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How Smart is Your Puppy?

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Everyone's always trying to determine how smart everyone else is. How smart are you? How smart are your children? How smart are animals? Is a dog smarter than a cat? And now, how smart is your puppy? And the answer is never simple. First, what kind of smarts are people talking about? There are now thought to be at least 7 different types of intelligence in humans: linguistic, logical, spatial, musical, kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal.

Attempts to measure intelligence are always thwarted by the test itself and its biological appropriateness to the species under test. If you design a test to measure intelligence, like escaping from an enclosure, how well an animal performs depends on certain physical characteristics like possessing dexterous paws or flexible limbs.

If the test relies on observation, those animals most well equipped visually will score highest [a hawk could read a newspaper at 25 yards, if only it could read]. And we shouldn't be too cocky about our own intellectual powers. Dogs' reading of body language and identification and interpretation of odors leaves us in the dust. We have superior language skills (linguistic intelligence) but dogs are better at understanding the tacit communication of body language. So who's the overall winner in the communication department?

To rate intelligence between dogs is a fairer task than to compare intelligence between species. The task, however, is still one beset with intrinsic difficulties similar to those found when designing and conducting human-human comparative intelligence tests. How well we fare on IQ tests depends on our background, experiences, and training. How well a pup fares on a puppy IQ test depends on its experience and training, its physical and emotional capabilities, and on the test itself. To say that everyone's a winner may sound a bit trite, in light of what I have just said, it's not to far from the mark. Yet people still push for the answer. Who's smart and who's not. Well, for these few perseverant people, let's look at the situation from a more empirical perspective. For people, there seems to be such a thing as raw intelligence: the ability to think one's way out of a paper bag, so to speak - no prior experience, no lessons. The same may well be true in dogs.

When assessing the intelligence of pups, one has to bear in mind that intelligence in youngsters can be something of a moving target. Nerve cells in pups' brains are not fully developed until 4 weeks of age and visual centers are not up to speed until 7-8 weeks of age. Some senses are not fully developed until some time between 4 and 8 weeks and adult coordination may not be attained until the juvenile period is reached.

These fundamentals influence the ability of the pup to learn and respond, making estimation of intelligence far from cut and dried. Pups that are properly stimulated during the early weeks of life develop faster and better. They become better problem solvers and thus appear (or actually are) more intelligent than their under-stimulated peers. So, to some extent, intelligence can be molded, and how well molded it has become depends on the age when you test the puppies. Any time before 8-weeks of age may be too young to tell how smart the pup will eventually be.

Testing between 8-weeks and 6-months will be limited by the pup's physical ability. Remember, full muscular coordination is not present until about 6-months. If you were to compare a 4-month old pup with an adult using Frisbee catching as a test, the adult would be more likely to emerge superior. Puppies are all very smart at things that they need to do to survive.

Early in life, all a pup has to do is locate mom's milk bar and find a warm place to sleep. At these tasks, it excels. As time passes, pups become learning sponges, soaking up all kinds of extraneous information for later use. At this stage they are like a computer that is downloading information and may not perform well on tests that involve motor responses (but how else do you test a pup's intelligence?). But in time, after the full package has been downloaded, the pup is primed with requisite information, and is at least semi-capable of coordinating an appropriate response. At this time, intelligence testing and comparison of peers may be somewhat valid.

Puppy IQ Test

The puppy must be at least 12 weeks old and must have been in the home with its new owners for at least 4 weeks.

What you will need:

  • Flat collar on your dog
  • Training lead
  • Treats
  • Small can or bowl (like an empty coffee can or some other Container)
  • Towel, sheet or some fabric that can completely cover your puppy
  • Two light cardboard boxes, a sheet of cardboard, and two appropriately sized, light weights
  • Scissors to cut hole in cardboard

    Test 1 – Observation Learning

    Choose an activity that your puppy has seen you do before many times and that it enjoys e.g. going out for a short walk in the yard or ride in the car, getting dinner ready, or preparing for a clicker training session. Engage in the behavior in five stages, scoring 5 points for your puppy's immediate understanding of your intentions (you take one step toward the door and it approaches you and looks enthusiastic or runs to an appropriate place, signaling its understanding). Score 0 for paying no attention at all while you complete the entire maneuver. Intermediate scores 1-4 are awarded for intermediate responses.

    Test 2 – Problem Solving

    Take an empty can and your puppy's favorite food treat. Show your puppy the treat and then put the treat under the inverted can. Score the puppy's attempts to obtain the food on a similar 0 to 5 scale. A score of 5 is awarded if the puppy obtains the food treat by knocking the can over and getting the treat within 15 seconds; score the pup 4 for obtaining the food treat within 15-30 seconds; score 3 for completing the task in 30-45 seconds, score 2 for a time of 45-60 seconds, score 1 for eventually getting the treat; score 0 for the pup giving up, losing interest, and walking off defeated.

    Test 3 – Problem Solving

    Throw a tea towel or the corner of a sheet over the pup so it is completely covered and observe its attempts to think its way out of the situation. Use the same scoring method as in Test 2 above.

    Test 4 – Social Learning

    Wait until your puppy is near you but is not engaged in any particular activity. Look directly into its eyes and smile. Hold this pose. If the pup comes towards you, this is an excellent result indicating good social learning: score 5. If the pup ignores you, score 0. Intermediate scores are assessed, as before, on a timed basis.

    Test 5 – Short Term Memory

    Show the pup a delicious food treat and allow him to watch you hide it under a tea towel. Then lift him up in your arms and walk around the room in a large circle before depositing him at least 6 feet from where the food is hidden. If he immediately goes to the food treat and finds it, score 5. If he shows no interest in the treat and doesn't look for it, score him 0. Intermediate scores are awarded for his finding the treat within 30 seconds, 1 minute, 1-1/2 minutes, and 2 minutes.

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