Is your dog a genius?

How do you know if your Cocker Spaniel is more than just a smart cookie and may actually be a canine genius? Plus, which are the most intelligent dog breeds? Find out where your dog comes on the canine intelligence breed rankings… If you have a dog, you’ll know just how good they are picking up the meaning of certain
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1st November 2021

How do you know if your Cocker Spaniel is more than just a smart cookie and may actually be a canine genius? Plus, which are the most intelligent dog breeds? Find out where your dog comes on the canine intelligence breed rankings...

If you have a dog, you’ll know just how good they are picking up the meaning of certain words – even when you don’t want them to. For example, have you found yourself spelling out the word w-a-l-k to avoid a flurry of excited barking? Does your soundly sleeping canine chum prick up his or her ears at the mere whisper of the word ‘treat’?

Dogs, in general, may be smarter than many scientists once thought. According to a new paper published in science journal Nature, some canines can learn the name of a new object after hearing it only four times. This is significant because this ability was previously thought to be confined to humans.

However, it appears only some canines make the genius grade. The researchers found this ability was not common among all the dogs studied and concluded that it may be limited to a few ‘talented’ individuals.

Will your dog do as well as Whisky and Vicky Nina?

Writing for The Conversation, Jan Hoole, a Fellow at Keele University with a special interest in animal behaviour, outlines the key points of the study, which involved a Collie called Whisky (who knew 59 objects by name) and a Yorkshire Terrier called Vicky Nina (who knew 42 toys). The study is easy to replicate at home by following the steps the researchers took, so you can find out whether your canine pal can learn the names of objects as quickly as Whisky and Vicky Nina and is, indeed, a genius. Here’s what the research project involved:

Fetching familiar toys

  • The researchers tested each dogs’ knowledge of their toys by asking them to bring each toy in turn. Neither the owners nor the experimenters could see the toys, to avoid influencing the dogs’ choice.
  • Once it was established the dogs knew the names of all their toys, the researchers introduced two new objects, placing each in turn in a group of known toys.
  • In this test Whisky (the Collie) chose the new toy every single time.
  • Vicky Nina (the Yorkshire Terrier) fetched the right one in 52.5% of trials, which is slightly above chance.

Learning new names

  • For the next part of the study the dog was shown a toy, told its name and was then allowed to play with it. After four repetitions of the name of two different new toys, the dog was asked to choose one of the two new toys. No familiar toys were included in this part of the trial, to prevent the dog choosing the right toy by exclusion. If it knows the name of all other toys, the dog might pick the correct toy because it guesses the unfamiliar word must indicate the unfamiliar toy.
  • Both dogs chose the new toy more often than chance would predict, suggesting they were indeed learning the name of a new object very quickly.
  • However, their memory decayed considerably after 10 minutes and almost completely after one hour. This shows the new learning needs more reinforcement if it is to be retained.

The test involving the new toy was also carried out by 20 volunteers with their own dogs, but these canines didn’t show the ability to learn new names after just a few hearings. The authors suggested the difference between the performance of the two dogs in their test and the volunteer dogs means, in order to learn new names quickly, the dog might need to be unusually intelligent or to have a lot of experience in learning names.

Why Border Collies ace intelligence tests

Jan Hoole comments: “It seems likely there are a combination of factors at work in these experiments. It’s significant that the breed most commonly used in studies of this type is a Border Collie, which is purposefully bred to attend to audible commands and is very highly motivated to carry out tasks and to please the handler. Yorkshire Terriers also enjoy mental and physical stimulation.”

Similar tests have been carried out by other research groups, usually using Border Collies. In 2004, a dog called Rico was found to know the names of 200 different objects, and in 2011, a female Border Collie called Chaser learnt 1,022 unique objects. This study, carried out by researchers, John Pilley and Alliston Reid, demonstrated Chaser's ability to learn the names of proper nouns and her extensive vocabulary was repeatedly tested under carefully controlled conditions. The 1,022 objects were her toys and the researchers admitted that she remembered their names better than they did.

Jan Hoole adds: “Other breeds may simply be less interested in playing with or fetching toys. For example, sight hounds, such as Salukis and Greyhounds, are primarily bred for hunting or racing, so are generally more difficult to train. They may show no interest in toys at all, as well as being considerably less motivated to please the handler.”

Positive reinforcement in a powerful way for animals to learn

It’s important to note that the experimental dogs in the study were intensively trained, through play and social interaction, to pay attention to the names and characteristics of the toys. “This might make them more likely to notice the differences between new and familiar toys, and to attend to the verbal cue associated with them,” says Jan Hoole. “Although their training was not formal, it was nevertheless positive reinforcement training, a powerful method for teaching animals and humans. The dogs have undoubtedly learned their skills to a high degree.”

Canine behaviour experts like Jan agree that while it’s quite possible to teach all dogs to learn the names of objects and perform tasks, the degree to which they’re willing and able to learn and carry out the task greatly depends on the breed of dog and the level of motivation they have. Jan Hoole concludes: “If your pet is an Afghan Hound (ranked #79 for canine intelligence) or a St Bernard (ranked #65), you should not expect it to be interested in spending hours fetching toys for you. If, on the other hand, you have a Border Collie (ranked #1) or a Poodle (ranked #2) their abilities may only be limited by your imagination and your dedication to playing with them.”

Which are the most intelligent dog breeds?

Rating dog intelligence is far from straightforward. As canine psychologist Stanley Coren wrote back in the 1990s, there's adaptive intelligence (figuring stuff out), working intelligence (following orders), and instinctive intelligence (innate talent) – and more.

In his book, The Intelligence of Dogs, Coren featured the results of a lengthy survey of 199 dog obedience judges. He found the responses were remarkably consistent but noted that many judges pointed out that there are many exceptions in every breed and that a lot comes down to training.

Check out Stanley Coren’s findings and see where your dog appears in the canine intelligence rankings:

Top tier – the brightest working dogs, who tend to learn a new command in less than five exposures and obey at least 95% of the time.

  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

Second tier – excellent working dogs, who tend to learn a new command in five to 15 exposures and obey at least 85% of the time.

  1. Pembroke Welsh Corgi
  2. Miniature Schnauzer
  3. English Springer Spaniel
  4. Belgian Tervuren
  5. Schipperke, Belgian Sheepdog
  6. Collie Keeshond
  7. German Short-Haired Pointer
  8. Flat-Coated Retriever, English Cocker Spaniel, Standard Schnauzer
  9. Brittany Spaniel
  10. American Cocker Spaniel, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever
  11. Weimaraner
  12. Belgian Malinois, Bernese Mountain Dog
  13. Pomeranian
  14. Irish Water Spaniel
  15. Vizsla
  16. Cardigan Welsh Corgi

Third tier – above-average working dogs, who tend to learn a new trick in 15 to 25 repetitions and obey at least 70% of the time.

  1. Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Puli, Yorkshire Terrier
  2. Giant Schnauzer, Portuguese Water Dog
  3. Airedale, Bouvier des Flandres
  4. Border Terrier, Briard
  5. Welsh Springer Spaniel
  6. Manchester Terrier
  7. Samoyed
  8. Field Spaniel, Newfoundland, Australian Terrier, American Staffordshire Terrier, Gordon Setter, Bearded Collie
  9. American Eskimo Dog, Cairn Terrier, Kerry Blue Terrier, Irish Setter
  10. Norwegian Elkhound
  11. Affenpinscher, Silky Terrier, Miniature Pinscher, English Setter, Pharaoh Hound, Clumber Spaniel
  12. Norwich Terrier
  13. Dalmatian

Fourth tier – average working dogs, who tend to learn a new trick in 25 to 40 repetitions and obey at least 50% of the time.

  1. Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier, Bedlington Terrier, Smooth-Haired Fox Terrier
  2. Curly-Coated Retriever, Irish Wolfhound
  3. Kuvasz, Australian Shepherd
  4. Saluki, Finnish Spitz, Pointer
  5. Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, German Wirehaired Pointer, Black-And-Tan Coonhound, American Water Spaniel
  6. Siberian Husky, Bichon Frise, English Toy Spaniel
  7. Tibetan Spaniel, English Foxhound, Otterhound, American Foxhound, Greyhound, Harrier, Parson Russell Terrier, Wirehaired Pointing Griffon
  8. West Highland White Terrier, Havanese, Scottish Deerhound
  9. Boxer, Great Dane
  10. Dachshund, Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Shiba Inu
  11. Malamute
  12. Whippet, Chinese Shar-Pei, Wirehaired Fox Terrier
  13. Rhodesian Ridgeback
  14. Ibizan Hound, Welsh Terrier, Irish Terrier
  15. Boston Terrier, Akita

Fifth tier – fair working dogs, who tend to learn a new trick in 40 to 80 repetitions and respond about 40% of the time.

  1. Skye Terrier
  2. Norfolk Terrier, Sealyham Terrier
  3. Pug
  4. French Bulldog
  5. Brussels Griffon, Maltese Terrier
  6. Italian Greyhound
  7. Chinese Crested
  8. Dandie Dinmont Terrier, Vendeen, Tibetan Terrier, Japanese Chin, Lakeland Terrier
  9. Old English Sheepdog
  10. Great Pyrenees
  11. Scottish Terrier, Saint Bernard
  12. Bull Terrier, Petite Basset Griffon
  13. Chihuahua
  14. Lhasa Apso
  15. Bullmastiff

Sixth tier – the least effective working dogs, who may learn a new trick after more than 100 repetitions and obey around 30% of the time.

  1. Shih Tzu
  2. Basset Hound
  3. Mastiff, Beagle
  4. Pekingese
  5. Bloodhound
  6. Borzoi
  7. Chow Chow
  8. Bulldog
  9. Basenji
  10. Afghan Hound

Of course, the value of defining animal intelligence in human terms is an ongoing debate and, if you’re the proud owner of an Afghan Hound (ranked #79), don’t be disheartened.

As animal behaviourist Frans de Waal has argued in Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, Afghan Hounds may not be unintelligent but rather independent-minded, stubborn, and unwilling to follow orders. “Afghans,” he wrote, “are perhaps more like cats, which are not beholden to anyone.” No wonder, then, that they’re not fussed about fetching toys when they have their human to do it for them...

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