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Dog intelligence: How smart is your dog?

Smart dog plays with puzzle toy

Your dog is obviously the cutest, most well-behaved, smartest pup on the planet, right? For many pet parents, their dog is their pride and joy. But how can you tell if your dog really is a genius, if they are just normal-dog smart, or if they might be less than gifted? 

Table of contents 

What is dog intelligence? 

When it comes to dog intelligence, psychologist and dog behaviorist Dr. Stanley Coren classifies canine smarts into three major categories: instinctive, adaptive, and working and obedience. Your dog’s mental acuity is based on a variety of different factors, including their ability to learn and obey commands, solve problems, learn from others and their environment, understand humans, and more. 

Instinctive intelligence 

Just as the category name suggests, instinctive intelligence is inherited in dogs. Some behaviors come naturally to dogs depending on their breed and what they were traditionally bred to do. Herding dogs, for example, tend to be highly focused and attuned to their environment. Toy breeds, on the other hand, were selected for their social skills and were expected to be affectionate companion dogs. They easily and tightly bond with their humans and often lack predatory drive. So, while all dogs have natural instincts, they do not have the same instinctive intelligence. 

Adaptive intelligence 

According to psychologist Dr. Brian Hare, adaptive intelligence has allowed dogs to become the most successful mammals in history with regards to quality of life, population size, and distribution—apart from humans, of course. Dogs can learn through observation of their environment, learn to solve problems, and possess a social awareness that lets them understand expressions and gestures. Dr. Hare notes that even humans’ closest relatives, chimpanzees, cannot read social cues as well as dogs can.  

Adaptive intelligence helps our canine companions learn how to open doors and comfort us when we feel sad. Whether it’s solving puzzle toys, climbing fences, or manipulating their people for more treats, adaptive intelligence helps dogs learn how to get what they want.  

Working and obedience intelligence 

Whereas instinctive intelligence may be considered common sense and adaptive intelligence is street smarts, working and obedience intelligence can be thought of as book smarts. This involves a dog’s ability to comprehend words and commands, learn numbers, and train for high-level tasks like guide dog service. While learning tricks is one thing, professional dog trainer and behavior expert Robert Cabral notes that a really smart dog has a strong memory and will remember those commands over time, even if they have not been used in a while. 

Smart (and not-so-smart) dog breeds 

According to Dr. Coren, about 49% of a dog’s intelligence is based on environmental circumstances, while approximately 51% stems from their genes. It is important to note that all dogs are unique and doggy intelligence levels vary widely between individuals. However, there is evidence to suggest that some breeds may be smarter than others. 

Border Collies consistently rank very highly on lists of the world’s most intelligent dogs. Chaser, a dog who was trained to understand more than 1,000 words and was dubbed the “World’s Smartest Dog,” was a Border Collie! Other breeds commonly found in the top 10 include Poodles, German Shepherds, Rottweilers, and Labrador Retrievers. On the other hand, dogs often falling towards the bottom of intelligence lists include Bulldogs, Chow Chows, Mastiffs, Beagles, and Basset Hounds.  

How smart is your dog? 

Generally, measuring a dog’s intelligence comes down to quantity and speed. The faster your dog can learn a new trick and the more commands they master are basic indications that you have a smart pup on your hands. Here are some fun and easy games, based on Dr. Coren’s work, that you can play with your dog to get a better understanding of how smart they are: 

Towel test 

Place a towel or blanket over your dog’s head and see how long it takes for them to figure out how to free themself.  

Scoring: 3 – Under 15 seconds. 2 – 15-30 seconds. 1 – More than 30 seconds. 

Hidden treat test 

Place a treat on the floor and cover it with a towel or blanket. Time how long it takes your dog to retrieve the treat. 

Scoring: 3 – Under 15 seconds. 2 – 15-60 seconds. 1 – More than 60 seconds. 

Which cup? 

While your dog watches you, line up two or three cups and place a treat under one. Distract your dog for a few seconds before letting them hunt for the treat. 

Scoring: 3 – Straight to the correct cup. 2 – Checks one empty cup. 1 – Checks two empty cups. 

Under the couch 

Place a treat within your dog’s paw reach under a piece of furniture. Test your dog’s problem-solving skills, as they will only be able to reach the treat with their paw. 

Scoring: 3 – Under one minute with just a paw. 2 – Tries to fit their head under the couch or uses both their nose and paws. 1 – Gives up entirely. 

Beyond the barrier 

Show your dog that there is a treat on the other side of a barrier. The barrier should be relatively wide and tall enough to prohibit them from jumping over it. Your dog will need to go around the barrier—not through, under, or over it—to retrieve the treat. 

Scoring: 3 – 30 seconds or less. 2 – Over 30 seconds. 1 – Tries to climb or go through the barrier. 

Tally up

The higher the points, the sharper the pooch!  

Be careful what you wish for 

What if your dog is not the genius you thought they were? Pet parents seem to put a lot of value on having a smart dog who can do fancy tricks. Dog experts warn, however, that brightest is not always best. Dogs deemed highly intelligent can be challenging pets, and there are perks to not having an Einstein pup. 

Smart dogs can be trouble. They know what they want and can figure out how to get it. This can lead to professional escape artists, master manipulators, and savvy counter surfers with what many pet parents would consider behavior problems. While “dumb” dogs may have lower activity and engagement levels, they are much easier to live with as pets. Your pup does not have to be a genius to show you love and affection! 

How can ElleVet’s CBD + CBDA help stressed dogs? 

ElleVet Products

Some highly intelligent dogs are continuously alert and very attuned to their environment, making them prone to overstimulation and stress. ElleVet’s CBD + CBDA chews, soft gels, and oils can offer support for generalized stress by helping their stress levels decrease and return to a normal state of balance. CBD and CBDA truly calms without sedating, which is key to allowing dogs to handle stimulating, stressful situations.    

For dogs who experience situational stress, ElleVet’s Calm & Comfort chews act quickly to provide maximum support in particularly stressful situations like fireworks, being home alone, or vet visits. When given 1.5 hours ahead of a triggering event, these chews are extremely effective in addressing acute level of stress. With this, ElleVet’s CBD + CBDA can lead to improved overall well-being and a reduction of their stress response over time. 

Bottom line 

Dog owners tend to think that their pup is either brilliant or terribly dim. There are simple, fun ways to get a better understanding of what is going on in your dog’s head. Regardless of your dog’s intelligence level, the good news is that smarts have nothing to do with the loving relationship you have with each other and your pet’s overall happiness. In fact, having a smart dog comes with its own downsides. Embrace your dog’s strengths!