Scores in Obedience Trials may judge trainability, but not necessarily intelligence.

Once upon a time, I worked with a very special Doberman whose owner wanted him to get a Register of Merit but did not want to do the training himself.  Though I tried to get the owner involved, I failed, and for a time, the dog lived with me so that I could work with him every day without all the driving to and from his owner’s house.  I loved that dog.  And he loved me.  Though he was eight, he learned quickly, enjoyed the training and the games that became his praise for a good lesson.  He even got that part, that working well led to fun and games, games he never got to play at home.

I took him to the obedience classes I was teaching at the local community college and he worked for everyone in the class.  He (finally) learned to play with my female dog despite the fact that she wasn’t a Doberman.  And he slept in my bed.  Had he been up for grabs, I would have grabbed.  He was a fine animal.  And very smart.

Does smart mean he aced the obedience trial with his neglectful owner who barely had the time for me to show him the routine he’d have to do?  Nope.  Smart meant he did not want to work with someone who kenneled him a great deal of the time, who never played with him and who couldn’t be bothered to do any of the training himself.  Smart meant that on a hot day, instead of heeling, coming when called, doing a sit stay, he jumped the low barricade surrounding the ring and found a nice shady spot under a tree – and there he did his down stay.

In order to judge the intelligence of a dog, you have to know what matters to dogs, what work that breed was bred to do, what inborn skills the dog inherited. For all of us, dogs and humans alike, the bottom line is always survival, and while our take on that differs somewhat from that of dogs, not understanding that leads to poor judgment on which dog really is the smartest dog of all – because, as most of you know, it all depends on what matters to the creature being tested.

So unless you understand the character, breed traits and individual personality of a dog whose intelligence you want to assess, don’t toss a towel over the dog’s head and think the faster he gets it off, the smarter he is.  My dog Dexter, finding his head under a towel, would have taken a nap.  My dog Sky, on the other hand, might keep the towel in place because we are a team and I, her teammate, asked her to hang around with a towel on her head.  And so forth.

Yeah, yeah, I know.  I won’t put a towel on your head!


I am often told, as I go places with my dog, that Border Collies are the smartest dogs of all. Silly people.  If I wanted to retrieve a downed bird, I’d get a Lab.  If I wanted to save drowning people, I’d get a Newfie.  If I wanted to hunt rabbits, I’d get a Beagle.  And if I wanted the best dog in the world, I’d knock on your door and ask if I could have yours.