I have the sweetest little client, Chacha, who is a 7-8 month old terrier mix and just whip smart. Her focus is impressive in one so young and she is a joy to train. I saw her this past weekend and it got me thinking about just how darn smart dogs are and how much more impressed we should all be with their intellectual abilities.

Ruth & the super smart Chacha

Hence, this blog post which is a lesson on how your dog thinks and learns so that you can be as amazed as I often am by their genius.

For too long, traditional dog training assumed that dogs were just dumb beasts and used punishment to make they behave the way people wanted. Today, we (or most of us anyway, there are still far too many aversive trainers around for my liking) know better and seek to address dogs’ needs, learning styles and what the training experience feels like for them to make it humane and fun while getting even better results than the old ways.

Understanding your dog’s cognitive processes is SO important and will open up a whole new world of understanding for you. It may also put you in awe of your dog’s amazing intelligence.

So, how does your dog think and perceives the world?

It’s often said that dogs have the intelligence of a human toddler which is true to an extent but dogs also have skills that are unique to them and make them incomparable to humans. The way dogs learn is also similar to how human babies learn but dogs have feelings, emotions and intelligence that are unique to them as well. They are far more capable than most people give them credit for.

Dogs have the following specific types of intelligence:

Spatial intelligence – the ability to organization the world in a logical fashion including creating a mental map of the environment. This enables a dog to mark his territory, find his way around and “hunt” effectively.

Kinesthetic intelligence – the ability to coordinate the body effectively. Dogs are active creatures that require strong kinesthetic skills such as those used in agility for example.

Intrapersonal intelligence – the ability to understand your own personal capabilities and limitations such as how far or high can you jump. These skills are important for avoiding injury.

Interpersonal intelligence – the ability to interact effectively with others (i.e. social skills). For dogs, this includes having social skills with other dogs, humans and other domesticated animals they may live with such as cats. Dogs can have strong interpersonal intelligence with other dogs but not people and vice versa.

Linguistic intelligence – the ability to respond to cues from others such as the body and vocal language of people and dogs. This type of intelligence is important for training and living with others harmoniously.

Crystallized intelligence – the ability to grow intellectually (learn) as well as the ability to know that they have learned and accomplished something new.

Fluid intelligence – having mental potential (i.e. how teachable is the dog). As with people, the level of fluid intelligence varies from individual to individual.

Pretty impressive wouldn’t you say? Each dog is unique and one of a kind and will display the different types of intelligence to greater and lesser extents based on their different experiences and perceptions of the world, genetics (nature), how it was raised (nurture) or a combination of both.

With all of these types of intelligence it’s no wonder that most dogs can do much more than humans generally give them credit for.

For example, dogs can:

  • Understand the communicative intentions of human gestures (I.e. they know what pointing means).
  • Learn new words (200 on average).
  • Problem solve (as when figuring out how to get treats out of a puzzle toy).
  • Make inferences (using what you know to make a guess about what you don’t know).
  • Communicate effectively through a variety of vocal and physical language.
  • Learn associatively (i.e. link existing ideas and experiences together to increase learning).
  • Imitate the behaviors of others to learn new behaviors.
  • Recruit help from other dogs or humans (service dogs are taught to get help from other humans in an emergency).

Again, that’s a pretty impressive repertoire, isn’t it! Dogs have so many cognitive abilities that help them live in the modern human world. They are able to infer, recognize novel stimuli, interpret symbols and gestures and categorize input. Simply put, dogs are amazing intelligent and beautiful creatures that deserve our compassion and respect.

Share a story of how smart your dog is in the comments!