- Researchers from the University of Helsinki assessed the cognitive abilities of over 1,000 dogs from 13 breeds with ten tests.
- Border Collies scored at or near the top in social cognition, inhibitory control, and spatial problem-solving ability, while Labrador Retrievers scored near the bottom.
- While prior research has shown that a dog's breed isn't as predictive of its personality and behavior as many think, the present study suggests that there are noteworthy differences in certain cognitive abilities.
Researchers at the University of Helsinki in Finland put over 1,000 dogs from 13 distinct breeds through a battery of cognitive tests in perhaps the largest laboratory study of canine intelligence ever conducted. Their findings were recently published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Between March 2016 and February 2022, the authors invited dog owners to bring their one- to eight-year-old pups into a large indoor field to undergo the smartDOG test battery, which was developed by study author Katriina Tiira.
Fido gets an IQ test
smartDOG features ten separate tests that measure traits like activity level, exploratory behavior, inhibitory control, problem-solving ability, logical reasoning, and short-term memory. In one assessment, which measures social cognition, the owner is instructed to gesture toward a bowl which contains food using different prescribed gestures ranging from emphatic pointing to a simple gaze to see if the dog will understand its caretaker’s hints. In another, a test of logical reasoning, the dog is shown two upside down bowls and a treat, then a visual barrier is placed between the dog and the bowls. The human tester then places the treat in one of the bowls, removes the visual barrier, then lifts up the empty bowl. If the dog correctly reasons that the treat is under the other bowl by moving to it, it is given the treat.
Thirteen breeds, all medium to large in size, each with at least 40 individuals, were assessed. Included were the Border Collie, Belgian Malinois, English Cocker Spaniel, German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Labrador Retriever, and the broad category of “mixed breed,” among a few others.
Smart dog, dumb dog
No differences emerged between the breeds in measures of short-term memory and logical reasoning, but differences were found in the categories of social cognition, inhibitory control, and spatial problem-solving ability. At or near the top in all these categories were Border Collies. The medium-sized herding dogs already have a reputation as brainy pooches. Many are capable of learning the names of dozens of objects and can follow detailed commands.
Labrador Retrievers, on the other hand, scored near the bottom of all the breeds in problem-solving ability and inhibitory control. The most popular breed in the U.S., Labradors are lovable, loyal, friendly, and trainable, but not generally considered to be the brightest.
Mixed breed dogs scored near the bottom in social cognition and spatial problem-solving ability, but scored well in inhibitory control, the ability to restrain themselves from performing a behavior that is ineffective but used to be beneficial, effectively testing whether they can alter strategies on-the-fly to attain treats.
There was one glaring limitation to this study of dog intelligence.
“There is a possibility that the differences seen in our study were not based on genetic differences between breeds but rather due to variation in life experiences or training, since these have also been found to influence behavior in cognitive tests,” the researchers wrote. The large sample size should have helped to smooth out this variability, however.
While prior research has shown that a dog’s breed isn’t as predictive of its personality and behavior as many think, the present study suggests that there are noteworthy differences in certain cognitive abilities. The researchers are likely to publish data on additional breeds as more smartDOG tests are conducted.