How Smart Is Your Dog? And How to Make It Smarter

If you ask any dog owner if she thinks her dog is smart, she will immediately give you a gazillion examples that let you conclude that her dog is VERY smart.

Dogs pretty much amaze us all the time with how perceptive they are.  We don’t even need to “say” something for our dogs to know what is coming next.

For example, as soon as you look for your keys, your dog goes to the door.

As soon as I take a shower my dog assumes I’m going somewhere and starts asking if she can go with me.

But, are we giving our dogs credit for being smarter than they really are?  Has there been research on this?  The answer is YES, yes, yes, and lots of it!  Here are some of the findings:

  • Dogs can understand and follow humans pointing at things. They are better at this than any other animal.  In fact, chimpanzees cannot do this.  Some cats and elephants can understand pointing, but dogs seem to be the masters of this very high level thinking.

Domestication and years of living with humans have likely given dogs an evolved ability to pay attention to, and understand, human visual communication.  This is a great advantage for us to know when training a dog.

  • Dogs are the only animal on Earth that will look a human directly in the eye. Not even chimpanzees can do that.
  • Even a stray dog understands human gestures. This means they know without being taught.
  • Dogs can consistently understand 89 – 200 words and phrases (depending on the study you read). Service dogs are taught to understand 200 (equivalent to the vocabulary of a 2-year old).  Chaser, a Border Collie, has learned 1,022 words including nouns, verbs and the names of stuffed animals (vocabulary equivalent to a 3 year old).
  • Dogs understand the tone of your voice. That’s why we should make a really sweet sound when we are calling them.

So, what do we do with this information?  We can use this to more easily train our dogs.  We should also use this to understand what we might be doing to confuse our dogs – which results in our dogs not behaving the way we want.  Here are some of my suggestions.

  1. Be consistent in the words you use when asking your dog to do something. If you want your dog to stay, for example, use the same word or words every time.  Don’t make your dog try to figure out “stay”, “you stay here now Rover”, “don’t move until I tell you”, “I want you to stay in this room until I get back”, etc. etc.  It’s TMI (Too Much Information) for a dog.  Keep it simple, and he will remember it if it’s consistent.
  2. Teach your dog. Teach something every day – it only takes a few minutes. The more you teach it, the smarter he will become.  And, the less bored the dog will be.  Boredom seems to cause problems, right?
  3. Socialize your dog. Dogs learn from watching people.  He’s probably seen all of your moves by now, so move on to letting him see others.
  4. Praise your dog for trying and for learning. Your voice and a rub on the head is all your dog needs as praise in these teaching moments.  Using treats tends to make dogs fat and teaches them to beg.  Begging distracts him from learning.
  5. Use your eyes to direct your dog. Dogs follow your eyes very closely.

It’s possible for you to have the smartest dog in the neighborhood if you just realize how dogs learn, and then you take the time to teach him. It will give you lots of great stories to tell about him too!

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