I have spoken with many dog-owners who believe their dog is not very intelligent. "Aaron, I don't think this dog can be trained," they say. The reasoning given for such a confession is that the dog won't follow commands and seems unable to retain information. But is this really evidence of a "dumb dog", or does it really mean that the dog is highly intelligent?
Often times what looks to be lack of intelligence in dogs is actually lack of willingness.
Dogs are highly intuitive creatures. As such, they understand situational context and are able to innovate solutions to a myriad of problems. Moreover, they are choice-making creatures that make decisions based on statistical analysis of situations. Many times when dogs fail to follow our direction it is because they have done a statistical analysis of our consistency, follow-through, and have calculated the odds of receiving punishment or reward for their behavior.
A dog may be well-trained, and may store copious amounts of information in their memory bank, but this does not a guarantee they will make good choices. In other words, a perfectly well-trained dog will often make poor choices on purpose -- not because they are dumb, but because they are intelligent. As such, choice-making is not necessarily a training problem, it is a dog parenting challenge.
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This assertion is supported in Nymag's "Science of Us" piece featuring an interview with Clive Wynne, head of Arizona State University’s Canine Science Collaboratory:
"...the popular focus on canine intelligence tends to ignore social intelligence, one of the things that keeps us bonded to our pets in the first place...”
Stubborn dogs tend to be more capable of innovation. When posed with a challenge, they invent a startling number of manipulations and ruses that easily outmaneuver our relatively slow human brain.
The outer shell of their actionable behavior tells one story, while underneath the surface a different cognitive story is revealed, like opposing tides at different depths in the ocean.
So, if you ever feel like your dog is dumb, chances are you have a genius on your hands. If so, you will need to study up dog intelligence and learn how to use consequences -- good and bad -- to shape their choice-making, just like children. Doing so will add a tremendous amount of clarity and harmony to your relationship.
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Aaron McDonald is a canine cognitive behaviorist, cognitive theorist, and author. He can be reached at www.ThreeDimensionalDog.com or at Aaron@ThreeDimensionalDog.com