Is my dog dumb?

We have to remember dogs are dogs, and we love them because they are dogs. Don’t mistake your dog’s thoughts and emotions for human experiences. Dogs and cats are very simple minded.

We give our dogs way too much credit as far as intelligence. That goes right along with how we humanize our pets, thinking they understand our conversations or that they can connect two separate ideas. In most cases, they can’t.

My mutt Ace is easy to train, but that doesn’t mean he is smart as far as dogs go. His intelligence favors the great dane side of him (or whatever hound he is) rather than his lab side. Great danes and other hounds are not known for their intelligence. They are loving, gentle and affectionate.

Ace is eager to make me happy. He is a fast learner because he is easily conditioned to do a behavior I want, not because he is putting much thought into something. Above, he is showing off his balancing skills at Elmwood Park in West Fargo. Ever since he learned to do the dogwalk at dog agility, he has loved walking across beams.

A smarter dog is often harder to train because he will consider his options, challenge his owner or learn that obeying is optional. Someone who gives up on training her dog might say her dog is dumb or stubborn. In reality her dog is probably pretty smart as far as dogs go.

I just had to share these examples to prove how smart my dog is:

1. Ace can’t figure out how to turn a stick vertically to fit it through a gate.

Ace will stand there and try again and again to fit a three-foot long stick through a small entryway. Instead of turning his head so the stick fits vertically, he will continue to hold it horizontally, getting the stick caught on the sides every time. He never wants to abandon the stick, so he will continue trying this for a long time until I help him.

2. Ace sees me throw a ball in one direction, then he looks for it in the opposite direction.

Ace depends on smell. When he watches me throw a ball, he chases after it. If he can’t smell it or find it right away, he turns and runs 20 or 30 feet in the opposite direction to look for the ball even though five seconds earlier he saw me throw it the other way. He can’t make the connection that if he saw the ball go in one direction, it should still be over there even though he can’t find it immediately.

3. Ace gets simple commands mixed up.

Even though Ace knows commands like “bang,” “crawl” and “roll over,” he still gets them confused. Sure, he’s “smart” because he knows these commands. But how dumb do you have to be to confuse three simple words? I know I need to work with him more to clear up the confusion, but still.

4. Ace watches me hide a ball on a playground, but he’ll look for it somewhere else.

I play the “find it” game with my dog. He sits and stays while I hide an object somewhere on the playground. He stares at me and watches the general area of where I put the object. I return to him in a direct path, no zig-zagging. When I release Ace and tell him to “find it,” he runs all over the place looking for that object.

He circles the playground by about 20 feet out, making sure to also check the grass around the playground in a huge circumference. I know he depends on scent, and he is trying to pick up a whiff, but this mutt is truly searching for the object far beyond the playground even though seconds earlier he watched me hide it under a slide or on a swing. Once he finds it he is so proud of himself!

5. Ace needs to be told to go to the bathroom.

I trained my dog to pee when I say “Hurry up.” But I unintentionally trained him to stand outside and wait for me to tell him what to do. For more than a year, I lived in an apartment with Ace and had to take him out on a leash to go to the bathroom. Now that we have a backyard I’d like to be able to open the door and have my dog go on his own. Instead, he stands there staring back at me and waits until I say “Hurry up!” It doesn’t matter if I walk away or stand there quietly, he waits for his command. This dog has been on Prednisone for the last few months and has to pee all the time. When I tell him “hurry up,” he races from the door and pees for a long, long time. If I don’t tell him anything, he holds it and will even try to come back in if I open the door.

And here’s how smart cats are:

I like to mess with my food-obsessed cat Beamer by making him figure out how to get food from different containers. For example, I feed him from a DogPause bowl. Around Christmas I fed Beamer by putting his food in a shoebox so he had to open the lid in order to eat. Even though he ate from that box for about eight days in a row, he never figured out all he had to do was lift the lid. Instead, every time he ate he spent about 20 minutes pushing that box around until he bumped the lid accidentally with his nose and got the lid off.

Instead of putting two and two together and thinking, “Hey, if I bump the lid like this it comes off,” he only knew that if he randomly pushed the box around long enough, it would open.

How smart are your pets?

22 Readers Commented

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  1. Apryl DeLancey on January 11, 2009

    You crack me up! Okay, my old girl that is no longer with us was too smart for her own good and you couldn’t get anything by her. She would give you dirty looks if you pretended to throw the ball and it was still in your hand, ,for example. My 16-year-old cat, Freako, is also too smart for his own good and figures out things like the food in the box experiment all the time. My poor little Inso that is no longer with us was the biggest airhead ever. It cracked us up. My two baby cats aren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer either. Gus, on the other hand, likes to act stupid. It only took him one time getting his paw stuck under the door before he realized the door needed to open all the way before he could get his big, 120lb self in the door. He acts like he doesn’t know that he should not actually try to get in my lap while eating, but is quite stubborn and acts like it is okay. It is like wrestling another person for my dinner. At times, he does space out and do really silly things. We’re great dog parents and make fun of him. Overall, he has that look to him like he’s a big, dopey dog but he knows how to work it. I believe he is far more clever than I even know yet.

  2. Biggie-Z on January 11, 2009

    I think Apryl and I have dogs cut form the same cloth! When it behooves him, Biggie acts like a big oaf, but he is really quite clever.

    Here’s how he’s dumb, though:

    1. Doorbell on TV sends him barking ferociously at our door. Even though our doorbell DOES NOT SOUND LIKE THAT. (This is probably the most retarded thing he does)

    2. He gets “bed” and “bang” mixed up. Like Lindsay, we could probably work on it more, but still.

    Here’s 2 signs of clever:
    1. He knows to go around a fence to get something that’s directly opposite him on the other side.

    2. He knows how to open doors away and toward him (and knows which one is which).

    But I still think he doesn’t really know how the elevator works. I think he thinks it’s magic.

  3. the three dog blogger on January 11, 2009

    Heh, heh,
    I remember our old boy Sam when it came to sticks, he would always go for the biggest one he could find. Basically a small log. He used to drag it around by one end and get really annoyed and bark at it because he wanted to carry it.

    It took him over a year to realise that if he grabbed it up in the middle he could run around with it!

  4. Sew Crazy Dog Lady on January 11, 2009

    I find the “find it” thing interesting… I also wonder if he’s making up new “rules” for the game. After all, when he finds it the game starts over.. why not enjoy it a little more.

    Maybe Ace enjoys the journey as much as the destination?

  5. Ty Brown on January 11, 2009

    I always tell people I prefer dumb dogs. They don’t look for the loopholes in training as much.

  6. Tammy on January 12, 2009

    This post made me laugh! We have a variety of “smartness” in our house. Henry is our cute boy, but oh, so dumb cat. He is just not smart. He has been locked in the food closet so many times… he runs in when we feed them breakfast and gets locked in with NO access to food… and yet, he continues to do this. He has spent 8+ hours locked up several times… Duh!

    Oscar, on the other hand is a VERY smart cat. He understands what we are saying quite often (or at least he seems to!) He also talks back to me when he is being “yelled” at. He knows he is in trouble for whatever it is and he doesn’t like being yelled at. He figures out the things that he know bug me and does them at bad times (like 2 a.m.)! Darn cat!

    Ben and Miss Girl fall somewhere between Henry and Oscar in the spectrum. They each have distinct personalities though. It’s funny with having so many cats – each wants their own way on different things!

  7. jan on January 12, 2009

    Misty the alpha Poodle can do inductive and deductive reasoning. She is so smart it is scary. Fortunately for me the other dogs are mostly dogs.

  8. Marie on January 13, 2009

    Well, I don’t know what this says about my intelligence level, but I know that it’s a challenge for me to outsmart my dogs sometimes. I think that the herding breeds are problem solvers though, and so they are always coming up with something to keep me on my toes.

  9. Lindsay Stordahl Author on January 13, 2009

    Haha! I think the herding breeds are pretty smart in general, at least the ones I know. Apparently poodles are pretty smart too. Is that true, Jan?

    Sometimes I think my gray cat Scout is pretty smart. He is always up to little tricks to get us to pay attention to him. But then again I’ve always thought most cats are smarter than most dogs.

    Sew Crazy, Ace is definitely not making up new rules. Haha.

    I think Biggie is pretty clever. Ace has not figured out how to open a door even when it is slightly cracked. The cats of course have this one down.

    Apryl, you’re right, Ace and Gus both have that dopey look, especially Gus. Haha! But they are sometimes smarter than they look!

  10. Mayra Calvani on January 14, 2009

    I think my golden retriever is very intelligent… he so often considers his options before acting! He just amazes me.

  11. Biggie-Z on January 15, 2009

    Biggie invents new games to play with us. He and my husband play indoor football with the stuffed duck. In addition to the “hike” part of it (you can tell I am a huge football fan), Biggie will “go long” and run out of the bedroom and wait for my husband to throw it over the partition and into the other room for him to catch.

    And when he’s hungry he goes and sits in his crate and looks meaningfully at us and the dog bowl. If we still don’t get it, he walks into the kitchen and sniffs at the fridge where we keep is food, then at the counter where we make his food, and then back into his crate. Thankfully, he is not demanding in the sense that he doesn’t bark or paw at us to get attention when he does this; he just walks and looks and sniffs/points his nose at stuff and then looks at us.

  12. Lindsay Stordahl Author on January 15, 2009

    Haha! Biggie makes me laugh.

  13. abbey on January 15, 2009

    You gave me a smile Lindsay… but the main thing that drives me nuts is people humanising dogs… grrr ‘they are not human!’ i think half their behavioural problems come from this alone

  14. Cynthia on January 17, 2009

    Hmm.. some of Ace’s things sound like proofing issues. If he is unsure what a cue means, then maybe it’s just not trained quite as much as it could be. Look at those high level obedience and freestyle dogs, they don’t get words messed up.

    I think dogs are very, very smart. They think differently than humans, of course, but it’s fun to figure out how to communicate with them to get my point across. I don’t think any dog is dumb. Some take more repetitions (hounds for example) to learn something, than others. But I wouldn’t classify any of my dogs as dumb. :p

  15. Lindsay Stordahl Author on January 17, 2009

    Cynthia, I need to work with Ace more on the commands he is learning. I often move too quickly or add to many words. And I don’t review the old stuff enough. He needs more repetitions and clear signals from me. I’m sure I confused him sometimes.

  16. vee on January 17, 2009

    jake is getting his commands mixed up too! we are going to trick class and he learns to new tricks per class. he does great in class but when we practice instead of roll over he’ll get up and try to shake my hand!

  17. Adam on January 22, 2009

    Well, I’ve been around enough dumb dogs (mainly pugs) to know that Muffin runs circles around them. She is a ball expert and is very hard to fake-out. She knows how to catch a ball with acrobatic precision. She can sense when I’m going to leave the house almost an hour in advance. She starts to get nervous and stares me down continuously. She sits and looks at something she wants (like her bully stick on top of the re-fridge) and then looks back at me and so forth. She always knew exactly what her toys were and never touched anything else. There may be no scientific way to prove this but I’m convinced she understands my facial expressions and body language. If I give her a pissed off or fed up look she knows that she’s doing something I don’t like and stops it. OK, I’ll stop here, sorry about my drooling!

  18. Lindsay Stordahl Author on January 22, 2009

    Hi Adam. Yeah I have never considered pugs to be too intelligent either. Your dog sounds like she has a lot figured out!

  19. Erika on August 8, 2009

    Well my dog can go eather way some days. Like she can go wild when she thinks that their is somthing outside when nothing is there, but when I am working on a paper for hours she will snuggle up to me. Then watches how I wright but when 2 horrs exactly struck she will nuge me and whine, lay on top of my pincil and notebook, then will paw at the remotes just to watch TV with me. For some reason she likes to see the Discovery chanil and watch cops and robbers. But I think that dogs have a willing for what they like, and understand things a little bit more then we give them credit for.

  20. Lindsay Stordahl on August 8, 2009

    Yeah they do pick up on a lot more than we give them credit for. In general we don’t understand our pets well enough. We expect them to understand things they can’t possibly grasp. Yet, we don’t realize they pick up on our subtle actions and feelings.

  21. Sherry Eastman on August 16, 2009

    My goldendoodle loves to watch Animal Planet with me. She sits a foot from the front of the TV and watches every move the dogs on the screen make. When they “Walk” off the edge of the screen, she will go around to the side of the TV looking for them. Not sure what level of intellegence that would demonstrate! This dog also loves to play hide and seek in the house with my husband. My husband hides and she seeks him out. Quite comical.

  22. Lindsay Stordahl Author on August 16, 2009

    ha, yeah I am not sure either. Smart or not, she sure sounds cute! My grandparents’ dog used to walk around the TV looking for the dog. Pretty funny.