The problem with evaluating dog intelligence

Dogs as intelligent as two-year-old children

I have never agreed with Dr. Coren’s use of the term “intelligence” to denote a dog’s response to obedience commands. I would have liked it better if he used another term – perhaps “obedience application” rather than “intelligence”.

Look at the breeds ranked as “most intelligent”:

  1. Border Collie
  2. Poodle
  3. German Shepherd Dog
  4. Golden Retriever
  5. Doberman Pinscher
  6. Shetland Sheepdog
  7. Labrador Retriever
  8. Papillon
  9. Rottweiler
  10. Australian Cattle Dog

Half of them are from herding backgrounds and three of them from retrieving backgrounds – types of dog that are naturally attuned to their owners.  These are types of dog bred to work closely with humans and to take direction.

Here are the breeds ranked the least intelligent:

  1. Shih Tzu
  2. Basset Hound
  3. Mastiff
    Beagle (tied)
  4. Pekingese
  5. Bloodhound
  6. Borzoi
  7. Chow Chow
  8. Bulldog
  9. Basenji
  10. Afghan Hound

6 of the 10 are scent or sight hounds, bred for hunting and pulling down game.  Not bred for working to close commands with the owner, not bred to take intricate direction.

Since Coren did not evaluate Shibas in his “intelligence” tests, let’s take a look at similar breeds to figure out where they would stand.

Above Average Working/Obedience Intelligence

33. Samoyed

36. Norwegian Elkhound

Average Working/Obedience Intelligence

43. Finnish Spitz

45. Siberian Husky

50. Alaskan Malamute

54. Akita

Low Obedience Intelligence

76. Chow Chow

78. Basenji

So, I would say that the Shiba would be in the Average category.  But this is where this is flawed.  As Shiba owners know, obedience is not an indicator of overall intelligence.  As Shiba owners also know, their dogs also can put any 2 year old human child to shame when it comes to single-minded escape maneuvers.  Shibas can learn and execute commands with blinding speed; they just don’t give a shit unless you’re waving a poached salmon wildly in their sight… if they’re hungry … if there isn’t something more interesting around … if the wind happens to be blowing westerly and its Tuesday…

Sometimes I’m sure we would all love a stupid dog who can’t figure out that they can jump from the compost heap to the garbage can to the top of the fence and catapult off like a high diver in the Olympic finals.  A dog who can’t figure out how to open simple lids would also be nice, as would a dog who can’t calculate your length of reach to the millimetre so that they can keep the leash exactly just out of your grasp if they get loose.

Average.  Sure.


  1. I agree with you completely. Shibas are very independent and self assured, perhaps stubborn at times. They may not be so keen to follow orders as other breeds. I have owned several dogs in the past and two Shiba Inu dogs presently. I can attest that because a dog is not predisposed to do tricks and follow orders does not neccessarily correlate to intelligence. I have had dogs that were more easily trained than my Shibas, but not more intelligent. These guys actually reason and conspire together at a level that is really almost scary. I own an invisible fence to keep them from running away. These two guys actually worked together to remove each other’s collars in order to run away. I’ve had one distract me, while the other took my food. Trust me, Shibas are highly resourceful and fiercly independent dogs, and I love them.

  2. I’m a member of Mensa, and my dogs have occasionally outwitted me. Very embarrassing. One is a Shiba mix, and the other is a Norwegian elkhound mix. Thank goodness, they don’t work together, or I’d be in big trouble.

  3. But don’t get me wrong, I embrace my canine servitude. I wonder if there’s medication for that?

  4. Wow. My current dog is a Shih Tzu, and while I am aware of and agree with the widely held view that they are one of the most difficult dogs to train, I have never once thought that he disobeyed out of stupidity. It’s really quite the opposite; he’s never shown anything but bright alertness and wily calculation when learning words and commands. It has always seemed to me that his mulishness means that he’s smart enough to know exactly what he can and can’t get away with.

  5. I thought the SAME thing when I first read that article… obedience does NOT correlate to actual intelligence. I think Coren is referring more to domestic trainability than communication and problem solving skills.

    On the flip side, in his book How Dogs Think he discusses canine communication skills and the primitive breeds are the superstars in that category.

  6. I’ve always had Golden Retrievers. My Shiba, who is now 10, established alpha over my 5 year old 90lb Golden when he was about 5lbs. To me it’s not even close as far as intelligence goes. A physician listens to what you have to say, looks at you, and renders a verdict. Like it or not. A housekeeper does what you say without waiver and keeps a smile at all times. If obedience expressed intelligence, then our trash takers would take the cake. Unfortunately, those that evaluate the intelligence of our dogs are not physicians, engineers, CEOs etc… The problem is that you must live with a Shiba to understand. Ultimately my golden rides a short bus and my Shiba owns the bus company.

  7. I’ve worked with so, so many dogs over the last two years at our local shelter. So many purebreds and mixes! My job is to do a modest evaluation of them while I get their photograph for petfinder & facebook. I also evaluate dogs that require foster care. In all my experience there, hands down, labrador retrievers and close mixes to that breed are the least moldable under pressure! Spitz types, peace of cake when I have food on me. Terriers, easy. Hounds love to work for food. Labs? Not so much.

    So while I do not think a shelter environment is ideal for any intelligence or biddability testing, under pressure, nearly all dogs excel at following a human’s cues. Labs just tend, to me, to be less inclined to want to pay attention or keep your attention for any meaningful length of time. Try going to a shelter and getting a lab to sit for a photo… it ain’t easy.

  8. niko the shiba inu is very smart… i teach him words, both verbs and nouns. i recently was telling a friend this, and the person snorted: “niko doesn’t know words.” i turned to niko and said: “niko, want a massage?” he walked right up to me and put his head down for a neck massage. my friend was dumbfounded… but now, could i get the damn shiba to come to me when i call him?! most likely the answer would be “no.” rather, he will stand staring at me, weighing his options, and not bother… even if i have a delicious treat.

    niko constantly reminds me that “you’re not the boss of me, rebecca!”

  9. I am currently on my second Shih Tzu, and I can definitely say, that they are intelligent. The one I have now will go to the door and sit there and play with the door stop while looking at me, and she will do this when when finding it difficult to get my attention, and she knows it annoys me. When I take her out, she is very quick to turn on the charm, and knows she is cute. However, when I want her she is stubborn. When she wants a treat, she knows how to go about getting it; you might say she has me trained. However, if this treat is slow in coming she will go and pout where she knows I can see her, and I cave in..
    I think for the most part, we base their intelligence on whether they are quick in responding to our commands, and if they will do tricks, which does not correlate to intelligence. And let’s face it, many people are many times, much slower in responding. I have been around collies, German Shepherds, and I can again testify the Shih Tzu is very intelligent. I also think the breed is only the beginning, and whether the parents were intelligent, as I also believe just as in people, the intelligence level in a dog is also hereditary and also varies from dog to dog. As with human beings, you ca also stimulate the mind of a dog.

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