by Elizabeth Xu
Your pup is obviously the cutest, most well-behaved, smartest dog on the planet, right? That’s what dog owners like to think, anyway! But how can you tell if your pup really is extra intelligent, as opposed to just normal-dog smart?
Be careful what you wish for. Having an intelligent dog can actually have some downsides, says Debby McMullen, a dog trainer and behaviorist in Pennsylvania.
“You need to be observant and notice when they’re bored and set the environment up for success. Honestly, having an intelligent dog is a little bit tiring at first because you have to put a whole lot of effort in the beginning,” she says, noting that helping intelligent dogs to make good choices is essential.
Keep in mind that measuring dog’s intelligence is pretty difficult; some experts prefer to look at it as a way of measuring a dog’s cognition instead. (Merriam Webster defines cognition, in part, as “the activities of thinking, understanding, learning, and remembering.”)
“When you try to assess a dog to see whether this dog is smart or that dog is smart, the question is: What is it that you want your dog to do? Not if the dog is smart enough to do it. The question needs to be turned around,” says Jody Haas, an Illinois-based dog trainer. In other words, most dogs specialize in a certain type of “smarts.” One might be a social genius while another has a memory like a steel trap. Depending on the situation you put them in, one of these dogs may appear brilliant, the other… less so, but that difference has more to do with the situation than the dogs.
That said, here are seven things truly intelligent dogs do.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Jennifer Coates, DVM
Does your dog always seem to get what you’re saying right away? Or maybe they can figure out tricky toys super fast? They just might be pretty smart, McMullen says.
“When dogs connect the dots pretty quickly from what you showed them, then that’s very similar to humans,” she says. “They are of a higher intelligence level than some other dogs.”
“All dogs are smart, but some dogs connect the dots more quickly, and it’s not limited to specific breeds.”
McMullen says dogs that make an effort to communicate with humans, even simple things like that they need to go outside, may be more intelligent than other dogs. But if you think your dog isn’t letting you know, you might just not be paying attention to their cues.
The problem, then, is not with the dog. “The human doesn’t always get the communication,” McMullen says.
If your pup is constantly getting into the trash or chewing on things they shouldn’t, you probably get pretty frustrated with them, but here’s something to consider: Maybe they’re just bored and need you to help them figure out what to do instead of those naughty behaviors.
“Usually, dogs that are happy and get in trouble for doing a lot of stuff in the house that they shouldn’t be doing are simply looking for jobs—they’re under stimulated,” McMullen says, noting that if the dog is unhappy, these behaviors could be related more to stress (like separation anxiety) and not boredom.
If boredom is a problem for your pup, McMullen says you need to redirect them with things like hide-and-seek games, dog puzzles, and other things that will keep their mind occupied.
If your pup is like most, there’s probably nothing he or she loves more than a few good treats (besides you, of course). How quickly they can get treats out of challenging toys might be a sign of intelligence, McMullen says.
“Many of the treat-dispensing toys will tell you what kind of intelligence a dog has,” McMullen says. “Problem solvers aren’t going to get frustrated with a few different steps; they’re going to figure out how it works and see how it can benefit them.”
Don’t despair if your pup always needs a little help to figure such toys out. Dogs who can’t figure out such toys aren’t dumb, McMullen stresses, “It just means their intelligence is different.”
There are many products to help you determine how smart your dog is. One is called Dognition, which focuses more on cognition and the idea that all dogs are smart—albeit in different ways. You simply play 20 games with your pup, input the data, and discover which of the nine Dognition profiles fit your pup best, from Einstein to Renaissance Dog.
“Anybody can take on the challenge of playing specific cognition-based games to determine what kind of dog cognition your specific dog possesses,” says Haas, who is Dognition certified.
Haas says there are some simple games you can try at home to test your dog’s cognition.
For example: Get three plastic cups, show your dog a treat (like a dog biscuit) and put it under a cup, ask your dog to stay, and then walk around the cups to serve as a distraction. After walking around, stand to the side and tell your dog to find the treat.
Some dogs will find the treat right away while others will have no idea what’s going on, Haas says. She notes that not finding the treat doesn’t mean that a dog is not intelligent, though—it means that the one who did find it quickly is good at observing and remembering where the treat was placed, while the one who couldn’t find it didn’t understand the task well enough.
Although you might not agree that it’s great for a dog to know how to open a refrigerator door, McMullen says it’s a sign that your pup has good problem-solving skills. Another example might be a dog that can get something off of the counter without just jumping up and knocking it off, she says.
As with other potentially undesirable behaviors that intelligent dogs exhibit, McMullen says redirecting the dog to more acceptable behaviors is a frustrated owner’s best bet.