Lessons from Shedd: Why You Don’t Really Want a Smart Dog

“What a smart dog!”

As I worked with Mischief, an adolescent mixed breed, the onlookers watched in awe. Mischief was engaged and happy. Her stubby tail wagged and she responded quickly and precisely to every cue she was given. She watched me intently, ignoring the small crowd of Beginning Obedience students gathered around us. Several people remarked positively on her apparent intelligence.

I’ll let you in on a secret: Mischief isn’t that bright. She just enjoys training, and understands the clicker game.

This is ideal, because she’s a wonderful pet. She’s also a great performance dog: at 10 months of age, she’s earned her first rally obedience excellent title with all first-place wins.

Mischief (Photo by Sara Brueske)

This common misperception about intelligence happens with any well-trained animal. People are amazed at how “smart” the beluga whales, dolphins, sea lions, and otters are at the Shedd Aquarium. However, IQ has little to do with it.

We can train sharks, goldfish, rodents, lizards, and hermit crabs. The laws of learning apply to all species, and Ken Ramirez is fond of saying that you can train an earthworm and a graduate student the same way.

Many dog owners are quick to tell me how smart their dogs are. I always respond with my condolences. Here’s the thing: smart dogs are much harder to live with.

Smart dogs get bored quickly. They’re creative, and quick to figure out their own entertainment. They’re more likely to test the limits, push at boundaries, and question rules. They require more from their owners: more training, more attention, more play and exercise, and above all, more skill. My smart dog, Layla, figured out how to open up the fridge door and back gate on her own – something Mischief would never dream of trying to puzzle out. Which dog would you prefer to live with?

Intelligence has nothing at all to do with trainability. Sure, a smart dog may learn a skill more quickly. However, that same dog is also more likely to test your criteria for that skill. Once she knows what you want, she’s going to start trying variations on that behavior to see just how hard she really has to work.

A less intelligent dog may take longer to learn the skill initially, but once she knows what you want, she’s going to be happy continuing to comply without continually offering improvements or modifications on the behavior.

So, how do you find an easy dog if intelligence doesn’t have anything to do with it? Most people actually want a biddable animal, one who is bred to work and cooperate with people. Breeds who are bred for cooperativeness, such as sporting, toy, and herding breeds, tend to be easier to train than those breeds who have been bred to work independently, such as terriers and hounds. This trait, called biddability, is what you’re probably looking for if you think you want a “smart” dog.

Is your dog smart? Biddable? Please share your stories and comments in the section below!

14 responses to “Lessons from Shedd: Why You Don’t Really Want a Smart Dog

  1. Gee, why chase this lure when I can just go after Mom’s arm, which will make the lure stop moving anyways and I can kill it easily!

    Sunshine’s brain is always turning (you can actually watch her think as she gets twitchy and bounces around looking for naughtiness) I think all this thinking that she does attributes to the anxiety she has. Too much thinking and worrying instead of just accepting things for the way they are.

    • I run into the same thing with my coonhound. Annie has taught herself to open the drawers in the kitchen and bathroom to find new ‘toys’. She’s always coming up with a new way to entertain herself. Then, just like your Sunshine, she is a worrier … her anxiety level is sky high. :) No time to be bored here …. that dog keeps me moving.

  2. My Basenji “Ringo” is way way too smart – I love him so very much – and it has been interesting trying to trail him – or he training me ??? LOL After much reading and research on Basenji’s and their specific personality and traits – I believe we have both come to a mutual conclusion of paying attention to each other and what we want and need – on my part I can really tell when he gives me “talk to the paw” ….. we are learning every day :)

  3. where is the science behind your assumptions?

  4. Lynnda L in Minneapolis

    Yes I think most perople want Biddableness in a dog. I have put titiles on two field-line Golden Retrievers, a herding line Border Collie, a stray Aus.Shepherd type, and a field-line English Cocker as well as two back-yard-bred Dalmatians, three show-line Dalmatians and a Papillion. Seven of these were/are my dogs and four dogs were “borrowed” from friends for training & trialing — in 6 different dog sports. The dogs of what I call Teamwork Breeds — retrievers and sheep herding dogs — were definitely easier to compete with and to be successful. The toy dog was not that co-operative, though he was ready to go fast and stick to a task.
    I remember hearing of a breed judge talking at a dinner of the English Cocker Club of America specialty about the importance of not losing biddability in the breed. My English Cocker, who comes from a long line of field trialing ,AKA working, dogs, is always ready to play any game with me.
    My very clever female Dalmatian is a PIA to live with. She is the only dog of all the dogs that have lived in my house, including a couple of dozen fster dogs. that got out of my yard. She scaled a 5.5 foot privacy fence to get out — and at least once climbed back in the yard. I can have numerous pens and books next to my bed, but if I leave a new one there she will scent it out and play with in, sometimes chewing it up [she is now 8]. The only tim eshe plays with my house shoes is when I am on the computer or on the phone — the shoes are out all the time with no attention to them. She has learned lots of behaviors, but unlike Mischief my female Dalmatian has trouble ingoring activities in the environment. She learned to retrieve a dumbbell in two sessions but barked the the agility judge she thought was lurking behind the dogwalk. But that is another story.
    But this is my vote for a biddable dog being easier to live with as well as fun to train.

  5. Oh boy. We have one “smart” dog and one not-so-smart one who lives to please people. Guess which one is way easier to work with, and guess which one gets bored of training in a few minutes and climbs our bookshelf looking for bookends to remove and chew?

  6. I have one of each! A brilliant, lovable, pain in the rear Malamute; and a box of rocks, trainable, snuggly and easy to deal with Boxer mix. I know exactly what this article is talking about! I’ve seen the same thing in horses as well – intelligent critters of any species are likely to be a lot more work, and be much more independent.
    I’ve always been doubtful about intelligence tests for animals of other species then human anyways. They base those tests on how human like an animal is – not how well suited they are to survival and getting along in their own environment. Being human like doesn’t mean they are more intelligent for what their species needs – it just means we’ll give them more credit because they remind us of ourselves. ;-)

  7. Thanks so much for this great post! It’s something I know intuitively, but it’s nice to hear someone else talk about it. I’ve been kind of down my dog recently (my fault of course, not hers) because we just can’t find a dog sport that we can do together. She can wow everyone with her skills at agility, rally, etc- but we got kicked out of Dock Dogs because she was a “hopeless case” and our agility coach thinks she has psychological problems that would keep her from ever being competition worthy. Neither of these things is actually true. Ultimately, she’s just got her own agenda and lacks neither the confidence nor the intelligence to compete– just the willingness. It’s so frustrating that we’re not in it as a team, but she’s really got no desire to please. I’ve learned to respect her for the independent being that she is, but a secret part of me wishes she was more biddable. My very intellectually challenged Chihuahua (he took a month to learn “down”) on the other hand is spot on with all his commands and even enjoys making eye contact, but entirely physically unsuited for dog sports. Sigh…

  8. Pingback: The Myth of the “Normal” Dog | Paws Abilities

  9. Intelligence and biddability are far from mutually exclusive. Some of the most intelligent dogs out there are sheepdogs; they are bred to work to work with people and love to do so. They are also extremely intelligent. To work stock *well* “on the hill” (actual work, not simplified lesson or trial scenarios), these dogs must also be able to problem solve independently. My Border Collie is terrifyingly intelligent, and she is biddable, too. Reading your post, a person might conclude that sheepdogs are easy pets because they are biddable… and this is often incorrect. This is because it’s not an either/or situation. The easiest dogs are biddable but not too intelligent. And that does not describe most Border Collies nor a lot of other sheepdogs. (If I wanted a very biddable herding breed dog without the burdens of intense brainpower, I would consider a Collie.).

  10. Among the dogs I’ve loved, I’ve had both a smart dog (Alaskan Malamute who among other skills learned to throw the floor shift of my VW bus into neutral to get my attention when she got bored on long trips … ) and a biddable dog (Australian Shepard/Cocker Spaniel mix); the later is amazing: hearing dog, hospice therapy dog, CERT trained disaster/crisis intervention dog, and companion. She welcomes a mountain hike and is just as pleased to sleep at my feet through out a long day of psychotherapy sessions. Smart dog vs. biddable dog … my vote goes with biddable.

  11. Michael Fortunato

    I agree that biddability and intelligence are distinct. I also agree with “Greta” that they are not mutually exclusive. I have also trained and competed with (and judged) obedience trials for 30 years, and I have to say that a huge factor in this discussion is missing: drive. A dog that is biddable and driven (like my current border collie) probably seems smarter than she is, as she does everything with vigor and without hesitation. My current SchH german shepherd is a lazy in comparison, but I have had and trained enough dogs to know he is smarter than the BC (except for spatial intelligence, at which she is a clear genius — understanding the commands “move your body closer” and “push [the object] closer” by 10 weeks). My standard poodle has so little drive he seems dull-witted — but he is just lazy and unbiddable — not actually stupid. It may hard to live with a truly intelligent dog (learns 30+ commands by 2 yo, and understands at least an open routine after one month of training or has largely learned to work sheep by imitating the older dogs) if he is not biddable, but the truly hard combination is lots of drive and lacking biddability or intelligence or both. Those are the wind-up dogs who get into the most trouble and leave their owners feeling most desperate. It’s drive that gets most people in trouble with their pets. If you don’t have drive, intelligence is just not hard to live with — my standard poodle is going strong at 12 and just may live forever. So I would say one should always want biddability (unless one wants a cat) but intelligence is also good unless it comes with too much drive and too little biddability.

  12. I have three very smart dogs one border collie x husky, one border collie x great pyranese and one toy Aussie Shepard
    They are smart but not destructive. Lots of chewing bones and cow hoofs keep them busy during the day and at night a good hour long walk. We play a ton of fetch.

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