Before I begin I want to make it clear that I love all dogs. Whether they’re big or small, obedient or less than impeccably trained, I love them. So don’t get upset and think I’m picking on your dog. I’d offer to steal your dog if I met him/her. I love dogs! But decades of training dogs, although I haven’t done it as much in the last ten years or so, made me aware of how little people know about the dogs they own and even less about dogs they think they want to own.
I see lists all the time about the “smartest” and “dumbest” dog breeds and those lists make my skin itch. When the people who compile those lists talk about smart and dumb what they’re really describing is how biddable the dog (breed) is and not about true intelligence. Here’s my take on intelligence in dogs and biddable and non-biddable dogs.
First it’s important to understand the definition of biddable. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary biddable means: easily led, taught, or controlled. Synonyms for the word include compliant, submissive, and cooperative. It does not mean intelligent. Another definition is: meekly ready to accept and follow instructions. While most dogs, even those in the “smart” category aren’t necessarily meek they are willing to accept and follow instructions.
The usual breeds found on the “smart dog” lists are:
- Golden Retrievers
- Labrador Retrievers
- German Shepherd Dogs
- Border Collies
Of course the list varies a bit depending on who compiled it and sometimes dogs like:
- Australian Shepherd
- Shetland Sheepdog
- Belgian Malinois
and even dogs rarely known to the average person like:
are thrown in.
But these dogs are simply highly biddable breeds. They are people pleasers. The breeds generally have been bred to work closely with humans in the tasks for which they were developed. They are retrieving, hunting, herding or “police dog” breeds. The jobs for which they were bred require them to learn and follow the commands of their handlers. This doesn’t necessarily make them smart (or dumb) just compliant.
Some of the dogs listed as “dumb” include breeds which actually have to have a high level of intelligence because the dogs are required to work without human direction. Livestock guardian breeds like the Anatolian Shepherd Dog, the Great Pyrenees, and the Maremma Sheepdog live in pastures with their flocks or herds (if they’re working as bred to do) and therefore, must be capable of making decisions about what to do without any human telling them.
A few other breeds that make the “dumb” dog lists are Afghan Hounds, Basenjis, and Borzois. This always annoys me as both these breeds are sight hounds. This means that they were originally bred to chase game over long distances, ultimately catching it. They certainly couldn’t do their intended work if they had to check in with their owners before doing anything. While they may not be the best breed for agility, which requires a great deal of cooperation between dog and handler, they can certainly do a fantastic job at lure coursing which is the sport tailor made for these hunters.
Another dog that usually makes the “dumb” lists is the Bloodhound. Again, this is a hunting breed. If you’re looking for a dog who will be an award winner in obedience trials you may want to avoid the Bloodhound. But a Bloodhound once tracked a missing child over ten miles, making the switch from the child’s scent to the vehicle in which she was moved, then back to the scent of the child. He tracked her from a residential street to a freeway, then off the freeway to a very rural area. Being able to decide to track the vehicle, ignoring the original scent he was given, then switching back to the original scent showed a great deal of intelligence as far as I’m concerned.
Some dogs, regardless of breed, can have the “what’s in it for me” mentality. They just don’t know why they should do something for you unless there’s a return for them. I can’t blame them. Would you go to work and do what your boss told you if you didn’t know there was a paycheck coming at the end of the week? There are dogs that expect a paycheck. Teach them it’s coming and they’ll likely do whatever you want. Expect them to do it for the sheer joy of pleasing you and you’ll probably find them wandering away to do what they want.
It almost always goes back to what your dog was bred to do in life. If he’s a dog meant to retrieve he’s probably going to be very biddable and easy to train. If he was meant to guard livestock in a pasture five miles from home or chase down game over miles and miles of rugged territory, you shouldn’t expect him to concede to your every wish.
And size doesn’t matter. Dachshunds are hunting dogs. They are called earth dogs and were bred to be able to chase their prey underground. They may be small, but don’t expect them, Yorkshire Terriers, or other small, short-legged dogs to just automatically be biddable. You may get the surprise of your life.
If you’re in the market for a dog consider whether or not you’re ready to take on a dog who was bred to run. That dog may need more exercise than you can provide. If you’re a runner, you may want to avoid dogs that are typically couch potatoes. Even some of the big breeds, if that’s what you want, don’t require a huge amount of exercise. The Mastiff is an example. Some tiny breeds are high energy and others, like the Japanese Chin, are happy to watch movies all day with you.
If you want to have a really great relationship with your dog, don’t rely on lists to tell you if your dog is smart. Consider what job your dog was originally meant to do and use those strengths to find things your dog will be brilliant at doing. Lure coursing for sight hounds, earth dog trials for Dachshunds, Yorkies, and other earth dog breeds, and obedience for German Shepherd Dogs, Border Collies, and Poodles.
This doesn’t mean that a dog can’t excel at things he wasn’t originally meant to do. Dobermans make wonderful Service Dogs as do German Shepherd Dogs, and Anatolian Shepherd Dogs. None of them were originally bred for this work. Just find something that speaks to your dog’s heart and go with it. You’ll both have a great time and you can forget all about lists.