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Are Dogs Intelligent?

Updated on November 21, 2013

We have all heard the phrase ‘dumb animals’, but is man’s best friend really that dumb? My own two dogs seem to provide an argument for both sides of this curious debate.

Are dogs really the dumb animals many believe them to be? I don't think so ... and here's why ...
Are dogs really the dumb animals many believe them to be? I don't think so ... and here's why ...

When my partner and I first met, we each had our own pet dog. Luckily, as time went on, the two muts became good buddies and the transition into living under the same roof never caused a problem. In fact, the canine members of the family have argued far less than my partner and I over the 3 years we have all lived together. The success of their relationship has, I believe, nothing whatsoever to do with their similarities but rather more the differences in their personalities … and their diametrically opposed levels of intelligence certainly seems to be a major part of the equation.

My dog is now 10 years old and is called BB. It’s a long story that I will cut short, but the name refers to her pen-tag when she was in the dog rescue pound. The run of kennels were labelled A, AA, B, BB, etc., and the dogs were tagged with the same label, which somehow I just never got around to changing for a proper name. Now I can’t imagine her being called anything else. There was never much history available for her other than the fact she was picked up on the streets as a one-year-old lurcher, riddled with mange, covered in all-too-recent wounds and appearing woefully underweight. It was a distressing and heart wrenching sight.

Choosing her from amongst all the other dogs crying out for a new home was never my choice – it was BB that decided I was going to be her new owner. As I walked along the kennel run, she jumped up and put both front paws on the metal caged wall, cocked her head to the side, folded her ears back flat against her neck and whined pitifully while looking straight into my eyes. From that first glance, I was hooked.

And BB has managed to re-use that same trick of deploying emotional blackmail ever since and throughout the whole of the decade we’ve been together. She is one hell of an intelligent dog – or is it just instinctive manipulation? But more about that later.

Our younger dog is of uncertain parentage, so to speak, and as dumb as they come. Sadly there is very little between his ears; but what he lacks in wisdom and cunning, he more than makes up for in affection and lovability. My partner called him Giro, because he wanted to let him off the lead in the park and then ask people, ‘Have you seen my Giro? I seem to have lost my Giro.’ You might have gathered by this that my partner has a slightly twisted sense of humour.

Despite meeting up and living together long after either dog was acquired as a pet, BB and Giro get along just fine. BB is the dominant female, while Giro just accepts his position as the submissive male at the bottom of the pecking order. It’s a marriage made in heaven – and like so many others many of us might recognise. They are as different as chalk and cheese, but extraordinarily compatible by virtue of ‘pack protocol’. It is however their divergent levels of intelligence (or manipulation) that has more recently made me question the age-old debate about dogs and their innate ability to get what they want, through manoeuvring and scamming. BB is the queen of cunning; while Giro is the lovable village idiot, never quite sure what’s going on but nonetheless eager to be a part of it.

According to various academic sources, there is no absolute definition of what intelligence is. Many suggest it is a mixture of several attributes, some of which might be taken in isolation – such as the ability to recognise a problem, devise a plan that might resolve the challenge and then perform an action that will overcome it successfully. In recent months, I have witnessed behaviour instigated by BB and inflicted on Giro, that I believe meets the somewhat grey definition of what intelligence is.

Our dogs each have a separate dog-bed located in the dining room of our house. The beds are very similar, but not quite the same - and the dogs swap beds from time to time, proving that no particular bed belongs to any particular dog. However, BB being the dominant canine, she decides at the outset, which bed she intends to slumber in – and Giro, being so submissive, simply waits until BB has chosen her preferred bed, then takes whichever one is left vacant.

All well and good.

But BB occasionally (actually several times every evening) decides mid-snooze that she wants to try the other bed, so she wanders over to Giro, makes a small whining noise, Giro then gets up and moves out of the bed – while BB steps into it and continues her slumber. It’s all very civilised. Giro moves over to the newly vacated bed and settles into it, presumably hoping to get at least an hour or two before being moved again.

This behaviour while comical to watch, has I believe, more to do with BB reasserting her dominance in the pack rank, rather than exercising her preference for any particular bed. Everyone needs to know their position – and while the status quo is maintained, things seem to run fairly smoothly.

However, every now and then, Giro becomes stubborn. Instead of reacting to BB’s whine, he ignores her by keeping his eyes averted and (more interestingly) staying glued to his bed. You might imagine BB would then heighten her insistence by becoming more vocal and more aggressive, but she is not an aggressive dog – so she uses a completely different tactic.

Until I had seen this behaviour on several occasions, I didn’t really believe what was happening – or at least, I found it difficult to believe any dog could be so cunning or so conspiring.

BB walks into the hallway and barks once. It’s enough to get everyone’s attention, because either dog barking in the hallway usually means there’s someone at the door. So up we all get, Giro becomes excited and barks away quite merrily while either my partner or I answer the door. But when we open it, we realise that no one is there. Returning to the dining room area, we find BB happily snuggled into the bed that Giro vacated when he went to the hallway. It wasn’t until we had seen this occur several times that we even recognised what BB was doing. Which means for quite a while, she wasn’t just conning Giro, but both human alpha leaders too.

In my opinion, this highly practised routine meets all the criteria suggested for the evidence of intelligence in dogs. BB confronted a problem, considered a resolve, actioned a plan and solved the difficulty – without resorting to the more common canine use of aggression. Even to this day, Giro remains completely baffled by BB’s behaviour. He just can’t work out why she barks at the front door when no one is there. Of course, he is equally oblivious to the fact that as soon as he goes into the hallway, BB sneaks back into the dining room and climbs into his bed.

Dogs are fascinating – and fantastic – aren’t they? Is this routine of BB evidence of higher than average intelligence? I think so. It’s a shame there’s no canine equivalent of MENSA  otherwise I would sign her up here and now.


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    • Leon O. profile image

      Leon O. 8 years ago from Toronto, Canada

      I totally agree. My border collie is smarter than most young adults. Nice story