How Smart Are Dogs?

Podcast - How Smart Are Dogs?

Podcast Episode 44: How Smart Are Dogs?

This episode discusses the intelligence of dogs. How smart are they? We review the two experiments that place the dog’s cognitive ability around the age of a 2-year-old child. Discuss Chaser, the Border Collie from 60 Minutes, and how to look at the intelligence of dogs compared to people.

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Podcast Transcript: How Smart Are Dogs?

Hello, this is Ralf from Happy Dog Training. Welcome to another episode of Dog Talk. Today we’re going to talk about the intelligence of dogs. How smart are dogs? Intelligence is something that is not very easy to measure. For people, we have investigated various methods and approaches to measure intelligence, and different IQ tests will give us a number and supposedly tell us how smart or intelligent human beings are. But I don’t know how many IQ tests you have taken. I have taken a good number over the years and the results are all over the map. It depends on what the test is based on. And which country it’s conducted in. Everybody uses different standards for measuring IQ.

Intelligence Quotients (IQ)

Basically, at their core, IQ tests are pattern detection tests. What’s the missing item? What completes the sequence? What doesn’t fit in? These are the most common challenges presented in IQ tests. If you take an IQ test and you get a result. And then, you practice by taking more IQ tests. You will do better and your test results improve. If the IQ test was actually objective, that should not happen. It should measure your intelligence the first time, the second, third, and nth time with always the same result. But if I can practice something and become better at it. Am I really measuring an objective intelligence number, or am I measuring a skill set that can be improved with studying? So with people, we already have difficulty determining true intelligence.

It’s basically impossible. In my lifetime, from college until now, which is a good number of years, I’ve taken several IQ tests and the results have ranged anywhere from 124 to 168. Clearly, I didn’t get more or less intelligent by just living and experiencing life more. And that the numbers are so all over the map and very clearly show us that we need to take these with a grain of salt. Are they completely useless? No, they’re not. But by assigning those numbers and then comparing people, I think we’re walking into very dangerous territory because we can probably determine with an IQ test if somebody has below-average or above-average intelligence. I don’t question that. That seems to be pretty straightforward.

How Meaningful Are IQ Scores?

But when somebody, let’s say, comes up with a result of 130 and another person gets 135 or 140, to say that the person with 140 is more intelligent than the one with 130 is probably a very questionable claim. But that’s people. So with people, we can do these tests and we have something. How good it is, is doubtful, but at least it’s something. So we have a way of performing some measurements. But how do we do this with dogs? How can we determine if a dog is smart or not? If we train a dog and work with a dog on learning some skills, we can see how quickly that goes, how quickly a dog figures something out or picks something up, so you can see that dog is smart or that dog is slow.

This dog is not so smart. But then, in comparison again, it becomes tricky and we have even less ability to measure it with an animal. So there are a couple of things that people have done over the years to compare dogs to humans and determine what we’re looking at in terms of canine intelligence. So let me give you two examples that have set the number because currently, we consider a dog to be at the intelligence level of a two-year-old child. And there’s a reason for that. I think that is probably questionable. And we’re going to talk about that in a moment. But here is how we arrived at this conclusion.

Two Dimensions to Three Dimensions

So the first thing that a human child cannot do at birth is understand the difference between a two-dimensional representation and a three-dimensional object—a simple example is we take the picture of a banana. And we showed that to an infant who is under two years old. So a year or a year and a half. They will usually try to grab the banana. Obviously, they can’t because it’s a picture of a banana. They cannot understand the difference between a two-dimensional representation and an actual three-dimensional object. That ability forms a human child around the age of two. So by two years of age, a human child can do that.

Dogs can do that. So we know from that alone that there is a level of intelligence or development, cognitive development, with a dog that is at least at the level of a two-year-old child. How much higher? We don’t know. This test does not illustrate that at all. It’s just an observation that is something a dog can do. A human child can only do this at the age of two. So we know a dog’s intelligence has to be at least equivalent to the age of a two-year-old child. That’s, of course, not a clear correlation. Other factors could indicate way more intelligence than a two-year-old child. But this is one test or one particular thing that we’ve established.

Learning Through the Process of Exclusion

A second thing is the process of exclusion. So if we tell a dog to pick up an item when he generally understands how to pick up items, and he has never seen that item before. And he’s never heard the item’s name before but can yet identify that item in a pile of things. That’s the process of exclusion. So let’s explain that experiment in a little bit more detail. You may have heard of the dog Chaser, the border collie Chaser. There is a 60 Minutes piece on it. There is a book on it. It’s called Chaser – Unlocking the Secrets of the Canine Mind. There are documentaries on Chaser. Chaser lived with a professor of psychology. His name was Dr. Pilley, and he conducted a whole range of experiments and studies with his Border Collie.

Chaser was chasing cars, which eventually was curbed, but that’s where the name came from. And that’s how Chaser ended up with Dr. Pilley. So what he did is he purchased over a thousand different toys, which is fascinating. How many toys have you seen in the store? I don’t think a store has 1000 items in terms of dog toys. But so he had 1024, I believe, of dog toys that he purchased over the years.

The Experiment with Chaser

And he had taught Chaser to pick up those toys by name. He would tell Chase or get the green elephant, the pink turtle, the yellow banana, or whatever. Next, Chaser would go and get the item. He would retrieve the object based on the name that he understood to be and learned to distinguish over 1000 items. And in the experiment that led to the process of exclusion or the study that showed learning through the process of exclusion, Dr. Pilley picked five things that Chaser was familiar with and a sixth item he was unfamiliar with. He placed them all behind a barrier. So Chaser couldn’t see him and he couldn’t see Chaser, and he told him to get the new thing. Let’s say it’s a blue giraffe.

I forgot what it was. But he said, get the blue giraffe. In the video, we can see how Chaser goes to the pile of toys. He looks at every single item in this pile of toys. You can clearly see, well, he’s moving on. He’s moving on; he’s moving on. And then he stops on the item that is the new one. And he associates the word of the thing he’s never heard with a thing he’s never seen and he brings it back. That is learning through the process of exclusion. Again, something a human child can only do at the age of two. So we have basically two experiments that establish a dog’s intelligence level, at a minimum, at the age of two of a human child.

Intelligence Minimum, Not Maximum

I say minimum because by no means is that an establishment of any maximum. It’s just a human kid can’t do it until the age of two. So the dog is at least there. So let’s put that in context. And Chaser, by the way, has wonderful stuff on YouTube. It’s a wonderful thing to look up. I’m going to put it in the show notes as well. 1 or 2 videos. There are tons of them. Chaser also learned different movements based on words. He knew directions based on words. He learned all kinds of cool things. There are some cool videos out there. And everybody always thinks, Well, it’s a border collie. Well, yeah, it’s an exception.

Chaser is Not An Exception

But is it? The likelihood that Chaser is an exception is far lesser than that Chaser is the norm. Most people never put that to the test because it’s real work, as Dr. Pilley did here. But in terms of intelligence. We can see dogs working through problems when we train them. We train service dogs here and they have to do complex things sometimes. And we can see literally the brain at work as they’re trying to figure it out. And I see them thinking through the process, the problem solving, trying to access a puzzle box or working their way through a snuffle mat or solving a puzzle or whatever it is. There are all kinds of interesting gadgets you can buy, treat dispensing toys. You have to play around to get treats out of the toys, and with the puzzles, you have to move pieces around.

Using Enrichment Toys

There’s a whole line from a company called Nina Ottosson, a Norwegian or Scandinavian company, and Outward Hound bought it. So all these products are actually available in America on Amazon. Tons of them. They used to be made out of nice wood, now mostly hard plastic, but they still work great. Obviously, the wood ones were nice when the company started. But these are puzzles for dogs to basically figure out how to access treats under obstructions and obstacles. It’s a problem-solving challenge. And when you see a dog go through stuff like that.

You can clearly see there is a more intelligent dog at work here or a less intelligent dog. A smart dog or not-so-smart dog. It would be hard to place numbers on them and rank them while this dog is smarter than this and that unless it’s pretty obvious. Is a German Shepherd smarter than a Belgian Malinois, than a Standard Poodle? Well, depending on which breed you like the most, you’ll probably pick that one. But there is likely no way of determining the smarter one. A Border Collie would be in that mix too.

Intelligent Dog Breeds

So generally, if you look at the intelligence charts of dogs, they’re also somewhat questionable, but the top three are usually the German Shepherd, the Standard Poodle, and the Border Collie. What is absent from the top three is the Belgian Malinois. But why is that? Belgian Malinois are very intelligent dogs. They’re very smart. There is absolutely no reason why they should not be up there on the scale when a German Shepherd is up there. It’s also a very smart dog. And why is the Siberian Husky not up there? Because a Husky is a very smart dog. But Huskies tend to be stubborn and people don’t think stubborn animals are smart.

But just because a dog doesn’t want to do what you want it to doesn’t mean it is not intelligent. Quite the opposite. It’s not that he doesn’t understand. You need to consider that he understands you just fine and doesn’t care about the request.

So to cast a Husky aside, who in so many ways has demonstrated a very high level of intelligence as a breed. Because they’re not as cooperative, it’s not as amicable and easy to get to cooperate in training but that doesn’t mean that they’re not smart. They’re smart dogs. And then, at the bottom of these intelligence charts with the dog rankings, there’s obviously the poor Afghan Hound; no matter what chart you look at regarding the intelligence of dogs, the poor Afghan Hound is always at the bottom of the barrel.

Being Cooperative Doesn’t Equal Intelligence

Now they’re more unusual. I have never personally trained an Afghan Hound, so I can’t really speak to how it is to work with an Afghan Hound. You don’t see them as much. They’re not as common. I’ve seen them in a dog park once but never had them as a client. So. And I guess that the Afghan Hound is probably not as simple as he’s being made out to be in these comparison charts. So it goes back to what are we measuring here? So what I said earlier is that a Husky doesn’t get credit for his intelligence because he is not as easy to convince to cooperate. That’s by no means an exclusionary factor for intelligence. A lot of intelligent people don’t want to cooperate either. So being stubborn or set in your ways or not wanting to do something doesn’t mean you’re not smart.

So. It’s always a question, how do we assess that? In my view, the intelligence charts you see are more of a list of cooperation or willingness to cooperate because Standard Poodles, Border Collies, and German Shepherds are very willing to cooperate. So there’s, there’s that. It’s probably more like how easy the dog is to train, not based on the dog’s intelligence, but based on it’s easier to get them to do what we want them to do, and we consider that intelligent. I don’t think that that is a fair way to assess. So cognitively, dogs are comparable to a two-year-old child.

My Opinion on Intelligence in Dogs

But having trained dogs for 19 years now in total and 16 years professional. I disagree with that fundamentally. If we look at different levels or different types of intelligence, and there’s really only one type of true intelligence, cognitive intelligence, we’ve come up with all kinds of other things like emotional intelligence. And emotional intelligence is certainly important, but it’s very different from cognitive ability. Social ability and cognitive ability are two different things. But I don’t want to cast that aside because it’s an important distinction that can help understand why I disagree with this assessment of dog intelligence at a level of a two-year-old child. And in terms of emotional intelligence—to be in tune with the emotions of your surroundings, of the people around you.

And if somebody you’re with may need some help or assistance based on emotional upset. Dogs and many other animals are marvelous at that. Dogs have absolutely a leg up on emotional intelligence over many people. Some may be forever but in terms of that—a 30-year-old person. Well, even many 30-year-olds don’t have the emotional intelligence a dog has. So if we’re measuring it from that perspective, what’s the social cognitive skill set here? The dog wins out. In this case, it’s the social ability over the cognitive ability.

Types of Intelligence

So which type of intelligence are we assessing when we say all dogs are at a two-year-old, basically infant level? When you train and work with dogs, there is absolutely no way you can come away with the idea of dogs operating at the level of a two-year-old child. There is a lot more going on in a dog’s brain than in that of a two-year-old child. Now the child will develop brain systems and a more developed neocortex and prefrontal cortex than the dog. But a dog has all the aspects a human brain has. But they’re, in some regard, smaller. So the neocortex is there and the prefrontal cortex is there. But the prefrontal cortex is about 28% of the neocortex in a human brain.

While in a dog brain, it’s 9%. The prefrontal cortex is where executive decision-making happens. This is where the real heavy lifting of cognitive ability resides. That’s why humans are so special in terms of the uniqueness of their brains because no other species or animal is as developed as humans, for better or worse. But that’s where it’s at. The dog’s brain has the same layout but is less developed. The prefrontal cortex. And with that comes a lesser level of intelligence.

Measuring Intelligence Remains Challenging

It’s not something we can assess at this point. Maybe we are in the future, but it probably will have to start with us being able to assess it in people more effectively than we can do it today because our ability to do it with people is also wanting. As I mentioned earlier, the IQ tests we have available to us come to all kinds of different results. So it’s challenging to achieve a standardized assessment of true intelligence, which would have advantages for certain things. Of course, that ability could obviously also lead to abuse in certain scenarios. I can think of a whole range of problems that could arise from the ability to determine that. But all in all, I think we probably would be better equipped to pick a better education path for a whole range of people.

Not everybody benefits from going to college. You can probably sort that out a bit better with a better assessment of people’s skill sets. If somebody is truly skilled working with their hands, that person will most likely be much happier doing something that involves artistic expression and using their hands in some meaningful manner versus going to a college and studying abstract concepts. It’s probably not going to be where their happiness can be found.

Benefits of Accurate IQ Measurements

So by us, being able to assess that better will probably help us overall to come to a better system of learning and better method of setting up our school systems that could really harness the skills and abilities of everybody more effectively instead of squeezing them into certain paths, paths that may not be ideal for a lot of people. So having the ability to sort that out better is probably helpful. And through that path, we can most likely develop a way to assess that for dogs and other animals. How do we truly determine the intelligence of a dog? I have no idea where that will come to fruition, how we will sort it out, or if we ever will. Who knows? I’m assuming at some point, we will be able to, but at this point, we’re far away from it.

Know that a dog’s intelligence is far beyond that of a two-year-old child. If I had to label it personally, I would put it somewhere in the realm of a teenager. When it comes to social skills far beyond that of a teenager, into adulthood, maybe even old age of some people. And some people never develop the social skills a dog has and the social understanding in terms of how other people are feeling. That part is important too. Dogs are very intelligent. But measuring it and putting it in context, comparative to humans, is impossible at this stage.


I’m looking forward to the day when we can make some progress in that and hopefully figure that out. Maybe I’ll see the day; maybe I won’t. Who knows how long it will take, but it will be interesting to follow that journey along. So I would definitely suggest that you check out Chaser. Maybe read the book Unlocking the Secret of the Canine Mind. And I will put links in the show notes for that, the videos on YouTube I’ve found, and the TED Talk. I think there’s a Ted Talk on Chaser as well. I’ll put that as well. And yeah, I hope you found that interesting. It was informative. You got something out of it and I’ll see you again next time. Bye.


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Happy Dog Training is the pet dog training business of Ralf Weber and Sarah Gill. We are certified professional dog trainers in Southern California. We are specialized in advanced obedience training, all forms or behavioral challenges and service dog training. For behavioral training, we are known for our work with aggressive and fearful dogs. Our service dogs, through Total K9 Focus, have a nationwide reputation for their reliability, longevity and performance.


Certified Professional Dog Trainer Ralf Weber is lead pet dog trainer of Happy Dog Training. Ralf is a long-time dog owner of German Shepherds. During his career, Ralf has worked with over a 1500 dogs of many different breeds. Moreover, Ralf has a thorough understanding of all aspects of canine training. This includes evolutionary psychology, ethology, and, most importantly, learning science. Ralf is specialized in resolving dog behavior challenges—especially fear and aggression. Apart from this, Ralf trains dogs in basic and advanced obedience, service dog tasks, and GRC Dog Sports. Ralf is further certified in a broad range of other canine training areas. Last but not least, Ralf is the author of the behavioral book If Your Dog Could Talk: Understand Your Dog Like Never Before.

Ralf loves helping people have a better relationship with their dogs. He is a certified professional dog trainer in the Training without Conflict™ methodology by Ivan Balabanov (TWC CPDT). Ralf is also a member of the International Association of Canine Professionals and also holds their basic and advanced dog trainer certifications (IACP CDT, CDTA). In addition, Ralf is an AKC-approved evaluator for the AKC Puppy Star, CGC, and Advanced CGC programs and is also certified in canine first aid by the Red Cross.

Sarah Gill, Certified Professional Master Trainer

Sarah Gill, is a professional service dog trainer and handler. Sarah entered the world of professional service dog training after a car accident. As a result, she had to use a wheelchair for almost two years, trying to maneuver in a house not designed for it. No one expected Sarah would walk again. This opened her eyes and became a driving force behind pushing herself to defy the odds. When she regained some stability, Sarah attended a dog training school and learned how to train service dogs. Sarah completed her Master Trainer Certification and gained further experience by training new trainers. However, the school wasn’t accommodating to those with physical difficulties and PTSD. Hence, Sarah moved home to Dallas. In 2019, Sarah teamed up with Ralf and moved to California.

Sarah started this journey because she had a trained dog to mitigate her disabilities. But Sarah needed additional tasking for a new diagnosis. The only option she could find was getting a second dog for the new diagnosis. She knew there had to be a different way to address this. Sarah's passion is changing the ways of the service dog training industry.