Monday, July 28, 2014

Smart Dogs Versus Dumb Dogs

How does one tell if their dog is smart or not? What counts as "smart" anyway? I am very fond a smart, sensitive breeds, and while I love dogs in general, I have no desire to live with insensitive or unintelligent dogs. Of course, I keep Ru around for some reason...
Photo by Erin Koski

I am of the opinion that many difficult to train dogs are insensitive rather than unintelligent. Beagles are considered one of the least trainable breeds out there, yet every beagle owner seems to have a story about how their dog can open any gate, scale any kitchen appliance, or slip any leash. I consider beagles to be emotionally insensitive, they don't really care what you think and have little desire to please unless they see something in it for them. Whether this makes them good pets or not is entirely subjective, but I think living with a smart dog that doesn't care is a lot like living with a monkey. Monkeys make terrible pets.

A lot of people consider Labrador retrievers and golden retrievers to be dumb, but they are both in the top ten for intelligence. I consider labs to be emotionally insensitive, but with a desire to please. They are also physically insensitive, making them eager to do what you ask while not minding that they've just knocked your beverage off the coffee table and sent you into conniptions. Goldens seem to be slightly more emotionally sensitive, but just as eager to please and just as physically insensitive. Gundogs have to be thick-skinned in a lot of ways, but retrieving breeds also need to be able to work closely and directly with humans.

I don't consider most hounds to be particularly intelligent. A lot of sighthounds are both physically and emotionally sensitive, but have no desire to please and aren't well known for their problem-solving skills. Scenthounds can be extremely good at tracking and hunting, they are often eager to please but are also emotionally and physically insensitive. I honestly think scenthounds are pretty dumb. In general, breeds that were developed for the purpose of working directly with people (herding, retrieving, security) are highly intelligent, while those developed to work independently (tracking, pointing, flushing game, hunting, pest control) are less intelligent or at least less inclined to demonstrate their intelligence in ways humans value.

How does one rate the intelligence of a particular dog? According to Stanley Coren, author of The Intelligence of Dogs, smart dogs are good at generalizing. I consider rapid and easy housebreaking to signify an intelligent dog. Ulysses picked it up so quickly that we can't actually be sure whether he was housetrained before he ended up in the shelter system. It is entirely possible that he just caught on immediately at my house and generalized that to include every house or building. Brisbane is also extremely reliable to the point that I apologize to him when I find a puddle in the house because obviously I made him go too long between potty breaks.

Generalizing is great for housetraining and training in general, a smart dog can learn quickly that not jumping up on a specific person means not jumping up on any person. Brisbane learned to leave one cat alone and has generalized that behaviour to include all of my other animals including birds, turtles, and rabbits that were introduced years after the initial training phase. The downside to rapid generalization is that it can be used for evil. Brisbane has generalized his rage against the mail carrier to include the mail truck, and everything bearing the United States Postal Service logo, no matter what shape or size. His vendetta against the UPS and FedEx delivery people has expanded to include all delivery people delivering anything anywhere. I have no idea how he knows that the guy walking through the pet store drives the dog food delivery truck, but Brisbane knows he is the enemy.

Dumb dogs are basically the opposite. Ru may never actually be housetrained. He has the basic idea that peeing where he sleeps is a bad idea, but he sometimes makes exceptions for reasons only he knows. Whenever I hear about a dog that seems fine for a while and then randomly empties its entire bladder on the floor in front of its stunned owner, I know that is a dumb dog.

Dumb dogs are also slow to learn manners. Dogs that absolutely cannot learn to stop jumping on their people might be lacking in the emotional sensitivity department. Dogs that know not to jump on their family but absolutely cannot learn to not jump on new people without some sort of painful consequence are probably lacking in the generalization department, I would call them dumb.

There are different types of dog intelligence, to be sure, but I would argue that intelligence that involves understanding people is really the only type that matters. I love herding dogs because they seem to be metacognitive enough to have figured out that humans run the world. They are an exquisite combination of physical sensitivity, emotional sensitivity, and brilliant intelligence focused on working with people. Not only are they capable problem solvers, they tend to focus on solving problems like "what does my human want me to do".

The downside to working with canine geniuses is, of course, that they tend to spoil the fun of training lesser pupils. The reason Ru knows only a handful of commands is because I just don't find training him to be very fun because he doesn't immediately understand everything I say.

No comments:

Post a Comment