Trainability, Street Smarts, and Social Intelligence

A translation I’m working on made me think about the intelligence of dogs. The book (Marc Bekoff’s Canine Confidential) points out that we shouldn’t rank intelligence the way it is typically done. He insists that all dogs are intelligent, but they are intelligent in different ways.

I agree to some extent. The breed intelligence rankings I’m familiar with measure mostly trainability, and wether trainability is the same as intelligence really depends on how you want to define intelligence. Fanta, my Greyhound, isn’t very trainable – but I consider him to be quite intelligent. On the other hand, we are usually looking for a “trainable” dog when we say we want an intelligent one, and most people, even if they aren’t familiar with the term “trainability,” probably mean this concept when they talk about “intelligence” in relation to dogs.

Let’s look at the two dogs who are making mischief while I’m writing this post: Grit and Game. They are interesting because they are the same breed, and yet they are two VERY different dogs. One of their differences lies in the kind of intelligence they have.

Trainability

Grit is the dog who would be higher up in a traditional intelligence ranking. She is highly trainable, biddable, and generalizes very well. It’s extremely fun to work with her – she tries hard and learns fast. She is on a par with the Border Collies I’ve worked with.

Game learns new things more slowly, and she is less biddable – she doesn’t want to figure something out simply because I am asking her to figure it out. She’s happy to figure it out for a nice reward though. (I believe high biddability inspires dogs to try harder, and might make them score higher on trainability, too.) Game needs significantly more reps than Grit in order to remember something, and she doesn’t generalize well. Same cue, slightly different location – Game will look at me as if she had never heard the cue in her life, while Grit will be able to perform without hesitation.

However, Game has two other kinds of intelligence. Let’s call them practical intelligence and social intelligence. Game would score very high on both of them. Grit would score rather low.

Practical Intelligence

When I say practical intelligence, I mean the ability to recognize and use opportunities to get what you want – find a path from A to B, get food that seems out of reach, etc. It could also be called street smarts. Game has lots of it – she’d thrive as a stray dog, while Grit probably wouldn’t survive long enough to spread her genes. Here’s an example:

This will happen every time I forget something edible on my desk and leave the room. Game doesn’t pay much attention as long as I’m in the room. She knows begging won’t work, and she knows I do not appreciate her taking my resources. We’ve had this conversation, and she respects it. However, when I leave something edible unattended, Game will remember it, wait till she is sure I have really left the room, and then take it. She isn’t “being disobedient” or “a bad dog”. It’s just like with a toy or bone another dog has: Game wouldn’t steal it from another dog, but if the other dog left it and walked away, that toy or bone would be fair game. Finders, keepers! It may also have to do with the fact that Game doesn’t generalize well. I have told her I do not want her to steal my food while I’m in the room, but that doesn’t translate to me not wanting her to steal my food when I’ve left the room – this is another situation entirely. (I could, of course, train it if Game’s stealing bothered me. All it takes is generalizing “Leave it!” to out of sight contexts.)

Grit, on the other hand, doesn’t steal my food when I’m in the room, and she doesn’t steal my food when I’m gone, either. Is she less practically intelligent, or is she just much better at generalizing and assumes that if I don’t want her to steal my food from the table, this is still the case when I leave? It’s hard to say!

Game has also been faster than any of the other dogs when it came to figuring out how to open the sliding door in our old house. She has since found numerous ways to open a number of different doors – even ones I barricaded – in order to reach something she wanted and knew was behind a closed door.

Social Intelligence

Game is a superstar when it comes to social interactions. So far, I have not once seen her not get along with a new dog or person. She is friendly and confident, and she reads others well. If there is a reason to roll on her back or run away to avoid a conflict, that’s what she’ll do. Otherwise, she’ll charm new dogs and new people – even ones who are sceptical at first. It is quite fascinating to observe. She isn’t fazed by people acting weird, wearing helmets or carrying umbrellas. If a street dog barks angrily, she’ll curve around them. If a street dog is scared, she’ll be friendly and charming and not overwhelming. If someone is ready to play, she’ll play rambunctiously.

Grit doesn’t have this level of social intelligence. She is sceptical of new people. The interesting thing is that I can trace her scepticism back to one particular experience with a stranger. Maybe the fact that she generalizes so easily made her more susceptible to becoming a socially cautious dog. As far as strange dogs are concerned, Grit generally does well with them, but she has opinions about dogs and the way they are supposed to behave in social situations. She can also be a bit of a bully.

What kind of intelligence do your dogs excel in, and in what areas don’t they do as well? Do you see a connection between them? What kind of intelligence is most important to you when it comes to choosing a dog to join your household?

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