"The Intelligence of Dogs" by Coren, Long book review

Skip to first unread message


Jun 14, 2002, 12:36:51 PM6/14/02
"The Intelligence of Dogs, a guide to the thoughts, emotions, and inner
lives of our canine companions" by Stanley Coren

I found this book to be a somewhat academic and but a very interesting read.
After a look at the history of the dog, he presents the early thoughts on
dog intelligence. He takes a fair amount of time looking specifically at the
linguistic aspect of intelligence and how dogs communicate. Coren takes the
definitions of intelligence by, et. al., Howard Gardner's multiple
intelligence theory and applies them to dogs. Points are illustrated with
anecdotes about dog's behavioral display of each one.

It starts of with the history of dogs and the theories of how our
domesticated dog came to us; wolves, jackals, foxes, etc. He also included
some religions' historical views of dogs.

He then explores the early views of dog intelligence, particularly
Descartes. No big surprise they were deemed to not have any-but it was very
interesting and horrifying to read. They thought that dogs could not feel
pain-their cries were involuntary responses to stimuli, so they nailed them
to boards and opened them up, live, to see the circulatory system in action.
He goes on to say that generally, our modern "Behaviorists" pick up where
the early thinkers left off. "Words like desire, intention and reason, and
others that might suggest conscious thought are excluded from the
professional vocabulary of the behaviorist." pg 68. Dogs are machines to
them, not capable of thought, personality or feelings. He refutes this
position with a string of stories showing dogs expressing wants and desires,
using logic and problem-solving abilities to communicate these wants and
desires and furthermore, adapting their behavior when the circumstances

When discussing intelligence, Coren takes the definitions of intelligence as
developed to examine human intelligence and gives examples how dogs display
through their actions, evidence of having these intelligences. He begins
with Howard Gardner's theory of multiple (seven), fairly specific,

Spatial-the ability to remember where things are like toys, leashes, as well
as the ability to judge distances between things, etc,

Bodily-kinesthetic-the ability to move and coordinate the body as
demonstrated by agility, obedience, and other sports/disciplines,

Intrapersonal-self-awareness as shown by the dog's knowledge of his
capabilities and physical limitations like when he refuses to jump a hurdle,

Interpersonal-social skills, as seen by dogs' playfully eliciting play from
each other,

Linguistic-language, communicated by barking and body signals, and

Musical and Mathematical which he doesn't find to any real degree in dogs.

I found his stories compelling and substantive evidence that dogs do possess
the first 5 intelligences. I can think about how my own dog displays each of
these as I'm sure any observant owner can.

He goes into great detail on the communication skills of dogs, from
vocalizations to body language, including ears, eyes and tail stances.
Clearly they communicate with one another ". social organization and
structure cannot exist without some form of communication" pg 88. It may not
be with the eloquence of human language, but a wag of the tail and snarl of
the lip says they do and I think he describes them clearly and correctly.

He then breaks down dog intelligence in to three areas: Adaptive, working
and instinctive.

Adaptive intelligence (named for the skills needed to "allow individuals to
adapt to their environment" pg 118) is composed of learning ability "defined
as the number of experiences needed for an individual to code something as a
relatively permanent memory" pg 118 and problem solving ability. He
explains why a dog with high adaptive intelligence isn't always the easiest
to train, that a breed's personality plays a role. For example, no matter
how much adaptive intelligence a dog has, the dog bred to work independently
of man will be much harder to train than a dog bred to work with man.

Working intelligence is an amalgamation of an ability to control their
instincts, a fairly long attention span and the mental flexibility to "try
another strategy and not simply repeat the previous wrong responses" pg 122
as well as enough communication skills to "recognize that the handler is
trying to communicate with it and [it] must respond to the signs, sounds and
signals" pg 123.

The last dimension is instinctive intelligence. Here he points out that Rat
Terriers will, with very little training, hunt rats and that Collies will
herd sheep. However it's virtually impossible to get your Rat Terrier to
herd sheep or your Collie to hunt rats. The instincts of the breed play a
large role in what you can get them to do and to be aware of these instincts
when training. He helped me to realize why I couldn't get my Lab to
concentrate in our backyard training sessions during the summer; the pool is
too tempting a distraction for my aqua-dog who would live in the pool if
given the chance. I have since moved these sessions into the front yard and
again have her complete attention.

The IQ test. I have a lot of problems with a few parts of this test. Some
sections of the test just don't make sense to me.

For example, test one deals with observational learning (learning from
seeing; ala Beverly Hillbillies' Jethro Bodeen scampering hands and knees
after a stick and telling Duke to fetch) where he says pick up the dog's
leash and see if he heads for the door. To me, this is a conditioned
response. The dog did not learn from seeing, but rather knows from previous
experiences that when you pick up the leash he's going out. Although I
seriously doubt it's a viable training style I have seen a few occasions of
observational learning. Venus is a dog at the dog run who will stand nose to
nose with another dog, then spin around and hit the other dog in the chest
with her hip. Upon seeing one or two other dogs do this I was told that they
"picked it up" from Venus. Surely these dogs learned from watching Venus how
to perform this trick to get a stoic dog to play. My lab never ate feces
until she saw the dog across the street do it. One by one she learned to eat
deer, horse and goose poop after seeing her pal do it.

Test three measures attention and environmental learning. With the dog out
of the room, rearrange the furniture. He is then judged on how the dog
reacts to the changed room. But the scoring is biased against the dog who
doesn't run in and check it out-why does nervousness make the dog less

Test four measures problem solving. Throw a towel over the dog's head and
time how long he takes to shake it off. This is the most bizarre test in the
exam, how is a dog who sits patiently with a towel on his head less
intelligent than the dog who throws it off?

Test ten measures language comprehension. Put the dog in a sit stay and in
your "come" voice call out a random word, if he stays call out another
random word, if he still stays call his name, if he still stays call his
name again, if he still hasn't come to you score zero. This test penalizes
any well-trained dog who waits to hear the word "come" and gives the highest
reward a dog who comes when you say his name.

The much lamented list of breeds ranked by intelligence was not a result of
his odd IQ test. He sent out questionnaires to 200 obedience judges listed
in the AKC directory and this list is simply comprised of their responses.
He also lists the breeds that did not get one single obedience degree (pg
177) and those where only one degree was obtained for the breed during the
year's data he was studying; surely this is an indicator of dogs who don't
take well to obedience training. He also tried to compensate for the fact
that there are less of the rare breeds to compete, but also notes that
rare-breed owners tend to be more active to promote the breed; thus giving
some credence to the reasoning that not one or only one degree is an
indicator of low obedience ability.

I appreciate this list of breeds ranked by working and obedience
intelligence. It's nice to have a basic idea of the ease at which one should
be able to train a particular breed of dog. Moreover, I think that a list
compiled by obedience trial judges is worth something; who would know better
the obedience ability of dogs? It's a good reference when someone asks you a
question about a problem they are having with a breed you are unfamiliar
with. If a friend of a friend had an Afghan hound and asked you why her dog'
s not getting it, you could reassure her that her dog's not doing anything
unusual, that she needs lots of patience with this breed, that it will take
many, many repetitions and even then it may not be completely reliable.
Finally, people who open the book to the list page and see number one rated
Border Collie, get a BC pup only to be overwhelmed with this breed's need
for mental and physical stimulation are to blame, not this list. Anyone who
buys a dog without researching the breed is to blame for their predicament
as are the breeders who sell puppies to people without reassuring they are
going to a home where they will get the correct amount of mental and
physical stimulation. Had they actually read the book, Coren states that the
higher the intelligence, the more likely the dog is to become a pest without
the physical and mental stimulation they need.

When discussing personality he mentions terriers. Even though they are
extremely bright, they are bred to be independent and thus "do not care
about human responses to their behaviors" pg 190 while dogs bred to work
with man like the herding dogs, do extremely well in obedience because of
the genetic wiring that compels them to look to their human owners for
direction. He further mentions that when one hears "temperament" it can be
used interchangeably with "personality". This sounds correct to me. When
reading a lab's temperament according to the AKC, it sounds like they are
describing personality characteristics. "True Labrador Retriever temperament
is as much a hallmark of the breed as the "otter" tail. The ideal
disposition is one of a kindly, outgoing, tractable nature; eager to please
and non-aggressive towards man or animal. The Labrador has much that appeals
to people; his gentle ways, intelligence and adaptability make him an ideal
dog. Aggressiveness towards humans or other animals, or any evidence of
shyness in an adult should be severely penalized." Taken from the AKC
website's breed page.

The personality exam is also somewhat flawed. Test eight is outright cruel,
requiring a tester to pinch a pup's ear from lightly to as hard as possible
because "a dog that is relatively insensitive to such discomfort will not
respond well to such corrections" pg 200. The corrections he's referring to
are leash pops, which are not supposed to be painful-just a quick tug on the
leash-even with a pinch on, a correction will not cause the pain an ear
pinch will. Test ten involves the pup's reaction to novel stimuli. A towel
pulled in a line in front of him. Ignoring the towel gets a top score but
is deemed submissive. I can see if he ran from it or was fearful of it, but
ignoring it makes him submissive?

He goes on to state that by exposing dogs to lots of stimulation they
continue to grow mentally. Take them everywhere you can, talk to them,
stroke them, etc. But then recommends the hated alpha-roll as a way to
establish dominance and leadership. He adds that one can easily improve
instinctive intelligence by exposing the dog to environments that are bred
into him. Take your Lab swimming, expose your pointer to birds, etc.

He then gets to fluid and crystallized intelligence, fluid being the dog's
capacity for learning and crystallized intelligence is what the dog knows,
and ways to improve them like nutrition and exposure to lots of life
experiences. He states that even dogs that come from limited environments
will benefit by better nutrition and exposure to life experiences.

He moves on to the reason I bought the book, do you really want an
intelligent dog? He presents the reasons why you may not want a really smart
dog. For example, all it takes is one accidental association and a life long
memory is made, like the dog who accidentally breaks through the screen door
and realizes that flimsy screen is all that's stopping him from getting
outside. He then continues to break it on purpose and eventually starts
jumping out all the first floor windows to get outside. He adds that the
smarter the dog, the more they need training, mental stimulation and
exercise or those smart brains will find outlets for their pent up mental
frustration; like digging through the couch cushions. He also says that
according to one animal behaviorist he consulted, most problem dogs brought
to him are the most intelligent breeds who are simply under-challenged.

He continues that life with a less intelligent dog may be more pleasant.
Those chance associations are much less likely to form a connection and get
stored in the long-term memory and the less intelligent dog is less likely
to become bored when left for long periods of time.

He concludes with the changes in intelligence over the life span. An old dog
's brain is 25% lighter than a young dog's but a lot of the smarts are still
there. He gives us his final story of Shotgun, the elderly dog who wakes his
family when a fire broke out. He used his intelligence to save one of girls
who was trapped in the house, crying and dazed by the fire. Shotgun leads
her to the front door which is blocked by fire, he then leads her to the
rear door where the hook on the screen door locked them in and the girl is
too traumatized to undo it. Shotgun unhooks the latch, despite the severe
reprimand he received earlier in his life from doing this, receiving a bad
scratch on his nose to lead his charge to safety.

Overall, I found his depictions of dogs displaying intelligence as defined
to measure human intelligence right on. His translation of dog language, I
found clear and accurate. He convinced me that dogs do have intelligence and
are not simply machines who work on "what's in it for me" all the time. I
appreciated the rank of breeds by working and obedience intelligence as a
general guide to the ease of training the various breeds since is a list
compiled by 200 obedience trial judges. The only real problems I found with
this book were his IQ and Personality tests are flawed and I really dislike
his recommending the alpha-roll and ear pinch.

Reply all
Reply to author
0 new messages