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 toys and terriers

I’ll admit that the toy group and the terrier group are my least favorite groups in the AKC system. Not that I have any personal vendetta against these dogs–I just can’t imagine myself ever living with one of them. That said, I have met some very pleasant terriers and some very enjoyable toy breeds. And my time at the SPCA has convinced me that pit bulls are totally wonderful. (Of all these dogs, I’d be most likely to take a pit home.) And you can’t deny that they are adorable. Look at those faces! That said, here are some toys and terriers I could possibly coexist with.

(Click on an image to be taken to its source.)

Airedale terrier

Airedale puppy

Border terrier

Border terrier puppy

Cairn terriers

Cairn terrier puppy

Cavalier King Charles spaniel puppy

Cavalier King Charles spaniel

Papillon

Papillon puppy

Pit bull

Pit puppies

Pomeranian

Pomeranian puppy

Not so much breed love

dachshund
This is Katie, my Denver landlord's anxious dachshund. Source: Me

As I’m thinking about the dogs that I’d love to have one day, I’m also making a mental list of the dogs I know I wouldn’t enjoy living with. As Stanley Coren points out in his book Why We Love the Dogs We Do, not every human personality is suited to every breed personality. There does seem to be a innate, temperamental reason why some people keep buying golden retrievers or Boston terriers or akitas again and again.

I don’t make this list to say that certain breeds are bad or unlovable, but rather that my personality is not especially keen on their personalities–and I just don’t think we’d live well together.

Yorkshire terrier ♥
A Yorkshire terrier. I add them noting an exception, my friend Emily's giant Yorkie, Oscar, who is precious. Source: Flickr, click photo to see user page.

That said, here is a list of the breeds I’m fairly certain I have no interest in ever owning…

  • Dachshunds.
  • All terriers. Yes, all.
  • Almost all toy breeds (Exceptions: papillon, pomeranian, Cavalier King Charles spaniel).
  • All brachycephalic breeds (pugs, bulldogs, pekingese, etc.).
  • All scent hounds.
  • Dalmatians.
  • Chows.
  • Labs. I KNOW. So un-American! I just don’t love labs. There it is.

What about you? Any breeds you’re pretty sure you don’t want?