

Saluki in the snow

Irish wolfhound

Irish wolfhound

Pup links!

A young Elizabeth Taylor with two poodles. Source: theneotraditionalist.com

Your weekly roundup of interesting dog-related links…

In Focus: Dogs. In this post, the New Yorker’s photography blog collects many critically acclaimed photo series featuring dogs. Some of my favorite canine photo shoots are included here. Enjoy the art–and the puppies. (Photo Booth, The New Yorker)

Paws to Read. I really hope there is a chapter of a group like this in our area. I would LOVE to train our future dog to work in schools with a program like this. After all, programs like Paws to Read combine three of my all-time favorite things: Dogs, kids, and books! (The Bark blog)

Dog Helps 15-Year-Old Rape Victim Testify. Rosie, a golden retriever, is the first dog approved to comfort victims of sexual assault as they testify in court. My heart breaks over this story, but it illuminates how deeply our lives are enriched by dogs. Here, a dog is doing something for that girl that no one else can. (New York Times)

Portland, Oregon, Named Top Pet-Friendly City. Agree with this list? Ever lived in some of these cities? Frankly, I’m surprised to see Washington, D.C., on there. I haven’t ever lived there, but I feel like owning a dog that was any larger than a handbag would be a huge hassle. (Dog Tipper)

The Mystery about Muzzles. I have always wondered why greyhounds wear them. A famed greyhound guardian and blogger explains. (Tales and Tails)

Lure Coursing. So, now those muzzles make sense. Some great photographs of a lure coursing event. Many gorgeous sighthound breeds represented! (Paws on the Run)

Afghan, 1931. Two photographs of an Afghan hound in 1931. So regal, even with that shorter coat. I think I like it more than the typical Fabio-esque waves. (Desert Wind Hounds)

Reclaimed Wood Dog Feeders. These look really awesome. I wonder if my husband could build these from some scavenged lumber… (Dog Milk)

Extinction Can’t Come Soon Enough. This poor pup really does look depressed about his situation. (Pets Who Want to Kill Themselves)

The Look. Anyone who’s owned a dog knows exactly what The Look is. (Love and a Leash)

Bonk! Corgi puppy, you’re breaking my heart. Don’t look at me like that. (Cute Overload)

Breed love: Borzoi

Borzoi just waiting for you to take his picture. Click for source.

The borzoi, also known as the Russian wolfhound, is an undeniably fashionable dog. They are scattered throughout the portraits of the rich and famous in the early 20th century. These shaggy, elegant giants were especially popular among wealthy women in the 1920s, because they looked fabulous with every ensemble. At the very least, you would attract a lot of attention with a pair of borzois at your side.

These gentle and quiet-natured sighthounds were once used by the Russian royalty to hunt wolves, although it would be quite unlikely to find a borzoi hunting today. Today, you’d be most likely to meet one in a show ring. They are still quite rare in the United States and you would pay a pretty penny for a purebred borzoi.

Borzoi

Racing borzoi. Source: Flickr user wolfhound

Borzois, like other sighthounds, are not known for being champions of the obedience ring. In fact, many owners will find them very difficult to train. This is not because, as Stanley Coren posited, they are unintelligent, but rather because they are uninterested in learning what you’d like to teach them. Unlike the highly trainable herding breeds, hounds are notoriously stubborn and sighthounds in particular are famously aloof.

Despite the challenges to training, borzois make great house pets and probably won’t give you half the trouble that one of the highly trainable breeds, like border collies or Australian shepherds, would. They are clean and quiet and almost catlike in their affectations. I’d be open to owning a borzoi one day if the opportunity ever presented itself.

Borzoi links:

Breed love: Irish wolfhound

A pack of Irish wolfhounds (although some look kind of Scottish deerhound-y to me). Source: Flickr user Pixilista

I fell in love with a dog at the shelter a few weeks ago who was described on the SPCA website as an “Irish wolfhound” mix. Like Irish wolfhounds, this dog was quite tall and lanky, but that was where the similarities ended. I found the description a bit humorous, since it’s not like there are a ton of Irish wolfhounds roaming the countryside and impregnating strays. These dogs are still fairly rare in the United States, even though most people could probably correctly identify one. Wolfhounds don’t look like a lot of other breeds.

The Irish wolfhound’s claim to fame is that of the tallest dog breed. They don’t necessarily weigh the most, but they are very leggy. With this height, unfortunately, comes a tragically short lifespan. Your average wolfhound will live to be seven or eight years old.

A lounging Irish wolfhound. Source: irishwolfhoundpuppiesblog.com

Like many giant breeds, Irish wolfhounds have a history of being very gentle and mild-mannered indoors. They can be spirited puppies, however, and prospective owners are cautioned about keeping breakable items scattered around the house. I love the look of this breed, but its comparative rarity and short lifespan lead me to think that it might not be the best for us at this time. But how great would it look to have one of these gorgeous giants on your hearth? Or waiting for you at the farm gate? I can imagine it now…

Irish wolfhound links:

Breed Love: Saluki

saluki Atreyu owned by Laurie

Graceful and beautiful saluki. Source: Flickr, user hawksview

My lifelong dog obsession began when I was 8 or 9. Since that time, I have been enamored with the saluki. I mean, just look at these dogs! They are breathtakingly beautiful. I could look at pictures of salukis all day long. (I think when I was a child, I fancied that salukis were my “spirit animal.” I found this written in a diary by my 10-year-old self. I don’t know what it means, but there you have it.)

The saluki, the royal dog of Egypt, is one of the world’s oldest dog breeds. These fleet-footed sighthounds were used by the ancient Egyptians for hunting. Today, I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a saluki hunting. Rather, I’d imagine you’d find these regal dogs lounging on beds of purple velvet stuffed with goose down. Simply put, salukis are still very rare in the United States and you’d be paying thousands of dollars for a purebred puppy.

Saluki Bitch

Pretty lady in the show ring. Source: Flickr, user neil_e_lloyd

For that reason alone, I don’t think I’d ever actually get a saluki. Add their rarity and cost to the fact that they’re highly independent and cat-like, and I think the chances are slim that we’ll be buying a saluki anytime soon. But that still doesn’t stop my lifelong admiration for this breed. It’s one of my life goals, I think, to actually meet a saluki. I need to find some dog shows…

Saluki links:

Breed Love: Greyhound

Denali

Elegant greyhound. Source: Flickr, user ginakellyphotography

There is nothing quite so beautiful as seeing a dog do something it was born to do. Like watching a border collie control sheep. Or watching a greyhound sprint. Greyhounds are fleet, elegant dogs who have been around for centuries. They appear in classic paintings and today, many of them still appear on the racetrack. Greyhounds ought to be one of the more highly recognizable breeds for their popular image and their distinctive shape, but I find myself always surprised by how many people think greyhounds are whippets (or vice versa).

The issue with using greyhounds for racing–apart from the fact that it seems like a rather inhumane life for such sensitive dogs–is that racers are often “retired” when they hit two or three years old. This means that you have a whole lot of greyhounds who need to be adopted. Thankfully, there are a ton of great greyhound rescue agencies, like the Virginia-area ones I’ve linked to below.

I find myself increasingly drawn to getting a greyhound for a second or third dog (maybe after we get our Aussie and German shepherd). Why? A few reasons spring to my mind. One, greyhounds make great indoor dogs. They are quiet and clean, almost cat-like in their movements and habits. Their fur is extremely short and velvety and requires very little grooming. Second, a mild-mannered and elegant greyhound would be an excellent foil to a high-maintenance Aussie and a super-athlete German shepherd. Third, there are hundreds of these gorgeous dogs who need to be adopted.

Joey

A thoughtful greyhound. Source: Flickr, user mobilevirgin

I can think of few cons to owning one of these beautiful dogs. I think I’d like to have a dog who could compete in obedience or agility with me, and for that reason, greyhounds wouldn’t be ideal. But after we’ve settled in a bit and I’ve gotten out my need to have a high-maintenance (read: herding) dog, I really think I’d love a greyhound.

Greyhound links: