We humans are verbal creatures; so no wonder we rely on verbal commands to communicate with our dogs. Dogs however, are visual learners. While this distinction could put humans and dogs at odds with one another, fortunately science has found that the average dog has the language understanding of about a 2-year-old child. To put it in a human perspective, the average dog can learn 165 words. An intelligent dog can learn 250 words, and the very smartest dogs may be capable of much more. Such an example is Chaser, the border collie whose owner, John W. Pilley, Professor Emeritus Wofford College, taught him to identify more than 1,000 words. It is that outstanding ability of canines that enables our species to communicate so well with one another.
So what do researchers mean by “intelligence”? According to neuropsychologist Stanley Coren, Ph.D., author of Born to Bark, there are three major types of dog smarts: instinctive intelligence (what a dog is bred for), adaptive intelligence (what a dog can learn by itself), and working and obedience intelligence (what people can teach a dog to do). Other factors to consider is the level to which your dog is trainable, social, and able to understand human gestures and words.
Often we expect our dogs to either perform or stop performing behaviors that go against their instinctive intelligence. As a result, we have trouble teaching the behaviors ‘we’ want them to perform (i.e. teaching a terrier to fetch) and preventing the ones we don’t want them to perform (i.e. stopping a terrier from digging). Often this leads us to label our dogs as defiant or dumb. If, on the other hand, we were trying to teach a terrier to find a hidden toy in a sand pit, the rate of acquisition by the dog, the ease of teaching the task on hand, and the precision with which the dog performed the behavior would be so seamless that it would make the dog appear to be a genius and the handler a phenomenal trainer.
Researchers at the London School of Economics and Political Science and the University of Edinburgh devised an I.Q. test that they tested on sixty-eight working border collies. The dogs were tested on navigation (timing them on how long it took the dogs to get food that was behind different types of barriers); their ability to follow a human pointing gesture to an object; and whether they could tell the difference between quantities of food.
The results, as published in the journal Intelligence, stated that the dogs that did well on one test, performed better on the other tests as well, and those dogs that accomplished the tasks faster also showed more accuracy. Like with humans, dog intelligence comes in many forms, so it's hard to say whether one breed is really "smarter" than another, but border collies are considered one of the smartest breeds when it comes to training and obedience.
Is it true that dogs will weigh the value of doing something - Is it worth it? Sure! But more often than not the rate of performance, or lack thereof, is not due to the dog’s defiance or stupidity but rather his uncertainty about what’s being asked (either the dog hasn’t learned the command word or the behavior itself well enough to perform on command); how it’s being asked (handler is not using clear, known hand or verbal signals); where it’s being asked (the location or circumstance doesn’t match the environment in which the behavior was learned), and/or when it’s being asked (the dog has not been trained to perform in a state of high arousal or under pressure).
Hesitation on the behalf of the dog is an indication of uncertainty, just like when we humans hesitate to cut into traffic - we are unsure about the speed of the approaching car, the amount of time we have to jump into the gap, and whether the acceleration speed of our car will be appropriate to get us in and moving at the speed of traffic. And yet we drive on a daily basis and get plenty of real-life practice. Even so, the change in the pace of traffic on a given day, the difference in location and your current state of mind (anxious about the presentation you’re going to give at work) all affect our ability to process and perform what is a known task.
So the next time your dog takes a while to perform a behavior, don’t automatically assume he’s being defiant or question his intelligence, but rather consider the individual and environmental factors that may be involved. Keep in mind that with consistent, goal-oriented and appropriate training, your dog can learn to make decisions quicker and put forth a better performance displaying their true level of intelligence.