Some dog owners and dog trainers expect their dog’s level of thinking and smartness to be the same of humans, when being trained. This mistaken assumption about dog psychology can be devastating to the expectations of both the dog owner and the dog itself.
Trainers shouldn’t assess canine intelligence against human standards. Each individual canine may possess his own unique talent. If the occasion does not arise for the animal to display this talent, it doesn’t mean he’s dumb. For centuries, behavior experts have been trying to devise a test that measures all aspects of human intelligence and have failed miserably. With this success rate in mind, how can canine experts profess to measure the dog’s intelligence when we do not even speak the same language?
Labeling a dog dumb can be as unproductive and damaging as labeling humans. If an animal is labeled dumb, the owner usually gives up trying to teach the dog. The label then becomes self-fulfilling because if his owner won’t train him, the dog really won’t know anything.
On the other hand, labeling a dog smart may create unrealistic expectations and disappointment if he doesn’t respond as expected. Perhaps all these “dumb” dogs are just clever enough to make their owners think they are dumb to avoid the effort of obeying! A very frustrated Basset Hound owner complained to his instructor that he had spent a month trying to teach his dog to sit on command and the dog just didn’t get it. As the owner was explaining his dilemma, the instructor was mindlessly playing with a piece of liver that she had not put away after working with another dog. The Basset noticed the liver and began nudging the instructor. From pure habit, she told the dog to sit. The Basset plopped his rear end down as fast as Bassets do. This is a good demonstration of learning theory proven long ago that a lack of response does not mean that learning is not occurring. This dog was learning, the owner just hadn’t found the right motivator to get him to respond.
Perhaps canine intelligence is not measurable, particularly when the criteria for intelligence are measured on another species’ yardstick. Fortunately, regardless of breed, the great majority of dogs are intelligent enough to grasp basic obedience commands when training is intelligently presented. A trainer armed with motivating training methods and a good understanding of the principles behind canine learning can shape a dog’s behavior into desirable conduct.