Thursday, April 19, 2012

Is My Doberman Smarter Than Your Honor Student?

I confess, I have one of those magnets on my car. They have them for a variety of breeds, which doesn't seem fair, but that's the way it goes. It reads "My Doberman is smarter than your honor student!" and has a head shot of a red Doberman on it. I couldn't not get it, really.

In Why a Doberman? and Why a Doberman? Redux, I talk about how very smart Dobermans are supposed to be, and how smart I think Elka is. I know it must sound like "mommy pride"; we've all encountered the parent who regaled you with tales of their tot's deeds of derring-do until you could have cheerfully stabbed them, or at least shouted. Part of the reason I started this blog was so I could be dog-proud on the Internet instead of alienating friends, family, and coworkers, who are stuck with me and so I'd prefer they not want to stab me.

I do try to keep it in check, but it is hard not to brag sometimes. But nobody likes a showoff, right?

So, what am I talking about when I talk about canine intelligence? And Doberman intelligence?

Canine intelligence may be defined in a number of different ways. In The Intelligence of Dogs, Dr. Stanley Coren measured "obedience and working intelligence",  ranking 110 breeds by means of survey (I believe. Somebody correct me if I'm wrong!) This was quite a controversial thing; owners of the "bottom" breeds are apt to take exception to being of a "low intelligence rank". Number 108 is the bulldog (British, one might assume) and number 110 is the Afghan hound.  My understanding of this intelligence list is not that lower ranking dogs are stupid, but rather it might be interpreted that they're less "biddable", as it were. What's in it for a Bulldog, to learn how to "sit" in the first five repetitions? An Afghan hound, being a sighthound, was not historically bred to work closely with humans, but rather was selected for a certain degree of independent thought. These dogs aren't stupid, they're just motivated differently. When Pigs Fly, though written by an owner of bull terriers, might be looked upon as exceedingly  useful for training and working with those breeds.

That said, who's in the top 10? Or even the top 5? Number 1 is the Border Collie, no surprise there. I've only ever really known one Border Collie, if briefly, but she was a smart girl. Border Collies were bred to work well and closely with humans, a well oiled machine of human gesture and dog actuality. It seems, from the telling, that they excel at everything they're pointed at, from herding to flyball to agility. Number 2 is the poodle; the only poodle I've ever known was Bachelor, and that was as a baby, so I have no personal comment there. Number 3 is the Golden Retriever, and from the popularity of that breed as service and therapy dogs, it makes sense. Number 4 is the German Shepherd, another breed meant to work with humans, herding originally (hence the "shepherd" part, that most people seem to forget) and more recently as Schutzhund, police, and military working dogs

Number 5 is my ringer: the Doberman.

While I have a page of Elka's Commands up, I shrink from the task of trying to identify how many words she knows. I know that she responds appropriately to a lot of the speech directed at her. I talk to her a lot; we all do. In fact, a friend mentioned the other day that he overheard his two year old son talking to their cat. I said that I didn't think it was unusual, since I talk to Elka all the time. He looked at me and said "Yeah, but Elka talks back". Which is true, to a degree. She says "out" when she needs to go out, and we're working on "hello", though I don't really expect her to use it appropriately (or do I?) Sometimes she actively "talks", making dog noises back in a conversational way, tilting her head this way and that in a beguiling manner. Other times, her actions speak loudly. We can say "Elka, we just ordered pizza", and she'll go to the front door to look.

We taught Elka "sit" easily and early. "Down" was the same way. Coren's measure of intelligence had to do with learning a new command with few repetitions; the Doberman definitely fits the bill! Though not as popular as Golden Retrievers or Labs, Dobermans are still used by some as service dogs. A Doberman is of a good size for a person who requires mobility assistance, and also of a good height to reach things like countertops, light switches, things like that. Though Elka frequently stomps on us like a horse (I do wish her paw inhibition was as easy to teach as her bite inhibition, so there's one break in the chain), she is actually very dextrous. She picked up a penny and brought it to me once; I wish I'd seen her do it! She'll pick up a piece of paper from our wooden floor as well, holding it with one paw and scrunching it a bit with the other so that she can get her mouth on it.

It was a cinch to teach her to respond to her name, and once I worked on it a bit, her recall is fantastic ( the park, anyway)

Frequently, living with Elka is like living with another person. She's right there with us in our day to day lives, and is there and interactive, not just a lump in the corner. Even when she sleeps, she shifts around and makes funny noises, sometimes barking like she's still a puppy, which is unbelievably adorable. 


  1. Heh, just the other day we saw a bumper sticker on the back of a car -- it said something like, "My __ dog is smarter than your honor student -- can't remember which dog it was. Did you hear that they say that dogs don't understand words? Know what I say to that? -- HUH?

    It sounds to me like Elka is pretty darn smart!!

    Woofs & hugs, <3

    ~Bailey (Yep, I'm a girl!)

    1. I have heard that they think dogs don't understand words. I guess it's time to have a study with a robot giving a dog verbal body language to confound things!

  2. My Poodles are trying to find a rematch with the Border Collies. They can do inductive and deductive reasoning.

  3. Hmmmm.... Do they make a bumper sticker that reads: "My MUTT is smarter than your honor student"? I would totally buy that!! Because my BEAUTIFULLY UNIQUE Beagle/German Shepherd cross, Rose, is very smart!! But she's not a purebred!! ;op
    And, yes, Elka does sound quite bright!! ;-D

    1. I think they might have mutt ones as well...I confess, I only have my eyes peeled for Doberman stuff most of the time (and it's criminal, how frequently I'm disappointed!)

  4. Elka sounds very smart indeed! I've noticed a huge difference in the way a dog is smart depending on what it's bred to do (not bashing mutts, just harder to judge them as a whole). Take a lab for instants: very smart and very quick to learn and please you. Compared to a Dachshund who can be taught (if you start young and are as stubborn as they are LOL) commands and tricks but it takes time, but they think and problem solve so fast! It's incredible
    Dachshund Nola's Mom
    P.S. I'm still a fairly new reader, so if you don't mind me asking, how did Elka get her name?

    1. Before Elka, it was really mostly mutts I knew. I didn't think any of them were dumb, but the ones I knew weren't brilliantly smart, either. Or maybe they were just raised differently; Elka is treated rather as a member of the family, and so she's very interactive, and that perhaps showcases her kind of intelligence better.

      I don't mind at all! When we were thinking of names, we wanted one that was German/Germanic/Eastern European sounding, as the Doberman has German origins. We weren't really coming up with much (I liked Lorelei, but apparently that was too close to an ex girlfriend's name for the fiance >.>), and then he remembered there was a girl in his high school named Elka who had moved to America from....somewhere. I liked the sound of it, and it was a name we felt we could say as frequently as you say a dog's name in a day, and there we were!

  5. It is nice to have a smart dog to work with and of course to brag about.

    I guess I would take exception to that list. I have owned two of the breeds in the top 10 and our Chessies are far and away smarter than either of those breeds. However, if being biddable is the measure, then I guess I can understand it. Unfortunately for most Goldens and many Labs, the natural drive has been bred out of them which makes them more biddable. Chessies were bred to do their work independent of human direction, meaning that once trained and set on a task, they do it. Those traits have been preserved over the years and many are not what most would call biddable. Not that I wouldn't want a more biddable Chessie, but I also want the drive. It is a fine line.

    1. I think there are further divisions (and it's funny, I just read an issue of Dog Fancy last night that included this) where you talk about "obedience intelligence" and independent thinking and things of that nature. It really has more to do, I think, with what the dog is supposed to be doing than "being smart" or "being dumb".