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How intelligent are dogs?

It’s always been interesting at Holbrook watching the dogs and their noting the difference in both personality and intelligence. Some dogs learn quickly, for example, working out that if they sit and raise their paw (looking very cute) they will inevitably be rewarded with a treat or that by leaning on a handle the door will open.

There’s been a lot of research on dogs intelligence in recent years. One of the most mind boggling achievements is that of a retired professor in America. John Pilley worked with his dog Chaser, a border collie, over several years and trained the dog to recognise the names of more than 1000 toys. To be able to do that Chaser had to associate the word with the toy and be able to distinguish between different toys. John has written a book about the experience called ‘Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words’.

Does breed make a difference? Historically dogs are bred for different reasons; a retriever will retrieve and a terrier will hunt. Their predisposition for certain tasks mean that they may be better in related tests but there now seems to be evidence that there is a general IQ factor.

It is well known that dogs have intelligence similar to a 2 year old human child but what evidence is there and can you really test a dogs IQ? Well yes, it seems there have been a number of studies which have done just that. In 2016 Rosalind Arden and Mark Adams created a series of tests for dogs. These included puzzles, navigation, food quantity and gaze following. Interestingly dogs who performed well on one test usually did well on the others too. This supported the idea that, as with humans, there seems to be an overall factor which indicates a certain level of intelligence and can be applied to dogs.

It seems that dogs may also have emotional intelligence. Testing has become sophisticated and research is now being carried out using a functional MRI machine. This measures blood flow in the brain and how it changes in different situations which in turn can be used to measure brain activity. One study found that dogs can tell the difference between happy and sad faces. Laura Veronica Cuaya at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City trained dogs to sit in an MRI machine and showed them pictures of different facial expressions. By examining the brain activity the researchers were able to tell which expression the dog had been looking at.

So how can you teach your dog to recognise it’s toys and why would you? Dogs are intelligent creatures and need mental stimulation to ensure they don’t get bored and unhappy. Teaching your dog the names of 1000 toys may be a bit of a challenge but there are plenty of ways to provide stimulation. Like us, not all dogs like the same things so find out what your dog enjoys. Here are a few suggestions:-

  • A wide variety of toys

  • A kong stuffed with treats or goodies such as pieces of slices of sausage or peanut butter. The dog has to work to get to the reward inside and chewing releases feel-good hormones

  • Hide and seek

  • Teaching new tricks.

  • Agility classes

  • Regular walks to new places


Arden and Adams, 2016 R. A general intelligence factor in dogs Intelligence, 55 (2016), pp. 79-85

RaúlHernández-Pérez1,LuisConcha1,LauraV.Cuaya1 2018 Decoding Human Emotional Faces in the Dog’s Brain

Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows 1000 Words by Dr. John W. Pilley (3-Nov-2014) Paperback

ISPC Diploma Course Textbook Edition 8

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