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.


8 thoughts on “On the intelligence of dogs

  1. I love that you use Bartleby to describe the hounds! I don’t have a hound myself, but from what I’ve gathered, it’s entirely appropriate.

    It’s true, though, each of us has the smartest dog. And the cutest! The list is interesting for it’s own sake, and for what it specifically tests, but shouldn’t make people feel bad either.

  2. I feel I have to stand up for scent hounds here! The ones in your shelter have probably not had the best start in life, am I right? But “notably unresponsive to humans” seems a bit harsh.

    Beagles are about as responsive to humans as you can get. Many end up taking over the sofa – if not the bed – they give so much back.

    Aren’t you doing a Coren yourself – by responsive to humans don’t you mean following their ‘commands’? You’d get on just fine with hounds, who as you say are “independent-thinking and creativ[e]” if you let them be the dogs that they are!

  3. Our Aussie was too smart for his own good and he learned things we never actually intended to teach him (some good, some bad). He was very independent, though, and definitely had a job to do (protect his herd – ie us), which meant he slept across the hallway or doorway, to make sure nothing could get to us without going past him.
    We have a Beagle currently. She is indeed responsive to people in that she LOVES attention. She is not responsive when it comes to training. If I happen to have a treat in my hand, she knows pretty much any command. If I do not have a treat in my hand, or if there is something else over there that seems more interesting than the treat I have, then I might as well not exist.
    That doesn’t stop her from sleeping on the bed (under the covers) with us every night.
    Every breed has its strengths and weaknesses. I love our Beagle, but the herding group remains my favorite overall.

  4. We have a heeler (Australian Cattle Dog) x. She is very a smart, independent and creative problem solver… responsive to humans, but only when they have food. She does many things I have never seen dogs do before, e.g. she figured how to untie a knot when she was tied outside a cafe as a puppy (she only had to grab the loose end and pull it… anyway, my prior dogs never figured that out), is a gifted thief, and generally figures how to get to what she wants by keep trying in new surprising ways.

    We don’t know what the other part of the mix is, we think Dingo (quite likely … since she is an adopted camp dog from the NT) and maybe various other inputs.

  5. What a lovely blog – just stumbled upon it and I am following now 🙂

    I have two Border Collies – and they honestly surprise me all of the time with how smart they are, and how in tune they are with me and my husbands moods. They are absolutely adorable and I would recommend Border Collies to anyone 🙂

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