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By "Today" show pet expert and contributor
TODAY
updated 3/4/2005 9:33:17 AM ET 2005-03-04T14:33:17

Ever wonder why some dogs are so intelligent that they can herd sheep, rescue people from avalanches, or sniff out drugs for police, but some can't even seem to master "sit" and "stay"? 

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While there are many ways to define intelligence, your dog's problem-solving abilities are perhaps one of the best ways to determine how mentally adept they really are.  Perhaps your dog may not know how to fetch, but do they automatically know that it's time to take a walk whenever you pick up the leash?  That shows a kind of intelligence, too.

Are "doggie IQ tests" accurate?
As with the intelligence tests developed for humans, the IQ tests for dogs suffer from limitations. As you go through these tests, remember the results are being evaluated by humans not by other dogs.

Intelligence in dogs is also measured differently by different people.  If I asked 50 people to describe what a intelligent dog would be, I would probably get 50 different answers. Maybe you think that a dog that can bring you your slippers when you get home is a really smart dog, or perhaps a dog that sneaks socks out of your drawer and chews them up is too smart for their own good.  Another thing to keep in mind: Speed is not always a determining factor in intelligence -- persistence is just as important in problem solving techniques. So just because they take a while to solve a problem doesn't mean that those brain cells aren't working! Another thing to remember is that sometimes more intelligent dogs can be more difficult to train because they tend to question authority and see just how much they can get away with (just like intelligent humans).

Differences in intelligence
Just like in humans, there are different kinds of intelligence.  For dogs, there are two basic kinds: Instinctive and adoptive intelligence.  Instinctive intelligence comes with the breed and the type of dog, so certain dogs and dog breeds have inherent differences in natural ability. For example, some dogs like Greyhounds and Russian wolfhounds are sight hounds and will fare better at sight-oriented tests.  Other breeds, like bloodhounds and beagles, use their noses to solve problems, and will therefore probably be better at scent-oriented problem solving tests. 

But there is also a learning ability, and this can include environmental learning, social learning, language comprehension, and task learning. This is similar to humans - some human beings are better at math or logic questions, and others may fare better at creative solutions to problems or interpersonal relationships. 

But these strengths aren't better than the other - they are simply different types of intelligence.  The same theory works for different dogs - so while your dog may do well at one kind of test or another, it may not be due to intelligence as much as the dog's natural ability to achieve those results as well as their own way of looking and thinking through a problem.

Some standard tests
Below are some tests that you can do with your dog, as well as a scoring system to keep track of intelligence.  Don't necessarily try to do these tests all in one day - your dog may become overwhelmed and not understand why you're sending them through all these strange and bizarre actions. And the most important thing - don't be negative!  Make these tests fun for your dog - treat them like games!  And always - no matter how high or low they score - give them lots of love and positive attention afterwards.

Towel test:
Take a large towel or blanket and gently place it over your dog's head.
If he frees himself from the towel in less than 15 seconds, give him 3 points. If it takes 15-30 seconds, 2 points.  Longer than 30 seconds earns 1 point.

Bucket test:
Place a dog treat or a favorite toy under one of three buckets placed next to each other. Let the dog know which bucket the treat is under, than turn the dog away for a few seconds.  Then, let her find the treat.  If she immediately goes to the correct bucket give her 3 points.  If she takes two attempts, score 2 points.  If your dog looks under the other two buckets first, score 1 point.

Favorite spot:
With your dog out of the room, rearrange the furniture. When he re-enters the room, if he goes directly to his favorite spot give him 3 points.  If it takes him 30 seconds to investigate before he finds his spot, give him 2 points.  If he decides on a new area completely, score 1 point.

Chair puzzle:
Place a treat under a table or chair low enough so your dog can only fit her paw and cannot fit her head. If your dog figures how to reach the treat within one minute, score 3 points.  If she uses her paws and nose, score 2 points.  If your dog gives up, score 1 point.

Go for a walk!
On a day or time you normally don't walk your dog, quietly pick up your keys, and his leash while he's watching you. If he gets excited immediately, score 3 points. If you have to walk to the door before he knows it's time to go out, score 2 points.  If he sits and just looks confused give him 1 point.

Barrier test:
Construct a barrier from cardboard that is 5 feet wide and taller than your dog when she's on two legs, so she can't see over it.  Attach two boxes to either side as support structures.  In the center of the cardboard, cut a 3 inch-wide rectangular aperture - it should run from about 4 inches from the top to about 4 inches from the bottom.  (This way, the dog can see through the barrier but cannot physically get through.)  Toss a toy or treat to the other side of the barrier, or have someone stand on the other side.  If your dog walks around the barrier within 30 seconds, give her 3 points.  If she goes around the barrier between 30 seconds and one minute, give 2 points.  If she gets her head stuck in the aperture trying to get through, give her 1 point for effort!

Scoring and results
16 points or higher - Brilliant!
13 to 16 points - Well above average
9 to twelve points - Average
5 to 8 points - Below average
1 to 4 points - Not the brightest kibble in the bag, but we still love 'em!

This testing can be fun, and can give you a general idea about your dog's intelligence, but wise pet owners maintain their own criteria. Your dog may not win the Nobel Prize, or even first place at a dog trial - he may even lose his favorite ball once in awhile - but when it comes to making us happy and feel good, most of our pets are just downright brilliant!


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