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Saturday, February 01, 2014

Is Your Dog Stupid? Maybe Not

My cousin Jeff Fong with his genius
dogs, Sam and Twist*
This article in Yahoo News purports to name the 5 least intelligent dog breeds.

I don't think this list is quite correct in it's assessment of dog intelligence.
It names Basset Hounds, Irish Setters, Weimaraners, Pugs and last, and probably most controversial, Chihuahuas as the dogs with the lowest intelligence.  I was surprised Beagles didn't make the list. They usually do. Our beagle, Suzy, wasn't stupid. Oh, in some respects, she had the intellectual awareness of a bag of rocks, but she could track down a butterfly in a flower patch, she had such a keen sense of smell. And she was fiercely loyal to us. I call that smart, if not in a sit up, roll over and fetch kind of way.

Intelligence in humans is multi-faceted.
One can have verbal intelligence, mathematical intelligence (measured by an IQ test) or social intelligence (politicians/actors/social climbers), kinesthetic intelligence (movement in space like for atheletes), musical intelligence, visual spatial intelligence (the kind artists, architects and sculptors have) and self-awareness (philosophers/preachers/psychologists), to name a few brands of smartness.

I think dog intelligence varies by type as well with some dogs having strengths in some areas and some in others. Some dogs are pack animals who respond well to training by a human alpha-dog. My dog is like that and is content, not challenging me for dominance. She trains very well and is also prey driven so she loves little rewards and needs lots of work to do. Many breeds, like chihuahuas especially, are instinctively driven by a need to BE the alpha dog which makes them little beasts to train. The cute factor makes them vulnerable to mishandling and spoiling by their owners. They also are one person dogs, tending to be drawn to the one person in the house that won't challenge them for dominance - hence their bad rep. It could be argued that chihuahuas are quite smart to know how to have figured out how to become king of their domain in a world where everybody is bigger than they are.

Some dogs are fiercely loyal to their pack and that factor makes them amazing protectors of their family. Other dogs are merely territorial and that makes them good at guarding your property, but they'll likely require a firm hand if you don't want them to eat the mailman.  So dog intelligence as assessed by dog intelligence experts, should probably factor in a great deal more than a measure of how obnoxious or how trainable the animal may be.

In some ways individual dog intelligence is more a measure of the "fit" between dog and human and how that makes us perceive them. One man's stupid Irish Setter is another man's bright, loyal and playful companion on long rambles in the countryside. Dog intelligence lists may be based more on our prejudices for behavioral traits than on real intellectual capacity. My dog is thick as a brick about some things like breaking off a chase, but I do believe she knows a startling number of words and phrases and that her stubborness is more about her love of the chase than about disobedience.

In humans it's easy to see how we differ in abilities. My wife, for instance, can hear a baby cry and know instantly what the child wants. Me, I don't get babies at all, but turn me loose on a broken water faucet or repairing my balky computer and I'm a magician next to her. We have different kinds of skills and intelligences. She's a musical and social genius, able to pick up all sorts of subtle nuances of speech and body language. I need a very large bucket and two baritones singing loudly in my ear to carry a tune and I'm a complete social oaf so far as social cues go. I am good, however, at visual-spacial tasks, putting things together and taking them apart. I'm a whiz at written verbal tasks too.  I'm only smarter than my wife at a few things which IQ tests happen to measure. She makes me look thick at other things the IQ test designers forgot to measure.  I think it works the same way for dogs. I think the measurement of animal intelligent is too subjective and far too heavily weighted to a single factor like trainability and calmness.

Me and my brilliant puppy dog, Daisy.
What is particularly amazing about dogs is that in the wild all dogs are pretty much alike. Scientists have shown, however, that in just a few generations with people, dogs that have come out of the wild not only become more tame, but they also develop this amazing variety of personalities, abilities and temperament. They even begin to develop distinct markings, body types and even change colors away from the dull browns and grays of wild dogs to the bewildering array of colors found in domesticated dogs. 

I think God designed them that way on purpose, just as He designed each of us with different skills and abilities. "And He gave some apostles, and some prophets, and other some evangelists, and other some pastors and doctors." (Eph. 4:11). And God told us that we should not envy the gifts which are not ours nor disrespect those who happen not to have our gifts. (I Corinthians 12).  I think animals like dogs and horses have been given that same plethora of "gifts" in order to make them perfect companions to man. That's why nobody agrees on what's the best dog and why some are drawn to specific breeds. We choose our animal companions as we choose our mates - we look for the best fit in personality, skill, temperament and affection.

How cool is that?

© 2014 by Tom King

* Side note on my Cousin Jeff's dog Sam: The previous owner couldn't do anything with Sam and returned him as incorrigible. Jeff took Sam from being what one person thought was a thick-headed reject and trained him to be a first place winner in frisbee dog competitions in a matter of months. It wasn't a case of stupid dog, just a bad fit with the previous owner. Sam needed energy, Jeff has energy to match. If you don't own a dog, try finding one that's your match. You won't regret it.

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