e all like to think that our dog is smarter than other dogs, but how much does the breed relate to the intelligence of a dog?
There's no denying that dogs are a highly intelligent species, and one of the most successful in evolutionary terms. Studies have shown that dogs even surpass apes at interpreting our gaze and gestures. They amaze us daily with feats of human-like perception and skills.
All dogs can follow social cues, but some are extraordinarily good at it. Other dogs are better at making deductions and guessing what we want by understanding human gestures. Guide dogs can make decisions autonomously for the safety of a blind person, such as when to cross the street or when to stop if there is an obstacle. Therapy dogs can alert when someone is in danger.
Your dog may be exceptionally smart, but you may be surprised to know that his intelligence has very little to do with his breed.
Most people think that Border Collies, German Shepherds, Retrievers, and Poodles are among the smartest dogs, and there are plenty of articles online listing the most intelligent dog breeds. But despite what appears to be common knowledge, these opinions on breed stereotypes are mostly inaccurate and unscientific.
When it comes to cognition, there is almost no research on breed differences, mainly because there are so many breeds and little agreement on what a breed is.
What is a breed?
Usually, the first thing you know about your dog is the breed. That is until DNA analysis proves you wrong.
In a study, workers from dog rescue centers were asked to identify the dominant breed in several dogs. Blood samples from the dogs were then sent off for DNA analysis. Two-thirds of the time, the staff failed to identify the predominant breed.
Many of the breeds we recognize today originated less than 150 years ago. According to their own figures, the American Kennel Club (AKC) currently recognizes 195 dog breeds, the Kennel Club recognizes 218 breeds, and the Fédération Cynologique Internationale (FCI) currently recognizes 344 breeds, and these numbers change all the time.
Genetic origins of modern dogs
Since the discovery of the dog genome in 2003, scientists were able to confirm that dogs descended from gray wolves. Based on genetics, there are only 2 major groups of breeds.
Ancient breeds and European breeds
The first group consists of 9 breeds that share more genes in common with wolves than other breeds. These ancient breeds are from multiple geographic regions. In that wolf-like group, you find the Middle Eastern Afghan Hound and the Saluki, the Basenji from Africa, and Asian breeds such as the Akita, the Chow Chow, the Shar Pei, and the Australian Dingo. Two Arctic breeds, the Siberian Husky, and Alaskan Malamute, are the only breeds that show evidence of recent interbreeding with wolves.
The second group consists of the majority of modern breeds, which are lumped together into one group known as dogs of "European origin". While these dogs look very different from one another, very few genetic changes are responsible for these differences.
Physically, dogs vary more than any other living species, so you might think that a Yorkshire Terrier and a Greyhound would have different genetic profiles, but only a small number of genes are responsible for this extraordinary physical variation.
Modern breeds are based on appearance criteria
Today's breeds are defined by a dog's appearance rather than his behavior. But it wasn’t always the case. The first kennel club was set up in England in 1873 to establish the identity and descent of pedigree dogs. Before that, dogs were divided into breeds based on function.
In England in the 18th century, a dog with a temperament for launching itself at an enraged bull was called a Bulldog. Descendants from the ancient Mastiff, Bulldogs were originally bred to help control livestock. Because of their fearless temperament, they became engaged in the barbaric sport of bull-baiting. Dogs used for bull-baiting developed the stocky bodies and massive heads and jaws that typify the breed, and selection for these traits has shaped the Bulldog into the breed we know today. Bull-baiting was made illegal in England in 1835.
Because breeding is not based on behaviors, it is hard to predict which breed will have higher cognitive skills.
Today, a Retriever who does not retrieve but looks like a Retriever is still classified as one. A Sheepdog who does not herd sheep is still labeled a Sheepdog.
What defines dog intelligence?
Intelligence is best defined by a set of cognitive abilities. Cognition is the mental process involved in perception, learning, forming memory, and understanding things. Cognitive skills are also acquired by learning and experience and are the result of how a dog is reared and trained.
When we look at a dog’s intelligence, we tend to judge dogs by their ability to communicate with us, and by their trainability. But that is an incomplete way to assess a dog's intelligence. Basenjis or Huskies are hard to train, but their natural cognitive abilities are not inferior to that of a Border Collie or a Labrador Retriever.
Are dogs smarter than wolves?
In some ways, wolves are smarter, in other ways dogs have the upper hand.
With domestication, dogs have lost certain abilities such as spatial orientation, navigation, or hunting skills. But in learning to collaborate with humans, domesticated dogs have also gained new skills for interpreting human gestures and deducting our intent. Studies have shown that wolves lack these skills, even when reared in captivity and in close contact with humans.
The most important cognitive skills that today's dogs demonstrate are the result of their collaboration with humans over 12,000 years or more.
Intelligence serves as an evolutionary advantage to reproduce successfully. While many animal species have become extinct, dogs are one of the most successful mammal species on the planet thanks to their ability to collaborate and communicate with humans.
Are working breeds smarter?
Few scientific studies evaluating breed variations in intelligence have reported any differences. One of these studies from Duke University shows that working dog breeds perform better at reading human gestures.
Studies of working dogs have shown that some breeds have developed specific cognitive skills as a result of years of selective breeding for a job purpose.
Retrievers may be better at interacting with a human partner and following his gaze to find where prey has fallen for them to retrieve. Shepherds may be less reliant on humans, as their job requires more independence. Herding dogs such as the Border Collie have developed acute auditory and visual skills to interact with humans from a distance and understand the next move they need to make. Bloodhounds are gifted with unique skills for tracking odors over long distances, and the docile temperament and learning skills of the Labrador Retriever make him one the best candidate for being a guide dog.
The problem with these studies on working breeds and cognition is that ideal comparison should be between groups of dogs who have been reared and tested in a similar way. Currently, existing breed comparisons cannot rule out differences in rearing experiences that can explain the results.
Can intelligence be tested based on breed types?
There are two main reasons why so few scientific studies have been done on dog cognition based on breed types.
First is that there is too much variation within each breed, with differences in how dogs were raised and trained.
Second, to understand genetic breed differences in behavior you would need to compare at least 30 dogs from each breed. They would have to be puppies raised and tested in a similar manner to control for the effect of rearing history and age on performance. You would need several thousand puppies, years of research work, several hundred graduate students, and millions of dollars in budget. It is no wonder it hasn't been done.
How do we test working dogs?
Working dogs such as guide dogs and police dogs are tested at the selection stage, starting from 8-10 week old puppies to 9-14-month-old dogs. For example, a police dog is tested at 9 months for temperament, drive (prey, defense, social), motivation, and cognitive skills. There can be significant differences between dogs of the same breed or bloodline.
The center in North Carolina where I worked as a police dog trainer selected and tested an average of 120 dogs every year. These young dogs were always from working bloodlines of German, Belgian or Slovakian shepherds, originating from one or two European breeders.
Despite the genetic homogeneity of these dogs, early testing showed huge differences in temperament and drive between individuals. The dogs were selected either for defense (police patrol dogs), search-and-rescue, or odor detection (narcotics, explosives) based on what was observed in the early tests. The evolution of their learning skills after a 3-month training period showed that their intelligence had adapted and evolved significantly. After their training, they seemed to have become totally different dogs.
Guide dog are tested as early as 8-10 weeks for temperament, motivation and basic cognitive abilities. The dogs that are selected for training are tested again at 14 months for the final 6 month training program, Despite the fact that these dogs are bred in-house from bloodlines of Labrador/Golden Retriever crosses (their parents and grandparents were guide dogs), 60% of puppies are rejected from the program because they do not match the profile required.
Guide dogs and police dogs are a perfect example that there is no such thing as breed homogeneity when it comes to temperament and cognitive abilities.
When it came to differences between breed, canine behaviorist researchers found that there was so much variation within each breed that there were no real differences among the breeds.
Scientific evidence shows that intelligence traits are not breed-specific. Within each breed, significant individual differences in cognitive skills can be found between dogs.
A Labrador Retriever working as a guide dog is not smarter than a Border Collie. A search-and-rescue Hound is not smarter than a Belgian Malinois trained for narcotic detection, or even a Poodle or a Jack Russell Terrier. They all have different forms of intelligence, natural abilities and skills that have evolved with years of selective breeding, and are shaped by training.
When adopting a dog or a puppy, temperament and drives are more important to take into account than breed types, as these characteristics tend to better predict the compatibility with humans.