The Border Collie is widely considered to be the world’s smartest dog breed (with the Poodle coming in close second). If some dog breeds are the smartest, it only makes sense that some dog breeds are the dumbest, right? An internet search for dumbest dog breeds will turn up numerous lists of those breeds people think are less intelligent in some ways.
So, just what makes a dog smart or not? Is it simply how trainable he is? His ability to remember things? Sense of direction? Energy level? Something else?
In 1994, a psychologist named Stanley Coren, PhD., DSc., FRSC, wrote a book called The Intelligence of Dogs (Atria Books). Dr. Coren ranked more than 100 dog breeds based on three specific types of intelligence
Does this mean these are the 10 dumbest breeds? Well, not necessarily.
“How smart you appear to be depends on the test,” says Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, Dipl. ACVB, professor emeritus and former section head and program director of the Animal Behavior Clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “Until quite recently, I had two dogs. One of them was hyper and the other dog would sort of lie around like a lump. You would say Jasper was not as smart as Rusty. But once you were out on a trail, Jasper lit up. He was doing the job that nature intended him to do because he was a coonhound, and he was using his super-intelligent nose. He was brilliant at his job, but not so good at some other things.”
It’s no secret that purebred dogs have very different skills depending on what they were bred to do. For instance, herding breeds like Border Collies, Australian Shepherds and Corgis are universally considered to be extremely intelligent. Due to the nature of their work, they are excellent at both making independent decisions and taking instructions from humans.
“Pretty much all scenthounds are governed by their noses,” Dr. Dodman says. “They’re hard to train because they don’t really look up, they look down. They’re not really interested in listening or pleasing anybody, they’re just interested in tracking with their noses. The sighthounds want to chase anything that moves. For every dog breed there’s a purpose, and the mixed breeds are just a combination of the purebreds. I can see how it might be easy to superficially judge a dog who is kind of slow and not paying a lot of attention to what you say and really not that interested in performing tricks, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not smart, and in some ways, being very independent could be more intelligent than being obedient.”
Scenthounds like Basset Hounds, Beagles and Bloodhounds can sniff out almost anything. Sighthounds can spot their prey making the slightest movement and swiftly chase it down. A Border Collie is far more trainable than a Bloodhound, but a Bloodhound is far superior at tracking scents than a Border Collie. They each have different skills, but they excel in their own ways.
Dr. Dodman notes how gauging human intelligence can be a similar conundrum. “It just depends on how you grade people,” he explains. “Some people are good at math, some people are good at English. You can be good at some things and not so good at others.”
Considering the vast differences in skill sets among dogs, and taking into account the fact that dogs don’t speak our language, how can we accurately assess a dog’s intelligence? “It seems to be like multiple intelligences,” Dr. Dodman says. “Do you measure them as being particularly bright like Jasper, almost a savant, when it came to hunting? Or do you have to average out all the behaviors over 10 different types of behavior and give them an average score, which I imagine would come back to be pretty much the same for all dogs?”
Brian Hare, Ph.D., associate professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University in North Carolina, and founder of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, studies dog psychology. “We play the same types of games that researchers play with young children,” he says. “We give dogs puzzles to solve, and the choices they make reveal how their minds work.”
According to Dr. Hare, dog intelligence is not black and white. “I don’t really think there is any such thing as ‘smart’ dogs and ‘dumb’ dogs,” he states. “That is just a throwback to a linear version of intelligence, as though intelligence is a cup of coffee that is more or less full. Different dogs are good at different things. And all of them are geniuses in their own way.”
As it turns out, some of the research done to determine the most- or least-intelligent dog breeds might not be entirely accurate. “The scientific work on breeds has not really held up,” Dr. Hare states. “Most breeds are only 150 years old, so there is very little to distinguish them. To scientifically prove the smartest breed, you would need to compare at least 30 dogs from each breed. They would have to be puppies raised and tested in a similar manner to control for the effect to rearing history and age on performance. If you took the AKC breeds or all breeds worldwide, you would need between 6,000 to 12,000 puppies, decades of work, millions of dollars and about a thousand graduate students. It is no wonder no one has done it.”
In fact, in his own research, Dr. Hare has seen as much variation within a breed as between them. “For example, Labradors bred for the military are the same breed as Labradors bred to be assistance dogs — and you have never seen two more different dogs in your life,” he explains.
Humans categorizing certain breeds as “dumb” is less about truly measuring their intelligence and more about not understanding the breed’s particular skillset.
“No individual dog or an entire breed should be considered ‘dumb,’” says Gina DiNardo, executive secretary for the American Kennel Club. “Ease of training is not an accurate way to assess a dog’s intelligence. What we humans may perceive as an animal being ‘dumb’ may be independence, stubbornness or aloofness, which are common characteristics in many breeds. Training takes time and patience, and every dog is different. Learn different training techniques available, and if you are having problems, seek out a trainer who can give you the skills that you need to teach your dog.”
So, what is it about certain breeds that caused them to end up at the bottom of the smarts list in Dr. Coren’s book The Intelligence of Dogs? Let’s take a look at each of the supposed dumbest dog breeds.
The Afghan Hound is the “dumbest” breed according to The Intelligence of Dogs, but Afghan lovers surely disagree. Afghans are sighthounds, which means they were bred to hunt using their extraordinary speed and eyesight. Like many sighthounds, Afghans can be aloof, which means they can be a little standoffish and reserved, especially with strangers. They can also be stubborn and independent. Due to these traits, Afghans are not easy to train, but that doesn’t mean they’re dumb. They simply prefer to think for themselves and do things on their own terms. You might have to be more creative when training an Afghan, but their elegance, regal air and devotion to their humans makes them special companions.
The Basenji is another sighthound known for his independence and aloofness. Some people describe this breed as having feline qualities, and in fact, many Basenjis will groom themselves like cats. The breed has earned a reputation for being “untrainable,” but again, ease of training is not always an accurate indicator of intelligence. Quite the contrary, Basenjis are intelligent, curious and playful. Like inquisitive toddlers, they are smart enough to get into trouble if you don’t watch them carefully. Raising a Basenji can sometimes feel like taming a wild animal. They are watchful and wary, and although most bond with their owners, they may or may not like your friends. Bottom line: Basenjis are stubborn so they aren’t consistently obedient, but they can be trained. Positive methods are best.
Another breed known for stubbornness is the Bulldog. The term “bullheaded” fits the Bulldog to a T. For this reason, Bulldogs can be difficult to train, but dumb? You only have to look to one of the famous skateboarding or surfing Bulldogs to see that they are definitely capable of learning. Bulldogs are also labeled as lazy, but clearly some enjoy more vigorous activities than lying on the couch.
Chow Chows might look like adorable teddy bears, but they are not always the cuddly type. Originally bred to be watchdogs, Chows are serious, independent and aloof. They are strong-willed and stubborn, and therefore more difficult to train. Chows are intelligent — they just have minds of their own. If not trained correctly, Chows might challenge their humans for authority, which can become problematic. For these reasons, Chows require firm but fair training and extensive socialization starting from an early age. When raised properly, Chows are noble, loyal and devoted companions.
Yet another sighthound, the Borzoi is an independent freethinker. They can also be stubborn, so training a Borzoi is an exercise in patience. Borzois seem to do best with frequent, short training sessions rather than hour-long classes. In the house, they are generally very well-mannered, calm, clean and quite affectionate, especially with their special people.
If you have ever witnessed the aurora borealis, the colorful northern lights display that transforming the night sky into a brilliant sight to behold, you might be able to understand how a scenthound like the Bloodhound “sees” the world with his sensitive nose. Bloodhounds are hard to train because they are so distracted by all the glorious scents just waiting to be investigated. They also have a ton of energy, are stubborn and independent, and are absolutely relentless when on a scent trail. Combined together, the Bloodhound’s unique skills can sometimes make these dogs challenging to live with, but enter a Bloodhound in a tracking event and watch his special talents shine.
One reason people might think Pekingese are a little slow is the fact that they are somewhat sloth-like. At home, they enjoy lounging about and surveying their domain. This could be due to their physical build or partly held over from their history as sacred pets of the Tang Dynasty in 8th-century China. In fact, Pekingese were called “sleeve dogs” because members of the Imperial household carried their cherished companions around snugly nestled in their voluminous sleeves. Can you blame the Peke for enjoying the easy life? Pekingese are also stubborn and difficult to housebreak. This doesn’t make them dumb, but it does make for some training challenges. Start training early and be consistent.
Like Bloodhounds, Beagles like to follow their noses, which can sometimes get them into trouble. The Beagle’s sweet, affectionate nature, combined with his happy-go-lucky outlook might lead you to think he’s empty headed, but this breed is far from dumb. It’s best to keep Beagles on a leash. They can’t resist the urge to explore, smell the world and chase small critters.
The large, laid-back Mastiff is a very chill dog. So chill, in fact, that you might thing he’s a little dense. They are also a bit stubborn and might be more challenging to train than some breeds. Again, activity level and ease of training aren’t necessarily good indicators of intelligence. Mastiffs are actually quite bright. Due to their size and natural wariness of strangers, it’s essential for owners to start training and socialization early in puppyhood so Mastiffs develop into well-behaved and discerning companions.
Like the Pekingese, Basset Hounds can be a bit lazy. This could be in part to their long and low bodies or their laid-back personalities. Bassets can be a little stubborn, and like their scenthound cousins the Bloodhounds and the Beagles, Bassets might have trouble ignoring the amazing scents around them long enough to concentrate on learning. However, Bassets want to please their people and are very food motivated, so they do respond well to training. Don’t mistake the Basset’s easy-going personality for lack of intelligence, though. They are bright and affectionate dogs.
It’s not fair to label any breed or individual dog dumb. Yes, some dogs are brighter than others, but most dogs are good at something — you just have to figure out what.
“Some dogs do some things better than others, and they have different behaviors.,” Dr. Dodman says. “Police dogs and army dogs tend to be the German Shepherd Dog and Malinois types because they’re easily trainable. Does that mean they’re smart? Or does it mean they’re not so smart because they always follow other people’s directions and don’t think independently? You can argue it both ways.”
Thumbnail: Photography ©dimarik | Thinkstock.
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