Everybody wants a smart dog. This makes sense, nobody is going to specifically go out to find a dumb dog, and no breed-specific breeder or handler is going to admit that their breed-of-choice isn’t necessarily the brightest crayon in the box. The idea of intelligence in the public perception of dogs, however, is a disorganized suitcase begging to be unpacked and reordered. The problem is that this is such a subjective topic that it really is impossible to do so. Smart vs. intelligent vs. dumb vs. trainable vs. opportunistic vs. genius vs. ‘loyal’ vs. independent, the list goes on, are all elements of dog behavior and psychology related to the perception of intelligence that are highly dependent on breed purpose and therefore genetic soundness and the dog’s intended purpose (not to mention the temperament of the handler and their specific criteria of intelligence). Many parts of dog behavior and breed-specifics can be more-or-less neatly categorized, making room for the inevitable variables that alter such neatness, but are still fairly easily organized. Drives, fears, aggression triggers and the like can all be relatively easily defined and identified, but the idea of intelligence is highly subjective and very dependent on breed and what the dog’s intended purpose is, either for work or pet. In my endless goal of boiling complicated topics down to the most simplified version possible, I will say that ultimately the discussion of intelligence comes down to two elements: the breed’s purpose and the expectation of the handler.
Lets compare two very common breeds (all too often purchased for their intelligence, beauty, and positive public perception), the German Shepherd and the Husky. A handler looking for a dog that is going to be extremely attentive to their needs and be able to intuit these needs before the handler even realizes them (such as German Shepherds) is going to be frustrated beyond belief by just how dumb Huskies are. They don’t listen, they don’t pay attention, they are very difficult to train, they are stubborn, they are escape artists, they are loud and independent and very difficult to keep as a pet by the average owner who just wanted a cool looking dog that they thought were going to be great pets because they see them everywhere and hear that they are smart. They are very unempathetic and unintuitive and don’t often keep their handler’s wishes in mind so someone that appreciates the Lassie-like qualities of a GSD are going to be miserable with a Husky and feel that they are very, very dumb and unintelligent. However, a handler that appreciates a dog that thinks for themselves, problem solves without the aid of the handler, masterfully finds ways to accomplish goals (whether those line up with the handler’s or not) and with endless determination achieves these goals, are going to find Huskies to be extremely intelligent. This is because Huskies give absolutely no fudgesicles what their handler wants from them. They are bred to think for themselves, to not rely on their handlers for guidance, and to do what they want to do, which more often than not means RUNNING. This isn’t rocket science, Huskies are sled dogs and they have been forever. They run, and they run without being hyperaware of the other dogs in the team or the handler behind them. If sled teams were run by German Shepherds then it would be a fumble of confusion because GSDs are so attuned to their handler’s feelings that they really cannot tune the world out and run without trying to intuit what their handler wants from them if the handler is not feeling well that day or really doesn’t want to be out there. In this way, GSDs are really dumb when it comes to sled pulling and are going to be very frustrating to a sled dog handler who values the independent determination of the husky, they are going to appear to be very stupid. So who is dumb and who is smart? It really depends on what the handler wants from them.
The public perception of intelligence, in all animals, typically is defined by the ability to problem solve, spot patterns and to intuit the wishes and intention of the observer. Rats meticulously navigating and memorizing a maze, IQ tests judging problem solving as a key component of genius, a dog’s hyperawareness of what their handler is instructing them to do, are all classic criteria of intelligence and it has permeated into public belief as well. Independent thinkers, loners, and those that have difficulty performing prescribed tasks and following instruction are classically categorized as unintelligent, as we see so often in public school systems and current reliance on IQ scores to gauge intelligence. Does this mean that people who do not learn in this manner are not intelligent? Of course not. It just means that their skillset is not in tune with what is typically requested in our learning institutions. These folks are no more or less adept at mastering skills and thinking critically and creatively to problem solve and intuit with those skills. The same can be said for dogs. Our limited and narrow criteria for intelligence does no services to certain breeds in this way, who display masterful intelligence depending on their breed’s purpose. By these traditional criteria the more empathetic the dog, the more intelligent it is. The breeds typically high on the list are Border Collies, Standard Poodles, German Shepherds, Labrador Retrievers and others. Dogs that would be on the low end are the ones bred to think and act independent of the handler: Beagles, Huskies, Chows, etc. But does that mean they are actually unintelligent? Beagles are extremely good at their jobs in scent detection and flushing. Masterfully skilled at it, some dogs require very little training and just innately know what to do. These dogs make life very easy for their handlers when used as hunting dogs, and they also make great family dogs because they are reasonably low-maintenance and generally very friendly. They can learn basic obedience without much effort and are really nice dogs. Are they really dumb? Of course not. Can they be a police K9 and thrive in the work? Of course not. They do not have a genetic predisposition to mastering the skillset required to be an all-purpose law enforcement officer (besides tracking). This doesn’t mean they aren’t intelligent, it just means they aren’t suited for that line of work.
You determine your dog’s smartness.
When we are looking for an intelligent dog, we have to look at ourselves first. What do WE consider intelligent? Do we like animals that navigate the world with their own wits and ideas? Or do we like animals that become a single unit with their partners and are able to read our minds and work as a team with every activity of the day? Or are we wanting an animal that doesn’t care too much either way and just wants to cuddle up on the couch or play with the kids? Dogs were created as tools, pure and simple, and despite the reality that people today appreciate dogs for who they are, their individual personalities, their companionship, their funny nature and so on, they are still in existence because they were once seen as a piece of organic machinery serving a purpose and filling a role that the human or technology at the time was unable to. There isn’t a machine in existence that can track the scent of game or a fleeing suspect better than a dog and there is no machine that can find a rat or badger no matter where it is hiding better than a dog. Every breed of dog was created to fulfill a need that technology couldn’t fill, and though that is not how most of us use dogs these days, it doesn’t change the fact that a dog of a particular breed is a finely tuned machine to accomplish whatever task they were created for. In the absence of vermin to track and kill, a terrier is going to find other ways to use and express the same behaviors needed to accomplish that task. The urges are there, whether the original outlet is or not. So when choosing a dog breed you must take this into account. Your criteria of what is smart, dumb, annoying, easy, funny or loving has to be set before you can decide on what dog is going to be smart to you.
Dogs are unemployed professionals. What job do you need filled?
If the dog you get isn’t cut out for the job you have available, then they are going to seem very dumb. A brain surgeon being made to work on a jet engine without experience is going to seem very dumb, just as an aircraft mechanic is going to seem dumb trying to perform brain surgery. Someone good with their hands and not solving complex equations in the ethereal state of the mind is going to seem dumb trying to learn advanced trigonometry, while someone who lives in their head is going to seem dumb when learning to change a tire. Intelligence is subjective and entirely dependent on the job at hand and the individual’s skillset for that job. So, to get a smart dog, you first have to think of what job you have available and then find the appropriate candidate. Is the job something practical like herding sheep, protecting livestock, scent detection, alerting to medical emergencies, guiding a blind person, hunting or retrieving? Or is the job to fill a role in our emotional lives like providing companionship, a hiking partner, a home protector or a playmate for the kids? All the above are legitimate jobs that a dog would fill perfectly, you just need to find the right one. If your goal is a playmate for the kids, you may not want a breed that is independent, aloof and has a low bite inhibition. If you want a dog to provide companionship to an elderly person you may not want one that was bred to be running for 12 hours a day. Everybody who wants a dog has a conscious or unconscious job to fill, and identifying that job is the first step to finding a smart dog.