Originally posted June 2013

One of the most frequent questions I am asked at social functions is “How do I choose a really smart dog when I am looking for a puppy?”  This is a loaded question that really reflects how little people understand what they are looking for in a dog.  I live with smart dogs.  Some of the dogs I live with are really, really smart.  That doesn’t make them easy to live with; it just makes them really good at figuring things out.  Some of the things my smart dogs have figured out are helpful to living with one another.  D’fer for instance figured out how to alert me to oncoming medical events and that has enhanced my life enormously.  He also figured out how to tell when I didn’t quite latch the gate so that he can get into areas I want him to stay out of.  He is very smart, but he is also on his own agenda.

Smart is a trait that we measure differently depending on what we are talking about.  When I am talking to a police K9 Handler, smart often means “tuned into the environment, and eager to participate in the activities related to that particular situation”.  Talking to a service dog handler, they might define smart as “tuned into me and disregarding the environment in order to carry out a handler’s direction”.  Smart is different depending on what work the dog is being asked to do.

The type of smarts involved with searching luggage are not the same kind of smarts that are involved with pulling a sled or doing agility.  Knowing what kind of smarts you need helps you to find the dog who will make you happy and be happy in your home.  Image credit: amaviael / 123RF Stock Photo

There is a different trait that is much easier to live with than smart.  Suzanne Clothier in her CARAT program would describe it as biddability, and she has a long and detailed definition that she uses to describe that.  I think of it as a willingness to engage in the activities that the handler wishes to engage in.  If the handler wants to do some training, this dog is willing to do that.  If it is important to the handler that the dog is willing to stay out of the kitchen, the dog is willing to do that too.  Willingness to do things your way is much easier to live with than smart.  Smart dogs can also be willing, but they are still going to need a lot more supervision to make them successful family pets.

When we are choosing dogs to live with us, we need to go below the surface of what we initially see and decide what is going to enrich our lives and provide for a great life for the dog.  If what we are looking for in a family pet is a dog who is going to hang out with the kids, do a bit of training but not so much training that it takes up three or four nights a week, then a really, really smart dog is not going to make you nearly as happy as a dog who is less smart but more willing.

Even if you are looking for a working prospect, you may not always want the smartest puppy in the litter.  Consider for instance what happens if you want a dog to do competitive retrieving.  You get scores on your dog making the straightest line between the duck they are fetching and you.  Your dog needs to retrieve the way you want him to.  If the terrain is difficult, the smart dog may choose to go around the more troublesome barrier instead of making a straight line.  This is “smart” but doesn’t earn you as many points.

The other thing to consider when looking at a smart puppy is that smart puppies tend to put things together in ways we hadn’t planned.  When we are trying to get a puppy to practice obedience exercises in new venues, the willing but less smart puppy may just do what you want.  The smart puppy may look at the new environment, notice that there is a potential danger and link the danger to the behaviour you are training.  Really smart puppies often develop behaviour problems that we don’t anticipate because they integrate information in ways we don’t expect.  Dogs tend to find connections between events very readily.  If you ask your young dog to sit and a truck backfires, the smarter dog will link the truck backfire and the sit, and may develop a fear of you asking him to sit.  Smart dogs don’t take repeated events to learn something-they learn it in few repetitions and remember it for a long time.  Less smart dogs don’t put things together quite so quickly and this can mean that they don’t develop as many fears.

The other thing to consider about living with a really smart dog is our expectation for their daily lives.  If we want a dog who is going to stay home and hang out in the house, then having a really smart dog means that your dog is going to spend a lot of his day sorting out the way that your home works, and how he can use it to his own amusement.  It can be very amusing to leave a video camera on while you are away, but it can also create a lot of problems.  When I am dealing with a really smart dog left at home alone, I often think about what it might be like to have to live in my house but not touch anything other than the four legal chew items that are left for smart dogs to play with.  I would be bored out of my skull and I would start to develop my own games.

Left home alone, the smart dog who isn’t permitted on the couch realizes that you aren’t there to tell him to get off.  Smart dogs get in trouble more often than willing dogs.  Image credit: eriklam / 123RF Stock Photo

Some of the games that smart dogs engage in are very benign.  D’fer of instance has developed a strategy with toys that is fascinating.  He takes a toy to the top of the stairs and he carefully places it right on the edge of the step.  Often he will re-place the toy several times before he is happy with the placement.  Once the toy is exactly the way he wants it to be, then he steps back one step and then he touches the toy with his nose causing it to bounce down the stairs.  When the toy hits the ground floor, he will race down, get the toy and repeat the game.  This is not a dangerous game, although it can be annoying if you are trying to do something quiet, but it is a game that could go badly wrong if Deef were left without any boundaries or other activities to keep his mind busy.  Imagine what this same game would look like if I had children in the house with toys that he might find interesting.

It amazes me the number of smart dogs who come through my classes who spend their intellectual energy figuring out how to do the letter of the desired behaviour, but who avoid the spirit of the behaviour.  One dog who came through class learned the recall really easily.  He also learned that he could bounce off his handler before sitting in front.  So often handlers ask me in class what they should be reinforcing because their smart creative dogs are adding in bits and pieces that don’t belong in the target behaviour.  Reinforce the wrong part, and you develop a chain of difficult to live with habits such as bouncing off the handler.

All of these observations lead to the question of “how do you know?”  This is not really an easy question to answer, in part because smart comes in so many flavours.  The best place to start is in trying to figure out what you want your dog to do.  Do you want a dog who is going to herd sheep?  Who is going to accompany you to the farmer’s market?  Who is going to do training activities with you?  Who is going to hang out on the front porch and watch the world go by?  Determining what you want to start with helps you to talk to a breeder about what you are looking for in a canine companion.  If you have a great picture of what you want, you can better talk to the person who is producing your puppy about what you need.  When the person who is helping you to find your match understands what you want, then they can spend time observing the puppies they have and figure out if they have the kind of dog you want.

I love environmental enrichment, and I use it in several ways.  When I am raising a working dog, I use enrichment toys to help the dog to develop his ability to problem solve and think about new things.  That helps the dog to figure out how to learn later and it makes the dog smarter.  To achieve this, I give these puppies a wide variety of problems to solve and as soon as they solve one problem I give them a new problem to think about.  For family pets though, I usually recommend fewer not more types of puzzles.  If you teach your dog to search for one particular toy or type of toy, then the dog has an activity that keeps him busy, which is enriching, but isn’t developing his ability to solve complex problems like how to find his way into the kitchen garbage under the sink.


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