A Note on Dog Intelligence

Because Silas is my first dog, I tend to assume that all dogs are like him. Aside from his obvious freaks, that is. The longer I have him, the more I realize the good–and bad–ways that this is not true.

Last night I was teaching Silas a new trick. The objective of this trick is to touch a round flat target with his front foot. Our “target” was one of those rubber jar openers. First of all, Silas immediately understood what I wanted. The poor instructions said things like “Reward your dog for looking at the target, or acting interested in it.” Silas walked up to it and plopped his foot on top. So, we did a few repetitions. Silas walks up, puts his foot on the target, I click and throw a cookie, he walks up and puts his foot on the target, etc etc.

After a few of these, I started to notice that he was putting both feet on the target. Which is okay; I’m not aiming for precision. Then I had a technical difficulty, caused by having my treats in a too-narrow jar, and I realized that he was stepping to the left and right with his back feet.

This is when I realized that I have a very smart dog on my hands. The trick where he stands with his front feet on something and walks around it with his back feet? We learned that trick with him standing on a cake pan.

Training props

To a human mind, the cake pan and the jar opener have certain similarities, namely that they are round. It doesn’t seem that wild to think “Okay, I’m standing on a circle, I’m supposed to turn!” Dogs aren’t really supposed to get abstract concepts like “circle,” though. If we’d done it on four circular objects, and this was the fifth one, maybe.

Another possibility is that, because the cake pan is the only foot targeting trick we’ve done, he assumes that all foot targeting is supposed to be the basis of turning a circle. This is also very high-level thinking for a dog.

You know what’s really scary about it? That cake pan trick is far from fluent. We’ve worked on it maybe ten times, and the last time we worked on it was at least two months ago. Plus I trained it standing up in the kitchen, and I was training the targeting trick sitting down in the living room.


6 thoughts on “A Note on Dog Intelligence

  1. Nice! I’m impressed. I also think smart dogs are also the ones with the most issues; they think too much, and so they worry too much (could also be true for humans). It’s the dumb dogs who live happy-go-lucky lives.


  2. My new dog walker told me that most reactive dogs are crazy-smart. Ignorance is bliss, etc. It’s not wildly surprising that these dogs that notice and remember everything…notice and remember everything. I’ve had a somewhat similar experience with Ruby and “paws up,” which I taught using a step-stool – it makes our subscription box reviews a cinch because she’s like “oh, a box! Put my feet on it!.” I would really like to teach Ruby this turn-in-a-circle thing – how did you get that first step to the side?


    1. By stepping to the side myself while facing him. I also seem to remember doing it as a heeling exercise, where I stood next to him and we went around. We were, at the time, working on that behavior elsewhere. What I can’t get is the full rotation, unless I go with him. He’ll go from one side of the circle to the other, but he wants to face me the whole time. That’s basically why I quit teaching it–I didn’t want to get him rooted in the belief that going halfway around was all I wanted, and I couldn’t think of a good way out.

      Notice and remember are definitely the key words, yes. In that respect I’m incredibly lucky to have had Silas his whole life–we didn’t do the best socialization job ever, but at least we did okay.


  3. Clever dude! I taught Kaya to stand on objects and spin when she was young. I remember it being a difficult transition when we initially switched objects and locations. I would never even attempt to teach Norman though, he is far from the sharpest knife in the drawer but he is WAY easier than Kaya:)


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