Posts Tagged ‘dog intelligence’

Willie and the squirrels

Willie and his squirrels.

Willie is a young Jack Russell from Fayetteville, North Carolina, who recently spent a weekend at my grandpa’s house in very rural West Virginia. Willie lives with my aunt and uncle, and he’s very smart. He is dead serious about retrieving things, which is more than I can say about Miley.

Like many of his breed, he is likes to chase small furry things.  At home, Willie and Madeleine, the other Jack Russell who lives at that household, can be launched with the mere mention of the word squirrel.  They take squirrel hunting very seriously. It is as if it is their main duty to keep the bushy-tailed rats off the lawn.

However, they are contained in a fenced yard, allowing the squirrels  an easy escape from the jaws of these small brown and white wolves. In all the years they have been chasing squirrels in North Carolina, they have caught only one squirrel.  (Of course, dogs have a hard time catching squirrels, whether they are fenced in or not.)

As I have mentioned earlier, West Virginia’s trees have not produced enough mast this year to feed the large numbers of squirrels, turkeys, and white-tailed deer.

My grandpa has taken pity upon the squirrels, in part because he actually wants to keep their numbers high for next year.  He hunts squirrels, and he knows that if they squirrels go into winter without a bounty of nuts from the fall, there will be fewer squirrels next year.

So he has set up a massive squirrel feeding operation. One of his feeders is on the deck in full view of his sliding glass door.  Here, the vast hordes of  fox squirrels and normal and melanistic grays fight over the corn in the feeder all day long. It is quite entertaining to watch.

And when Willie and Maddy were at his house a few weekends ago, they very much agreed. They would stand by the sliding glass door like wolves staring down a herd of caribou. Maddy would quiver all the way down to the tip of her docked tail, and Willie would stand like a pointer with one foot raised. When the sliding glass door was opened the first time, Maddy ran right off the deck after the squirrels, and Willy chased them out of the yard and across the old pasture into the woods.  This was Jack Russell heaven.

Getting to watch and chase so many squirrels really had an effect on Willie.

When they returned home, Willie went to his toy box and took out three of his stuffed toys.

Now, Willie has a collection of toys.  He has more stuffed toys than many children do. He had a wide selection to choose from.

So it was very interesting that Willie picked out the three stuffed squirrels that were in his box.

Willie was expressing himself with his toys. I don’t think it takes a genius to recognize this.

He was showing his people that he really liked watching and chasing those large numbers of squirrels all weekend.

And it is really quite remarkable. He was using objects that represented the animals that he saw. It is obvious that he knows those stuffed squirrels aren’t the same as the real ones, but he does know that they somehow represent the real ones.


Willie is not the only dog to use toys to represent things.

I saw this program on the National Geographic Channel a few years ago. This doberman had been abandoned and had trouble trusting people. He eventually came out of his shell, but what was really interesting is that he also used toys to express himself:


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dog rolling in manure

There is one thing that you’ll never read on this blog:

You’ll never read over-sentimentalized,  saccharine dog stories.

I don’t have any. I don’t have a book like this one in me at all.

I like dogs a lot.

But I’m not one of these people who thinks they are furry angels.

They are not.

They are good company. Sometimes they are better company than most people are.

But they are animals.

They driven by instincts and drives that are very different from us.

They live in a different world, but it is paradoxically, the same environment in which we live.

They bond to us, and we think they love us (which may be a clever way of getting us to feed them and pay for their health care).

I prefer to see dogs as they are, not idealized versions that more or less resemble characters in bad fiction.

I marvel that they revel in rolling in manure and will eat their own vomit.

I like the dog in all of its unwholesome glory.

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Spencer is a clever dog, but I’m sure there are plenty of dogs that are trying to tell us– “We want to do it like you do!”

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smart puppy

In the 1960’s, researchers at the University of California-Berkley developed a famous experiment to test how environment affects the ability of rats to navigate mazes. The purpose of the study was to see whether environmental experiences  early in life could actually affect brain development.

Their study was based on three groups of rats. One group was raised in isolation from the time of weaning.  They were kept in single cages, and the only attention they received was when they were fed and their water bottles were changed. They could not see another rat while in their cages and were kept in a back room where humans didn’t often go. A second group lived three to a cage in a room where they could see human activity regularly. They were not handled or petted. The final group lived in a huge colony consisting of a dozen rats that lived in a large cage with a ton of toys and interesting objects. These rats were also handled and petted.

Within a few weeks of growing up under these conditions, the rats in the final group had remarkable physiological changes. On average,their brains were  5 percent larger than the brains of the rats in the other groups. They were also 7 percent smaller in mass, because their frequent exercise caused them to be more fit and trim.

The rats in this stimulation group wound up clobbering the other groups in their ability to negotiate mazes.

However, it turned out that brain size wasn’t what made these rats so smart. It turns out that this early existence in a stimulating environment had caused their brains to develop more dendritic synapses per neuron than those without the early stimulation. More synapses leads to better problem solving ability as well as having a better learning ability overall.



What does this have to do with puppies?

Well, quite a bit.

I’ve read in more than one radical behaviorist dog training book that we should keep puppies in sterile environments in which we strictly control their experiences.

I think this is poppycock.

Behaviorism has some value. Don’t get me wrong. Behavioral analysis is a very good tool in social and behavioral sciences. But it does have limit

How dogs and other complex vertebrates learn is  much more than reinforcement and punishment. It is part of the puzzle, certainly.

But I think reliance upon these paradigms entirely leads to problems. Dogs are born with drives and instincts, some of which are breed and type specific. You might be able to force-fetch any cur off the street, but it won’t be a stylish working retriever.

You might teach a golden retriever to herd sheep, but it won’t be a border collie.  You could teach a border collie to point birds, but it won’t be a trial quality English pointer.

Now, those innate behaviors are ignored in radical behaviorism. In less radical behaviorism, these behaviors are said to be reinforced by a release of endorphins. I don’t disagree with this, but I think it leaves out another part.

Experience is more than reinforcement and punishment. It is about sensing.

That’s what happened to those rats. Their sensory systems experienced things, and their brains grew differently from the deprived groups.

So what does that mean for puppies?

Well, you need to make sure that your puppies come from lines that have been bred for the behaviors you want. No amont of reinforcement or punishment regimes can substitute for innate drives and instincts.

And secondly, puppies need to experience things. We do have the classical critical periods for socialization. Generally, puppies have between 12 and 16 weeks to experience things before they start to develop antipathy towards new things. However, socialization has to go on beyond that, because domestic dogs tend to be able to adapt to new experiences throughout their lives. (This is not the case with virtually all captive wolves.)

Puppies must see, smell, and hear as many things as possible in order to get their brains to develop all of these dendritic synapses that they need to become better learners and problem solvers.

Really, the best place to raise a puppy is on a farm. It can experience so many things that its brain really does get a chance to develop a bunch of synapses. It’s particularly good if the pups can run around off leash and experience these things on their own.

Of course, that is the exact opposite of the ideas one hears in some training circles. A sterile environment is supposedly good for the brain, because the puppies don’t learn to do bad things. Well, that may be true, but their brains are missing out on what their brains really need to become more intelligent animals.

Now, I’m a mostly positive reinforcement trainer. I’m always looking for ways to train dogs without causing them pain or discomfort.

However, I’d rather give them some discomfort and maybe let them experience some risk before I’d let them become nothing more than brainwashed creatures that have experienced only a few things.

I don’t think raising a dog in such away allows their brains to ever reach their full potential.

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Afghan Hound

I must confess that I find certain arguments among dog people rather boring. I don’t like the continuous bickering that exists between the different philosophies of dog training.  The fights that erupts among those who feed dog food, those who feed home-cooked meals, and those who feed raw (and the debates between the raw-feeding sects) is actually more humorous. After all, domestic dogs evolved to eat human fecal matter and cast-off bones. I don’t know how someone can get so worked up about it, but trust me, there are people who do.

However, one debate that I’ve always thought was interesting was the old “which breed is more intelligent” debate. What is interesting about it, though isn’t that there is a great objective way of answering the question (just as it is with human intelligence, which I will get to in a minute). I’ve never read a dog breed description that considers the dog in question to be stupid. Never. Nearly every dog breed description I’ve read mentions the word “intelligent”  to describe the breed’s characteristics.

Now, a lot of people think that dogs that do well in obedience trials and are generally easily trained and regimented are more intelligent. So golden retrievers, border collies, German shepherds, and pooldes are the most intelligent dogs, because those breeds are very easily trained and regimented. Conversely, those breeds that can’t be regimented easily are “stupid.” Afghan hounds are dumb, so goes the reasoning, as are bulldogs, chow chows,  and virtually every toy breed, scent hound, and sight hound.

However, I’ve always felt that this reasoning was terribly flawed.

If one is to peruse the infamous Stanley Coren Intelligence of Dogs list, you’ll notice something. Here are the top ten top “Obedience/Working Intelligence” breeds:

1. Border collie (herder)

2. Poodle (retriever)

3. German Shepherd (herder and police/army dog)

4. Golden retriever (retriever)

5. Dobermann Pinscher (derived from herding ancestors)

6. Shetland Sheepdog (herder)

7. Labrador retriever (retriever)

8. Papillon (toy spaniel/toy spitz)

9.  Rottweiler (herder)

10. Australian cattle dog (herder)

Now, Coren’s methodology required obedience trial judges and dog obedience trainers to pick their best and worst dogs at this type of intelligence. It’s very interesting– but it tells you nothing about the breed intelligence. It simply says which breeds trainers and judges  find respond to traditional motivations in dog training.

And note that all of these dogs, except the papillon, are herders or retrievers. Herding breeds and retrievers require a certain amount of regimentablity in their working behavior. After many generations of selective breeding, one can produce dogs that are truly genuises at regimentation.

Also, these breeds are very common. The Labrador retriever and German shepherd are well-known throughout the world, as are the golden retriever, poodle, and (lately) the border collie.  Their higher levels of popularity mean that the average obedience trainer or obedience trialer is going to know these dogs better.

But that’s not the only thing we have to look at. What are the “dumb” dogs on Coren’s list?

70. Shih Tzu (toy)

71. Basset hound (scent hound)

72.  Beagle (scent hound) and Mastiff (war dog, guard dog, companion)

73. Pekingese (toy)

74. Bloodhound (scent hound)

75. Borzoi (sight hound)

76.  Chow Chow (spitz, human food source)

77. bulldog (former catch dog, current companion dog)

78.  basenji (pariah dog, sight hound)

79.  Afghan hound (sight hound)

Of these breeds, only the bulldog, the Shih Tzu, and the chow chow have had periods of popularity in recent decades. The some of them have had periods of fad breeding– Afghan hounds in the 1960’s and 70’s, Borzois in the early years of the fancy, and bulldogs have had boom or bust periods of utter faddishness. Fad breeding for trendy pets is generally a selection away from working characteristics, so the dogs could have lost some of their trainability there.

But I think there is a better answer here. After all, a lot these top ten breeds are also top tens in registration statistics and are certainly experiencing fad breeding

Most of these dogs were not required to be regimented in their working temperament.

Afghan hounds and borzois were bred to catch and kill game independent of the hunter’s guns. Now that requires an intelligence that is very different from a golden retriever. A golden retriever retrieves already shot small game species with the assistance of the handler.

A retriever has to pay attention to its handler, while a working Afghan hound, which aren’t exactly common outside of Baluchistan, must pay attention to its own senses.

Let’s look at it another way.

We both think Einstein and Shakespeare are geniuses, right?

But Shakespeare probably wasn’t any good at mathematics, or at least, he wasn’t as good at it as Einstein was.

Einstein was a very good physicist, but I doubt that he could have ever strung together sentences the way Shakespeare did.

But they were both geniuses.

And yet they were different.

Genius as a human quality is not a size-fits-all trait. Different people can be geniuses at different things. IQ tests are interesting, but I don’t think they fully capture genius.

Dogs are the same way, but these traits are more accumulated in different strains, simply because selective breeding has accentuated them in the strains. If we were ever to go crazy with eugenics again, we might experience some of this in our species. However, I doubt that the extremes we see in dogs would ever develop in any “strain” of our species. (Of course, I think eugenics is a crazy idea, and it definitely shouldn’t be attempted again.)

A breed is only as smart as the task it was bred for. It’s when you start breeding for superficial characteristics alone and heavily inbreed your lines that you really start producing stupid dogs.

But superior working dogs are not smarter than other working dogs that have been bred for other tasks.

Intelligence in dogs as a question has little scientific merit, but asking the questions might does lead us to really understand what caused the very real differences in dog breeds. It’s very unfortunate that so many of these discussions don’t get to that point.

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Dogs have some inherited people reading skills that even habituated and socialized wolves never develop.

Dogs have some inherited people reading skills that even habituated and socialized wolves never develop.

The real important difference between wolves and dogs isn’t that nebulous term called intelligence. For my purposes, discussion about intelligence has relevance only when talking about my own species, and I am fully aware that talking about intelligence in humans is, well,  also nebulous. See Stephen Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man.

Until relatively recently, most ethologists talked about how much more intelligent wolves were than dogs. The famous experiment by Dr. Harry Frank of the University of Michigan used a malamute (which is inbred corruption of the original Artic sled dog), a malamute/wolf cross, and a pure wolf. The wolf learned to open the door by watching the researchers turning the knob. The wolf cross eventually also eventually opened it, and the dog never did.

We do know that wolves have proportionally larger brains than dogs, and that evidence coupled with the Frank experiment is supposed to tell us that wolves are far more intelligent than dogs.

I have had three golden retrievers that, when confronted with a door knob, also learned to open it. In fact, one golden learned it, and the other dog learned it solely from watching the other dog. My data flies in the face Dr. Frank’s research. Now, the only dogs I’ve had that figured out to open it are golden retrievers. So does that mean that golden retrievers are far more intelligent than Norwegian elkhounds?

No. And I wouldn’t make such a stupid argument. I remember one elkhound could open an unlatched gate using his muzzle. He was the only dog in the group to do that.

Wolves are capable of forming coordinated attacks on prey species. It is generally said that dogs are incapable of doing this. However, I don’t think that researchers have ever paid much attention to what happens when you release 50 foxhounds, and one of them decideds to chase a deer instead. The dogs suddenly become wolves. It just takes one dog to turn the how pack of fox chasers into deer-killers. They head off the deer and coordinate ambush attacks on the deer, and yes, they do bring them down. Feral packs of dogs that live where garbage is relatively scarce do form packs and hunt; however, almost no research is done on these dogs, simply because they don’t live long. In rural areas, free roaming packs of dogs are killed. In fact, they are a real hazard to society. In one of the local papers, I read a story about a pack of dogs, breed not given, that actually killed a full-sized donkey that was protecting her foal from them. Because these packs don’t last long in rural areas, they aren’t widely studied.

The truth is dogs and wolves are different, but those differences are a blend rather than a sharp cut off. There are wolfish dogs, and there are doggish wolves.

However, the most important difference between the two animals is this.

Dogs might have smaller brains than wolves. If wolves were computers, they have bigger hard drives. However, dogs have a program for reading people. It’s just like with a computer. If you want to use a word processor on a machine with high storage hard drive and there isn’t one installed, it doesn’t matter how much you work with it, you won’t be able to type anything on that machine.

We have circus lions and tigers. They responde relatively well to associative learning. We don’t have circus wolves.

And that’s because wolves have a very hard time learning from us. It may have something to do with the centuries of persecution from our species. I don’t know.

Dogs, however, have a very easy time learning behaviors from us. They are not only neotenized. They are also humanized.

And that’s the important difference.

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Breeding the smooth collie as a show dog has made it significantly dumber than the working collie from which it descends.

Breeding the smooth collie as a show dog has made it significantly dumber than the working collie from which it descends.

A report just came out of Stockholm University. The author, Kenth Svartberg, writes that a study of purebred dogs finds that dogs specifically bred for the show have significantly reduced working ability when compared to dogs that have been bred for working ability.

The Telegraph, of course, uses the words “intelligence” and “stupidity.” I’ll use them only with this caveat: we don’t understand intelligence in our own species, so how do we think we can divine the intelligence of an animal? This is a nebulous term, which explains why most ethologists and psychologists avoid using the term. The authors merely are looking at sociability and curiosity as traits to determine intelligence.

However, the Swedish researchers explored 13,000 dog in 31 breeds, dividing them into those that were bred for appearance and those that had been bred for function (at least to a certain extent.) They were comparing the breeds based upon curiosity and sociability, which are all important traits for any working dog.

Those dogs that were bred for the show had much lower levels of curiosity and sociability. Both of these traits are associated with our projection of canine intelligence.

The author of the study thinks that there might be a genetic linkage between breeding for the show and higher levels of fear and introversion.  That sounds interesting. It has to be a bit more complex than that, though, because there are lots of genes that make a dog “pretty.” And what makes one breed pretty is pretty unique to that dog.

The two breeds with the lowest levels of sociability and curiosity are the Rhodesian Ridgeback and the Smooth collie, which is a separate breed in the UK and the FCI countries.

I don’t know how one would compare these dogs to their working forms, because I don’t know if anyone hunts lions with ridgebacks. I’ve never seen a show smooth collie herd anything, and if it did, I’m sure it wouldn’t be as useful as a BC or an English or Australian shepherd.

The comparison study I’d like to see is a comparison of field line goldens versus the European show lines. I’m sure there will be vast differences between the two. My experience tells me that the two might as well be regarded as separate breeds.


Psychology Today’s blog has some issues with the sensationalized story that appeared in The Telegraph.

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