Breed Intelligence

I’m sitting in JC Beans, a small coffee shop in the heart of Dana Point, beginning this blog, when a man next to me strikes up conversation. Unsurprisingly, we end up talking about dogs and he asks me a common question. “Is it true that larger breeds are smarter than smaller ones?”

I could write an entire book on the inaccuracy of breed generalizations alone. Yes, certain behaviors are to be expected with a particular breed. Yes, everyone should consider breed very carefully when thinking of adopting. But qualities such as intelligence and trainability are very hard to classify based on genetics. First of all, we can’t forget that dogs are individuals and there is immense variability between dogs of the same breed. Second, expectations set the course for apparent intelligence.

My quick answer is that small dogs seem harder to train or less intelligent (pea-brained as some people like to call it) because they tend to have more freedom in a household. Their boundaries are larger because they aren’t physically capable of causing much damage. A German Shepherd allowed on the couch will quickly turn all of your guests’ clothes into fur coats. A Great Dane allowed to jump when greeting visitors will bring Grandma to the floor. These dogs are immediately subjected to many rules around the house and have to learn quickly in order to become a part of the family. However, smaller dogs are typically allowed to do whatever they want. They can run around the house, jump, lay in our laps. They can’t reach the countertops, or our crotches, or Grandma’s fragile shoulders. With less expectations comes less discipline. It’s not that these dogs are less intelligent. It’s that we’ve expected less from them and they haven’t had to expand their communicative abilities with us in order to live comfortably in our homes.

In my opinion, intelligence based on breed should depend on the job they were intended to do. We shouldn’t call Yorkshire Terriers less intelligent than Belgian Malinois just because they’re not trained to jump out of airplanes. As Albert Einstein wrote “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Each breed has their own genius. Do you know your dog’s genius?


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