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.

New dog shopping list

Lab in a built-in dog bed. Click for source.

My serious type-A self has, of course, already made a detailed shopping list and budget for our future dog. Here’s my preliminary list. What do think? What’s missing?

BASIC GEAR

  • Martingale collar.
  • 6′ leash.
  • ID tag.
  • Clean-up bag dispenser for leash.

HOUSEHOLD

  • Crate.
  • Bed.
  • Nature’s Miracle carpet cleaner.
  • Old towels.

DIET, HEALTH, GROOMING

  • High-quality, grain-free kibble/whatever the dog was eating previously to ease the transition.
  • Stainless steel bowls in a raised feeder.
  • Healthy treats.
  • Furminator.
  • Nail clippers.
  • Shampoo.
  • Toothbrush and toothpaste.

TRAVEL

  • Car harness or other form of restraint.

TOYS

  • Standard Kong, or assorted chew toys.
  • Rope toy.
  • Tennis balls.

Now, to figure out how to budget for this!

Dogs of Christmas

Me and Dally on a hike.

No, I didn’t get a dog for Christmas. But I did get to spend a lot of time with dogs, namely Aoive, Dublin, and Dally, whom I’ve mentioned before.

Aoive, my in-law’s English springer spaniel, has suddenly mellowed out in her old age. I say “suddenly,” I guess, because I haven’t seen her in a long time and her calmness surprised me. She is now 8 and her muzzle is graying and her eyes are drooping. It makes her look sad and stately–but the girl still knows how to have a good time. We took a long walk together over the holiday and even ended up running toward the end. She was eager and happy and, as always, very snuggly in the living room.

Later in the week, we traveled to my family’s town and spent most of our week with the borrowed dogs Dublin and Dally. Even though my father is as dog crazy as I am, my parents don’t have a dog of their own (due to my mother’s influence and protectiveness of her heart of pine floors). My father’s surrogate dog is Dublin, who adores him. My sister Grace was dog-sitting Dally, the neighbor’s gorgeous (and regrettably plump) 10-month-old Golden retriever, who is an absolute doll.

More photos below!

 

The blondes! Alex, my sister's boyfriend, and Dally share the love.
Dally and me, ready to go.
This is what heaven looks like to me: Family + field + dogs. (Dublin and Dally featured here.)

We also got to see the 3-year-old Marley, my cousin’s handsome and well-mannered chocolate lab. (Marley is the puppy featured with me on my “About” page.) It made me really happy to see such a trim and healthy lab; so often, labs are unmannerly blimps. But Matt, my cousin, is a very conscientious owner and has trained Marley very well. He’s a delightful boy.

Marley, my cousin's handsome and well-mannered lab.

OK, that’s all for now! Back to catching up on life…

What I learned this week

Cockapoo Puppies
A cockapoo. Source: Flickr, user: melmansur

This weekend, we went to Raleigh for my brother-in-law’s college graduation. I got a bit of time with two dogs there: his housemate’s lab, Sally, and his girlfriend’s cockapoo, Adelaide.

Sally is a two-year-old yellow labrador retriever. She lives in a house with four college guys and so she’s developed an exceptional level of noise tolerance. The first time I met Sally, she was a nine-week-old puppy who was being passed around at a Superbowl party like a bowl of chips. She was pretty sleepy most of the time but handled it all gracefully. Today, Sally is a large, sleek young adult who is smart and devoted. The boys in the house do spend a lot of time with her and have trained her to do a variety of party tricks. She can speak and bow on command and will do just about anything to get her beloved tennis ball.

What I learned from watching Sally, though, was the importance of consistency in cues. I felt frustrated for poor Sally. A new trick she was learning was balancing a tennis ball on her snout and then catching it with a command. Different guys would come up to her and try to get her to perform this task, but often unsuccessfully. I think Sally was totally capable of performing, but the poor dog was so confused. Win, my brother-in-law, gave her the command “hold” while he balanced the ball on her nose. But there were a dozen people moving around and eating in the room and I think Sally was too distracted to perform. Two other guys tried this trick with Sally after Win. The first guy kept telling her “stay” while he held the ball over her nose and the other one gave her the cue “don’t move.” Poor Sally isn’t fluent in English. She didn’t know that these words all meant the same thing. Consistency is key in training; we often forget that dogs don’t speak English and don’t often understand our verbally complex or confusing requests.

Adelaide is a two-year-old black cockapoo who belongs to Tracy, my brother-in-law’s girlfriend. I went over to Tracy’s apartment to meet Adelaide and take her out before we went to a party. She’s a small mop who is so dark that it’s almost impossible to see her black eyes under her curly black fur. Adelaide was very submissive when I met her and so I tried not to reach down or over her when we met; rather, I crouched down a few feet from her and held out my hand for her to sniff and greet me on her own terms. After that initial contact, she was very snuggly and wanted to climb up into my lap.

Tracy shared Adelaide’s back story with me. I suspected that Adelaide might not have benefited from good parentage, since small breed mixes are very often farmed out in puppy mills or by irresponsible backyard breeders. Tracy saw a sign for puppies on the side of the road in her hometown and quickly found herself staring at a puppy mill. She said that Adelaide was kept in a small cage with seven other dogs. The man let out the puppies and Adelaide crawled on top of Tracy’s feet and looked at her. Tracy was heartbroken and conflicted. She was witnessing how terrible and unethical puppy mills were, and yet her heart was drawn to this abused little puppy.

Tracy took Adelaide home and began her long work of training and rehabilitation. Adelaide had some serious food aggression issues, which are quite common to puppies from puppy mills, who have to fight their cage-mates if they want to get enough to eat. She was also extremely fearful of men and is still very wary around them today. Tracy has worked with Adelaide through most of these issues, but she admitted to me that it hasn’t always been easy and she might have made some different choices had she known then what she knows now.

I felt very conflicted about Adelaide’s story. On one hand, I’d never want to give any money to the frankly evil people who run puppy mills. On the other hand, you have to wonder what will happen to these sick, abused dogs. Who else might end up with them? It’s very likely that some other unscrupulous person might end up with these maltreated puppies.

I don’t really have the answers on these questions, but I think about them often. For more information, read the ASPCA’s list of 10 ways you can help fight puppy mills. It’s high time this grotesque phenomenon of the mass production of pets ended.