How Smart is Your Puppy?

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:

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.

Test 6 – Long Term Memory

This is the same as Test 5 except that the pup should be taken out of the room for 5 minutes before returning it to the vicinity where the food treat is hidden. By the way, with both these tests it is important to use a food treat that is not too easily located by sense of smell, otherwise the test is biased in favor of olfactory acuity as opposed to visual memory.

Test 7 – Problem Solving in Manipulation Ability

For this test you will need a couple of light cardboard boxes, a sheet of cardboard, and two appropriately sized, light weights. Make a low bridge by placing the cardboard between the two boxes and weight the cardboard down with a weight on either end. Make sure that the height of the bridge is sufficiently low so the dog cannot reach underneath (for a small dog – the bridge should be only a couple inches off the ground). Show the dog a food treat and then hide it under the bridge, out of sight but not out of mind (or olfactory range). The pup must figure how to get the food treat out. If it quickly demolishes your bridge and obtains the food treat, score 5. If it takes a while to get the treat out, but less than 1 minute, by pushing or nuzzling, score 4. If the pup tries to get the treat out but fails, score him 3 points. If the pup simply sniffs the structure, score 2. If the pup simply looks vacantly and does nothing, score 1. If he shows no interest and walks away, score him 0.

Test 8 – Speed of Learning

Assuming you have not already taught to get off furniture when instructed with the word off, find out how quickly he learns this command. Place the pup on a piece of furniture that is low to the ground, say, a couch. Attach a training lead to his flat collar. Issue the verbal cue off and then tug ever so lightly on his collar until he is obliged to flop onto the floor. Praise him. After 30 seconds or so, place him back on the couch, say the word off again and, if necessary, assist him off the couch using the same gentle traction applied to his collar, as before. This should be enough to train most pups the meaning of the word off. For a third time, place the pup back on the couch. Say the word off and observe his behavior. If he jumps off the couch, score him 5 points. If he requires assistance after about 30 seconds, assisted him off the couch, praise him, and then try again. If he succeeds on the fourth occasion, score him 4; on the fifth occasion, score him 3, and so on, right down to the lowest possible score of 0.

Test 9 – Language Comprehension

Assuming you’ve taught your puppy the word come, and that he has obeyed this command, try testing his knowledge of the actual word. Stand blankly facing him, say his name, the word come and praise him. Good boy! If he comes, score him 5 points. Wait for a few moments and repeat the exercise but this time, instead of the word come, use a word that he is unfamiliar with, e.g. dark. If he shows some response to his name, appears gratified by the praise, and comes, award him 3 points. If he does not respond to his name or praise and does not come, award him 1 point. Intermediate scores can be awarded for intermediate responses (e.g. coming after a delay) and score 0 for his paying no attention to you and walking away.

Test 10 – Intuitive Problem Solving

Show the pup a treat across a barrier e.g. sheet of cardboard that is impenetrable to the dog. It is probably best to arrange for the barrier to have a small aperture in it through which the treat can be displayed. If the pup immediately walks around the side of the barrier to retrieve the treat, score 5. If he takes more than a minute to come to the same conclusion, score 3. If he doesn’t figure the problem out at all and spends his time looking through the aperture or gazing wistfully over the top of the barrier, score 1. Intermediate scores can be given, including 0 for paying initial attention to the treat and then giving up on the quest.

The Analysis

The maximum score on this test is 50. Scores between 40 and 50 indicate a particularly smart puppy. Scores in the range of 30-40 indicate an attentive and responsive pup but one that is not necessarily top drawer material. Scores 20-30 indicate a pup that will do reasonably well but for whom smarts is not a strong suit. Scores below 20 indicate a slow learner who will need considerable help to learn what he needs to know (a special needs dog if you will).

The above test modified from a canine IQ test developed by Dr. Stanley Coren, and published in his book The Intelligence of Dogs (1994) is designed more as a fun guide than an empirical measure and owners should not put too much store by it. Remember that Albert Einstein was considered to be a slow learner and barely said a word or put a play brick on top of another until he was 5. He actually didn’t do too well at school either and was never good at arithmetic. However, he turned out to have one of the most brilliant minds that has ever been. Perhaps some of the slow learner puppies may also be gifted in some special way. Perhaps they may have a different kind of smarts. Perhaps they are extremely affectionate and loyal. And, remember, just as with people, being smart isn’t everything. It’s important to be nice, too. How nice is your puppy? I’ll leave you to be the judge of that.