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.

Review: Dogged Pursuit

Dogged Pursuit, by Robert Rodi

Initial comment: Thanks, everyone, for all of the kind and encouraging comments this weekend. I was floored and flattered to be featured on “Freshly Pressed” on the WordPress home page. Your input has been so valuable to me! I hope that Doggerel will continue to be a fruitful and useful guide to the wide world of canine pursuits. With that, and my humble gratitude, here’s a semi-scathing book review… — Abby

This book had a lot of potential to be an interesting memoir. The subtitle is “My Year of Competing Dusty, the World’s Least Likely Agility Dog.” I read a few agility blogs and am interested in the sport as a whole, particularly since the dogs I’m interested in tend to be fairly good at agility.

But I found Dogged Pursuit, by Robert Rodi, to be almost unbearable. Mainly because Rodi comes off as such a pretentious jerk. I’m sure he’s probably a very nice human in “real life,” but his writing persona was so arrogant and off-putting to me.

The book chronicles Rodi’s journey of adopting Dusty, a nervous wreck of a Shetland sheepdog, from a sheltie rescue agency in Illinois. Rodi decides to get Dusty after his agility champion dog, Carmen, another sheltie, is forced into retirement by an injury. Clearly, he is adopting Dusty to turn him into a champion athlete. Which is fine. But it seems like that’s the only reason Rodi wants another dog. Throughout the book, Rodi expresses not a shred of affection for Dusty. Which is also fine–the dog does sound like a disaster–but it’s also not particularly endearing when you’re reading a canine memoir.

From the beginning, Rodi wants his readers to know how extremely cultured and educated he is. He wants you to remember, constantly, that he just “doesn’t fit in” with his fellow agility aficionados. He reads Tom Stoppard; they read Tom Clancy. He eats pancetta and pappardelle; they eat pizza rolls. In every chapter, he has to detail why he chose this particular, delicate Dvorak symphony for his drive to the next trial. Ugh. I think he keeps harping on how sophisticated he is for comic effect, but it falls completely flat. Instead, Rodi just comes off looking like a pretentious ass.

But that’s not even his most egregious vice.

What’s more upsetting to me about Dogged Pursuit is that Rodi is blatantly breaking what, to me, should be the cardinal rule of agility: You should only compete in agility if your dog genuinely loves agility. If agility trials turn your dog into a bundle of snapping nerves and you have to drag him out of a crate to compete, maybe you shouldn’t be competing in agility. Rodi never gets this. He forces this poor, anxious dog from trial to trial, desperately trying to prove something with this trembling creature, and for what? The dog certainly doesn’t care about qualifying for Regionals; Rodi does. And this dog doesn’t even enjoy being here. So stop. Shut it down, Rodi. Go home and stop dragging your dog to agility trials. He clearly hates it.

So, what did I learn? If decide to try agility one day, I’ll just do the opposite of everything Rodi did. In that sense, I suppose this book was helpful.

Pup links!

An Afghan hound and her lady in Paris. Source: The Paris Apartment

Fascinating dog-related links from around the Web this week…

Concerns about Unleashed Dogs. Karen London reflects on how we, as a community, should respond to this ever-growing social issue. Even though I’m always tempted myself to take a well-behaved dog off leash, I know I shouldn’t if it means that people with aggressive or untrained dogs can do the same. (The Bark blog)

The Evolution of Barking. Why did domestic dogs start barking? Here’s a summary of recent research on the topic, which I find quite interesting. Part of this research was briefly discussed in “Dogs Decoded.” (The Bark blog)

10 Things You Must Know about German Shepherd Dogs. A brief collection of the background and personality of this beautiful breed, which I am more and more leaning toward. (In Style Dog)

When Internet Memes Collide. Inter-species friends! That is one adorable and tolerant sheltie, to play so well with that squalling–but evidently delighted–infant. (Pawesome)

Polar Bear Befriends Dog. More inter-species friends! This blog should be proof enough that nothing delights me as much as YouTube videos of creatures from different species playing together. (The Premium Pet Blog)

To Barney’s New Family. A touching letter from a popular mommy blogger to her Scottish terrier’s new family. She made the wise decision to surrender the dog after determining that he did not fit well with their family and that she could no longer adequately care for him. It’s a heart-wrenching decision, but it happens so often, especially among young families with babies and poorly trained dogs. (Nat the Fat Rat)

Cousin. Famous blogger Heather Armstrong snaps a photo of a dog in Bangladesh, who accurately displays the prototype of the ancestral domestic dog. (Dooce)

Spay, Neuter Programs Are Paying Off. This year, fewer than 4 million dogs and cats will be euthanized, down from nearly 20 million in the 1970s. Let’s keep up that decline! (Ohmidog!)

Drunk People Are Buying Adorable Puppies They Won’t Want in Five Hours. Now this is a really terrible phenomenon, but at least the pet shops–unethical as they are to be selling puppy mill puppies–are creating an ordinance against it. (Daily Intel)

Teach a Dog to “Hold”: The Consequences. A totally precious–and obedient–Newfoundland proves how good he is at this command. (NewfandHound)

Can My Dog Make Me Healthier? All dog lovers can already answer this with a resounding, “YES!” Stanley Coren presents some evidence. (Psychology Today)