Does Your Dog’s Breed Make Them Smarter Than Other Dogs?

I have to confess that I have always thought of my dog, Tommy, as … well, not the very brightest bulb in the box.

This has no effect whatever on how adorable I consider him to be, nor on my resulting level of adoration for him. But it’s true, my training idea when he needed weight-bearing rehab on a broken leg at the same time I was recovering from a hip injury and couldn’t walk him very far didn’t proceed at lightning speed. He was not super quick to pick up on the solution behavior I came up with, sending him walking down to the end of a hallway, touching a traffic cone and coming back for a treat over and over.

My other dog, Annie, had long since learned this, and she occasionally appeared to demonstrate it to him, with a clear thought-bubble over her head reading, “oh for God’s sake, it’s just targeting. Do THIS.

This winter we’re looking for ways to avoid cabin-fever boredom in a place where it’s just too cold and icy for either of us to take walks of much duration. So I thought I’d teach Tommy to do some nose work—the trainerly name for finding stuff by scenting it out. He’d never seemed very keen to sniff out stuff, but we really needed something to do, so I thought we’d try.

We’ve been playing around with this for only about 3 weeks now, and Tommy has figured out, at pretty much doggy warp-speed learning, how to find the box with the little piece of cheese in it from among 8 to 12 empty ones scattered around a 1200-square-foot space.

He can do it when the baited box is partially hidden, and no matter how much I change around the configuration of boxes, and even when I put the goodie somewhere outside of a box. And he’s figured out that this terrific game is only afoot when I say the “find it,” cue. He ignores the boxes otherwise.

We’ll have to switch to non-food scents pretty soon just to make sure there’s some challenge. And this from a dog who’s never shown all that keen an interest in investigating scents. Maybe he’s a bit cleverer than I thought?

Meanwhile, reports from a study from Finland about various doggy cognition (thinking to you and me) abilities have been popping up in the popular press. The folks who write stories about dog science for the popular media know perfectly well that we all take vicarious pride in saying—or at least thinking if we’re trying to be polite—“my dog’s smarter than your dog, na na na na naaa na.”

So when these Finnish researchers reported different levels of performance between dogs of various breeds on abilities that are characterized as social cognition, problem‑solving, and inhibitory control, it spawned lots of stories.

Ones with titles like, “Is the Labrador Retriever the dumbest dog?” Or, “which is the smartest dog breed? It’s not what you think.” This last is a reference to the finding that Malinois did better on some of the tests than Border Collies did, the latter having come up on top in a very old poll that asked which breeds obedience judges thought were the smartest
Why obedience judges would be experts on this question is anybody’s guess, but that’s a story for another time. The researchers, of course, never claimed that they had established a “smartest breed” among any of those they had tested. In fact, on the tests they used that they believed could measure “logical reasoning” and “memory,” the functions that we would ordinarily associate with what we think of as intelligence (never mind that this is a pretty tricky concept to define, even among humans), they found no breed differences at all. But the test battery they used had been regrettably named “smartDOG,” by the person who compiled it, who is also one of the authors of the paper. It’s a compilation of tests that have been used over the last couple of decades to determine whether dogs as a species are able to do certain kinds of thinking and social interactions that psychologists tend to think of as pretty sophisticated.
For example, can dogs look in the direction a human points their finger toward to find a treat? Can they figure out they have to move away from food by going around a barrier to get to it, even though they can see and smell it right there. The answer, by the way, when you ask these kinds of questions in these ways about dogs is, generally, yes. This has led to huge changes in scientists’ ideas about dogs’ thinking abilities and emotions over the last 2 or 3 decades. This gets much trickier, though, when you try to divide dogs into groups and figure out which ones are best at what. Nevertheless, the clickbait production line went into action.
Remember what I said about Tommy not having spent much energy in the past using his nose to find things? Annie was the one with her nose to the ground all the time following this or that, with Tommy sort of following along without seeming very interested.
That is, until the day, on one of our usual walks, Annie suddenly had a seizure. The vet thought she had recovered, but she died later that day.

The next day, Tommy’s nose was glued to the ground at the spot where Annie’s episode had occurred, and he kept it there following where we had walked from there on that last day.

He did this every day for weeks, until (I assume) there had been enough rain to degrade the scent to the point where he couldn’t detect it. Or maybe until he gave up and decided he wasn’t going to find her at the end of that rainbow.

If I had concluded, prior to this, that his lack of scenting behavior was due to any lack of aptitude, I would have been, well, dead wrong.

He just needed a good enough reason to spend brain power and energy on this task.

Searching for Annie was clearly a good enough reason. Turns out even getting a break in a boring winter day is too.

Which brings us back to why our Finnish researchers were probably wise to keep their claims about the significance of differences they found modest. Although very likely not modest enough, since they only acknowledged one of the major limitations.
They realized, and stated in the paper, that they had no way of knowing the extent to which previous learning and experience might have influenced the very small differences they found between breeds on performance on some, though by no means all, of the tests they used.

They referenced anecdotal reports they had from the participating owners that many, if not most, of the dogs tested had been trained in various sports and working dog tasks. These included herding trials, gun dog trials, nose work, police work–which usually includes tracking and what’s called “bite work”–agility and so on.
Apparently assuming that training is training, they inferred that the dogs’ histories of learning from humans should be roughly analogous. Nothing could be further from the truth. The training for these various kinds of competition and work vary enormously in the behaviors that are reinforced and therefore rendered more likely to be expressed.

A dog, like any other successful organism, is more likely to try to solve a problem with strategies that have worked for them in the past. So a dog who’s learned he can get food by following his nose is much more likely to search by scent for a goodie under one of several cups than to try the one a person is pointing to at first.

He has, in fact, probably learned during his training not to pay attention to the “hides” his handler has messed with before sending him, as this is a common training-proofing tactic. Much of training is about learning what to pay attention to and what to ignore, and this is different according to the task.

Even more important, though, is what I think of now as the “Tommy question,” which is the why question.

Do we really imagine that every dog is likely to be exactly as strongly motivated at a given moment to work hard to find a treat as every other dog? How can we possibly assume that one dog’s response of taking a little longer than the next one is more a matter of having trouble figuring out the solution than simply of: “Ya’ know, I’m just not that into that right now?”