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.
*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.
Is there such a thing? I doubt it. Dogs, like people, have distinct personalities and like people, dogs don’t always behave like angels. But I think there is truth in the notion that dogs possess naturally distinct temperaments. I’ve met dogs who, despite their difficult circumstances, were overwhelmingly joyful. I have also met dogs who seem inherently grumpy, the equivalent of a canine Mr. Scrooge. I also know that breed is not destiny or prophecy. Background does not always require the same outcome. Every dog is different.
I know all of this, but lately I’ve been thinking about the qualities that are important to me to have in a future dog. I know this is an unrealistic exercise, but it is helpful for me to think about the things I really want in a dog. I also know that most of the things I list below cannot be controlled or, alternately, can be trained into a dog. This is just my detached-from-reality future dog wish list.
So. If I could build my dream dog, these are the qualities that would be most important to me, ranked in order of most important to least important:
A happy, playful personality.
Patient and kind toward people, children, and other dogs.
Intelligent and highly trainable.
Fundamentally calm (meaning he or she is willing and able to achieve a resting state!).
Not excessively vocal.
Athletic, always up for a romp in the woods.
Medium to large size (50 to 100 lbs.).
Ideally from the herding group (in the future, though, I want to adopt a greyhound).
The rest, I think, will work itself out. Specifically, I want to avoid dogs that exhibit: Excessive solemness, short tempers toward people and other animals, little to no interest in people, hyperactivity, and shyness. Too much to ask for? Probably. I know my already beloved future dog will have problems. I know this. I’m just dreaming on the sunny side of the clouds today…
What quality or trait do you think is most important in a dog? What kind of temperament does your dog have?
I think what my weekend at the SPCA taught me is that the smart dogs are often the difficult dogs. The ones who are the quickest to learn also tend to be the ones that are the most challenging to handle. To explore this notion, I’m thinking about three dogs that stood out to me from my back-to-back days of dog walking this past weekend.
Jim Bob is the unfortunately named darling, whom I don’t have a photo of, because he very fortunately got adopted on Sunday! I had the pleasure of working with him on Saturday and fell in love with this little guy (which ever increased my anger that someone would give this beautiful little dog such an undignified and unsuitable name).
Jim is a small (20-30 lb.) black sheltie/spitz mix with a TON of energy. The kid could jump six feet in the air from a standing position. I noticed him anxiously jumping and pacing in an outdoor pen while I was walking the other dogs. He was very vocal about his unhappiness of having to stay in that pen while everyone else got to walk around. From time to time, I’d stop at his pen, let him greet the other dog I was walking, and slip him a little treat. He sat very politely and waited for me to hand the snack over before snatching it out of my hand. I was impressed with his manners, which, for a shelter dog, are quite rare. I also admit I was quite taken with his good looks.
Later in the afternoon, I found out he hadn’t been walked that day and got to take him out. A band of volunteers were repairing the trails and the wheelbarrows and rakes made Jim very nervous, so I decided to take him into the fenced-in agility ring on the SPCA property. I had a feeling that this little guy would be an agility star. He was whip-smart, extremely agile, and had a TON of energy! Plus, he followed commands very readily. To my delight, he soared over the different jumps next to me and seemed to love every minute.
As I walked him back, I thought about the right home for Jim. From my half hour with him, I felt sure that he would be best in a home with someone who would be willing to give him a lot of time and energy. Otherwise, this smart but inherently nervous dog could turn out to be a domestic nightmare. I’m happy that he got adopted. I just hope his new family will give him all of the love and attention that he deserves.
I try to be gentle with every dog I encounter, but I’ll admit that Cory really tried my patience. I noticed that when I walked up and down the kennel run, he was exhibiting a worrisome stereotypy of bounding from one wall to the next with his front paws. He did this without ceasing as long as someone was near his kennel door. From just a glance, it was evident that he was a very anxious and mentally shaky dog. I certainly felt for him.
When I finally got to his kennel to take him out, he was extremely difficult to wrangle. The hardest part of dog walking at the SPCA is just getting the dogs out of the kennel! Putting an Easy Walk harness on a highly reactive dog in a tiny, urine-splattered kennel is not a lot of fun. Cory proved his point. As soon as I stepped in there, he latched onto my leg and started humping me. This was not a huge concern, as he is a fairly small dog (30-40 lbs.), but it was annoying and instantly frustrating to me, because whenever I pushed him off and turned around, he just jumped on again. When he wasn’t humping me, he was biting my hands and snapping at my face. I could tell that none of this was done aggressively; the dog was just so damn excited to be going on a walk that he could not control himself.
Even knowing this, however, it was hard to keep myself from being very irritated with Cory. I tried waiting to see if he would calm down. Not going to happen. I also had about two dozen other dogs who hadn’t been out yet, so I couldn’t wait for him to sit still all day long. When I finally got the harness on him, he shot out of the kennel door like a rocket and pulled me into a fence. I really wanted to curse at him.
I know it’s not his fault. I’m guilty for not being more patient with him. But I have to wonder: With limited time and resources, what could I have done better with Cory? Any advice?
Finally, I got some quality time with Phantom, who is quickly becoming a favorite. You might remember Phantom from an earlier post. I can’t believe this handsome guy is still in the shelter. As you can see from the photo, he’s very attractive and fit. He’s also extremely smart. He knows how to sit, lie down, stay, and shake, which is four more commands than almost every other dog at the shelter. Under different circumstances, I think I would have been extremely tempted to take Phantom home myself. He’s just an all-around great dog.
Phantom loves to fetch and run and he still likes to hide things, as I mentioned when I first met him earlier. On Sunday, he hid a brand new tennis ball that I gave him to play with in one of the fenced-in enclosures. I promised him I wouldn’t watch where he was hiding it, because every time he saw my gaze on him, he’d move to another location. Silly puppy.
My best guess as to why Phantom hasn’t found a home yet is because he’s a pretty intimidating guy to walk past; he has a loud and boisterous kennel demeanor. Let me explain my theory on this. I feel like kennel demeanor is one of the things that can make or break a dog’s chance of adoption. I only wish I could tell the dogs this. A dog like Pooch, for example, could be very misleading. Unlike all the other dogs, Pooch does not bark or jump at you when you walk past his door. He sits very quietly and just looks at you. He looks like a complete gentleman and the perfect picture of calmness. But the second you snap that leash on, BOOM! The dog is dynamite. He has more energy than almost any dog at the SPCA, but you’d never know it unless you took him on a walk.
Phantom has perhaps the opposite problem with regard to his kennel demeanor. He barks wildly with excitement when you approach his door. He also shows a lot of big, gleaming teeth when he barks and has a very deep, imposing voice. To most people, I’m sure that he looks like a pent-up dog full of aggression and anger. But nothing could be further from the truth. He’s a complete sweetheart and he walks beautifully on the leash. He’s very attentive to people and isn’t a pain to walk, like Pooch can be. I just hope someone will give Phantom a chance sometime soon.
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.
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.
In my family, poodles got a bad reputation–for no fault of their own. My dad liked to talk trash about poodles, judging them to be frilly, sissy dogs who weren’t “real dogs.” For the most part, I confess that I agreed with him. My primary interaction with poodles were of the toy and miniature varieties, which I found to be yippy, demanding, and a little bit gross. But then I met a few standard poodles and my mind started to change about poodles.
Standard poodles, while preserving that pretty poodle appearance, are accomplished canine athletes, guide dogs, and obedience ring champions. Plus, they’re almost hypoallergenic! What’s not to love?
I find myself taken with these attractive and highly recognizable dogs. You have to admit that they’re adorable. And loyal and super-smart and athletic. My lack of exposure to standard poodles keeps them from ranking in my top five breeds, but if an opportunity ever presented itself, I would be more than happy to welcome a standard poodle into my home.
Stanley Coren has written a handful of popular books about dogs. He is probably most well known for his famous (and occasionally controversial) ranking of dog breeds according to intelligence. Coren is a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia but he seems to prefer the psychology of dogs to the psychology of people. One can’t blame him.
I started reading Coren’s books when I was in late middle school, right before we got our first family dog, but I had never read this particular title before. How to Speak Dog fit well with my current interest in dog behavior and animal psychology.
Coren is first and foremost a psychologist and this background plays heavily into this book. I appreciated his generous explanations of science and scientific history and his various chapters on the messages dogs convey in each of their primary appendages (signals through ears, tails, eyes, mouth, tongue, etc.). Overall, I do find myself watching dogs a bit more closely to try to read the signals they’re sending.
The book is a helpful primer for anyone who is generally unfamiliar with dogs and canine body language. I won’t say that I learned a ton of new information, since I felt like I was already pretty adept at distinguishing between an anxious, shy dog and a friendly, attentive one. I’m also not hugely impressed with Coren’s skill as a writer; the book does seem to jump around in places and provide occasionally unhelpful or superfluous information.
All that said, I’d recommend this book to anyone who was having trouble reading his or her dog. Coren’s thorough chapters would give you plenty of fodder to re-energize your canine conversations.