Dogs are very intelligent animals and often clever enough to do some amazing things. Dog behaviourist Victoria Stilwell took part in a TV show ‘Dogs Might Fly’ recently where she helped train a dog to fly a plane. The show basically took three rescue dogs and trained them up. One Staffie-border collie cross called Shadow did so well, he could understand instructions to the extent he actually flew in a figure of eight, appearing to control the plane by hitting specific buttons with his paws on certain commands.
As well as their capacity for learning and understanding instructions, some dogs have been shown to understand between 165 and 250 words and gestures, count up to five, with some even capable of empathising with us, though different dog breeds often display very different levels of intelligence.
Canine intelligence has been studied at greater length than with cats, as dogs are easier subjects because they’re often much more trainable. That’s why it’s quite hard to answer the question as to which is more intelligent when it comes to the old dogs versus cats argument. Cats just won’t do what they’re told – so you could perhaps argue that the greater display of feline independence is akin to greater intelligence as they choose not to be told what to do.
Regarding diversity of dog breed intelligence, the most intelligent are often thought to be border collies, followed by poodles, then German shepherds, although I’m sure owners of these breeds and others would be keen to contest that particular podium. In fact, some experts think some dogs may be smarter than the average toddler.
Border collies are unbelievably clever and it’s thought the most intelligent dog in the world is called Chaser who can understand more than 1,000 words for different objects.
That's why border collies can suffer behavioural issues if they’re left alone unstimulated physically or mentally for extended periods of time, because their brains just constantly need to work. In fact it seems most working breeds, including huskies, collies, anything outdoorsy would rather work than laze around doing nothing.
So if you’re considering getting a certain breed of dog, especially a working dog or a pastoral breed, you really need to make sure their brains are fully-catered for, as left alone they can – and often will – destroy a home environment out of sheer boredom. Their instincts, that we have helped breed into them over hundreds if not thousands of years, is to work. As an owner of a working breed like a collie, it’s so important to play with them, give them things to do, attend dog training classes, agility sessions, interactive toys and feeders that give them problems to solve – finding, chasing, fetching. You could potentially be asking for trouble if you don’t.
With border collies, you look at them doing agility or working as sheepdogs and they’re incredible, the patience they have, coupled with the phenomenal scope they have for learning. They’re very easily trainable because their brains appear very attuned to learning and to work.
- The oldest breeds of dogs seem to be the least intelligent as they haven’t been so selectively bred for specifically human-related tasks as the more recent breeds, like border collies. Afghans just needed to run fast after prey – and that’s it.
At the other end of the cleverest canine scale, it’s been reported that Afghan hounds are the most stupid. Interestingly, the oldest breeds of dogs seem to be the least intelligent as they haven’t been so selectively bred for specifically human-related tasks as the more recent breeds, like border collies. Afghans just needed to run fast after prey – and that’s it.
Funnily enough, a lot of owners will describe their dogs’ apparent lack in intelligence as a term of endearment: “He’s not the cleverest dog, bless him.” But they’re dogs, and they all have their own unique personalities, and that’s of course why we love them.
It’s fair to say dogs of all breeds, crossbreeds and ages are individuals, so it’s always hard to make sweeping statements for them all. Sometimes when I meet dogs I do think some possess the intelligence of children. Studies often show that some dogs recognise what we say, can learn new words, and even interpret our body language on around the same level as a two-year-old toddler. It’s difficult not to equate their intelligence and scope of learning with young children.
Which finally brings me back to the importance of keeping your dog stimulated. Just like toddlers, they do a great deal of learning through play; so set some quality time aside from your hectic lifestyle and get those dog toys out to teach your four-legged friend some fun games and new tricks.