Brain Games: How Dogs Think

Most tests meant to rate the intelligence of dogs are interpreted as if all dogs were the same.  Beagle, Shiba Inu, Golden Retriever, Border Collie, Maltese, one test fits all, without considering that dogs are the most diverse of all species. Of course, if you have lived with a variety of breeds, cross breeds, or mixed breeds, you already know that not only are Beagles, say, different from Labs, you may even know that not all Beagles or Labs are alike.

Long, long ago, when dogs joined forces with the human race, each thought of ways to exploit the other.  The dog, with a superior sense of smell, could help find prey animals to sustain both species. Humans made piles of leftovers, leftovers the dogs regarded as dinner. Dogs could warn of intruders. Sharing space and chores helped both species to survive. Had those humans created an intelligence test, one size would have fit all.

But then human lives began to change and when this happened, some clever humans thought of ways to change dogs to fit each new circumstance. Soon there were dogs who could keep a flock together, dogs who could retrieve ducks from ice-cold water, dogs who could find lost children, detect drugs, carry messages in wartime, dispatch rodents, pull wagons, work on ships, guide people who couldn’t see, alert people who couldn’t hear, or guard businesses when people weren’t there to do it themselves or back them up when they were. There were circus dogs, dancing dogs, dogs acting in movies and plays. Clearly, they weren’t all the same.

History Tells All

With all of these differences, to understand how your dog thinks, you need to know your dog, not just what he likes to eat and what his favorite games are but also the work he was bred to do. You can find that out by reading the breed standard and books about the breed.

If your dog is a mixed breed, work backward. Observe what your dog excels at and make an educated guess at what breeds might be in there.

Whatever the case, you can take some fun steps to test your dog’s “pet intelligence”; for instance, how fast he might learn manners and cues for his safety and your sanity and what kind of games and activities he excels at. You can use what you discover about his inborn talents to become a smarter owner.

The Learning Game

This isn’t the kind of test your dog takes all at once. Each step is a learning opportunity and each one can take days or weeks to achieve. Your goal is to have fun with your dog as well as to learn how he learns. Keep a record so you can see patterns develop.

  1. Ask your dog to sit. You can lure him into position with a favorite toy or a bit of food.
  2. Once your dog knows sit means sit, teach a hand signal. Hold your hand palm up and curl your fingers then say, “Sit” (new cue followed by a known cue).
  3. When your dog knows the verbal cue and hand signal, teach him to sit when you whistle. You don’t need a whistle. Just put your lips together and blow!
  4. Next, teach your dog to sit by saying sit in French, Italian, or Swahili. (Google it!)
  5. If your dog is learning the changes quickly, see if you can teach him to sit by changing your breathing pattern. You can sniff or puff out air as if you were trying to fog a mirror. (Changes in breathing pattern are also a great way to praise your dog. A sigh of relief means “Good dog! I’m happy!”)
  6. Does your dog have a favorite game such as retrieving a ball or toy? As above, start simply and then slowly change the rules. Whistle a short tune that means “fetch.” Or use a hand signal. Do not proceed until your dog gets the most recent change.
  7. Walk around the house encouraging your dog to follow you. Does he stay with you? Does he find a toy and stop to play? Does he quit?
  8. Hide behind a door and whistle for your dog. How long does it take for him to find you? Does he get faster when you find a new hiding place and try the game again?
  9. If your dog has a word for retrieving, roll a ball across the room and say, “Fetch the ball.” You can move the ball to the next room and try this again. If he’s good at it, add a second toy and tell him “Fetch the ball. Good dog.  Fetch the Fox.” How long does it take him to learn the names of his toys?
  10. Take something with you that you can drop without making noise, such as a glove or washcloth. Ask your dog to walk with you and at some point, drop the object. Continue walking and then tell your dog, “Find it.” How quickly does he catch on and retrieve the object?

What You’ve Learned

You might see how quickly your dog is able to learn basic cues that make living with him safer and easier and that will encourage you to train him. You might see examples of his sense of humor, which means you will notice more easily when he cracks a joke. You might see excitement in learning something new or you might see boredom.

If your dog reacts differently than you expect he will, not as fast, not interested, even confused, it does not mean he’s less intelligent. It means he has a different mindset. Remember that all dogs are smart at something, but different types of dogs have a different world view. Some dogs pay attention to their human partner while others pay more attention to scent or their environment. Some dogs love repetition and others find it beneath them. Some dogs would rather crack a joke than get it right. Seriously! Some dogs pick up everything quickly but get bored easily. Assessing how your dog learns can help you know your dog better, see where his intelligence lies, and help him be a smarter, more fun companion by capitalizing on his talents and strengths.

Educating Yourself

The game will also make you a more informed partner for your dog. And you can use it to help make your smart dog even smarter. Name things. At dinnertime, “Here’s your dish.” When playing, name whatever you are playing with at the moment. When you are out for a walk, say “Turn right” or “Turn left” at the corner.  Or “Go straight.”

Always give your dog the opportunity to learn. Always praise with words, pats, treats, or a game.  Keep teaching for all his life. Emphasize his special talents. Find out what he does most easily and best and use that information to grow his intelligence. He’ll be a more responsive and more fun friend if you do. You might even come to think your dog is the smartest in the world and he, of course, will think of you as the perfect partner. And you’ll both be right.

This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.