How smart is your dog?

When Sandra James decided to teach her 12-year-old Fox Terrier cross to lift her paw before getting a treat, her husband, Tommy, thought it was a futile exercise. Sandra persisted with a short training session every day and finally, after three weeks, Candy lifted her paw and waited proudly for her treat.

Sandra did not let the adage ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks’ hold her back. She believed her dog, despite her age, had the ability to learn. The training sessions were positive and fun, and Sandra and Candy bonded even more through the process.

Intelligence in dogs

Humans like to measure intelligence. We can compile an Intelligence Quotient (IQ) test, and based on the results, determine how ‘smart’ a child (or adult) is. The human IQ test measures a person’s ability to reason, use information and prediction outcomes. Long- and short-term memory are also tested. With animals, things get a little more complicated.

In 1994, Dr Stanley Coren, a neuropsychological researcher, designed a test for dog intelligence and published the results in a book, The Intelligence of Dogs. He rated various breeds according to performance ranked by obedience trial judges. The smartest dogs were those who could understand a new command in less than five repetitions and obey a first command 95% of the time. The Border Collie topped the list, followed by the Poodle and German Shepherd Dog. These rankings were somewhat controversial at the time, with many Afghan owners dismayed that ‘their’ breed scored lowest on the list of 138 dogs.

How quickly your dog learns a new command is just one facet of his intelligence. In the book, Dr Cohen describes three aspects of dog intelligence. Working and obedience intelligence refers to how well a dog can learn from humans, and the breeds on the intelligence list were ranked on this aspect only. Dogs also have an instinctive intelligence, which can be very individual, and an adaptive intelligence, which refers to a dog’s ability to learn and problem-solve. This aspect of intelligence can be tested when a dog is asked to perform certain tasks. For example, finding hidden treats or watching how your dog reacts when a towel is placed over his head.

Defining intelligence

Dr Elize van Vollenhoven, a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Veterinary Science at the University of Pretoria, says the scientific term for dog intelligence is ‘dog cognition’. “Assessing cognition is difficult, as there is no single test available,” explains Dr van Vollenhoven. “Complicating the issue further, is that there are various facets to cognition, like social cognition, emotional intelligence, perception, memory and others.”

Mignon du Preez, a qualified and certified dog behaviourist and committee member of Animal Behaviour Consultants of Southern Africa, says that the innate abilities of dogs, based on a common trait found in a particular breed, refer to instinctive intelligence.

“Instinctive intelligence does not necessarily imply that a specific breed or individual dog learns more quickly,” says Mignon. “Breeds that were developed to work and solve problems independently may sometimes hesitate to follow instructions precisely. Likewise, breeds that were developed to work together with their human handlers could take a bit longer to solve a problem on their own. Some breeds need our guidance consistently to do their work and others can do a job quite well without our input. There are always variables within a specific breed that can occur anywhere on the continuum of what we deem ‘normal’ or instinctive for that breed.”

Dr van Vollenhoven says that all dogs, except perhaps those with brain damage, are trainable. There is a myriad of factors that influence training in a dog, to what level or extent the dog can be trained, and how quickly or slowly he learns something new. These include genetics, the emotional state of the dog and the training methods selected. “Fearful or anxious dogs are difficult to train as their ‘feelings brain’, the limbic system, suppresses the ‘thinking brain’ or neocortex,” explains Dr van Vollenhoven. “A confident, well-socialised dog is less likely to become anxious or fearful. Socialisation is important in young dogs, from a few months old, to expose the dog to different non-threatening situations, like unfamiliar people, new sounds and riding in a vehicle, among many others.”

Teaching and learning

So, if dogs are able to learn, why and how should we teach them? The learning ability of dogs, and the close bonds they forge with humans, enables them to help us in our work. From police dogs helping to track and apprehend criminals, to guide dogs, who assist the blind.

Training your pet dog will ensure that you have a well-rounded family member with good manners. It provides a way for you to bond with your dog, spend time with him and channel his energy in a positive way.

There are several training methods a dog owner could utilise. Veterinarians, reputable behaviourists and trainers advocate positive reinforcement training, where positive behaviour is rewarded with praise, treats or a special toy, and unwanted behaviour is ignored.

The activities or tricks you teach your dog, or the sport you want to get involved in, must suit both you and your dog. Filip Van Roey, a flyball trainer at Cape Handlers Dog Club with 11 years’ experience in the sport, says that, although any dog can be taught to do flyball, some breeds have a physical impairment, which prevents them from taking part.

“I won’t teach a Dachshund or a Corgi flyball, as their body is too long and the continuous jumping can be a risk factor for injury,” says Filip. “For those dogs we do train, training structures are tailored according to the needs of the individual dog, always taking care to prevent injury.”

Be consistent when training your dog. Provide an environment that is conducive to learning. The absence of any elements noted above under ‘Essential elements for learning’ can hinder a dog’s ability to learn. “Dogs are very sensitive creatures,” says Mignon. “Any aversive, whether it is a harsh word, shouting, or physical punishment of any kind, leads to a breakdown in the trust relationship between owner and dog. This may result in the dog making all the wrong associations with regard to other stimuli in his environment, and can very likely lead to an anxious dog and, in general, open up a Pandora’s box of anxiety-related behavioural problems.”

Just as human intelligence differs from person to person, a dog’s intelligence is so much more than what he can or cannot do. His ability to learn makes him exceptional. Why not start today and teach your dog something new? It may take a few days, or weeks, or even a few months, for him to get hang the of it, but don’t give up. It isn’t about how quickly he can learn something new. It’s about teaching and learning together, and strengthening your bond with your dog – a journey well worth undertaking.

Essential elements for learning

* Have a good understanding of how dogs learn, and know your own dog’s capabilities and genetic predisposition to be able to learn something specific.

* Have realistic expectations that set your dog up for success. On average, we as humans spend 12 years at school before we move on to more advanced and specific learning. Don’t expect a dog to learn and master everything in a six-week training course.

* Provide a safe environment that helps your dog relax. This encourages learning. For example, a nervous dog will learn something new much more easily at home, than in the park.

* Consider positive reinforcement and the reward value for your dog. At home, your dog may be happy to accept kibble as a reward to repeat a behaviour but, in the park, where there are lots of distractions, a higher value reward should be considered, such as liver bread.

* Don’t be in a hurry. It takes repetition and consistency.

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