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The Intelligence of Dogs — Canine Consciousness and Capabilities by Stanley Coren

June 5th, 2008 · · Book Reviews

Stanley Coren, a professor of psychology at the University of British Columbia, has become one of the most widely read authors of nonfiction dog-related books. He is a wonderful researcher and although his writing is very erudite his tone is conversational and a pleasure to read.

“The Intelligence of Dogs” is an important book for a number of reasons. First of all the author describes and categorizes canine intelligence. He refers to canine intelligence as a “a collection of primary mental abilities”. This paradigm has its origin in a similar conception of human intelligence and goes a long towards explaining why there are such inconsistencies in the intelligence of individual dogs.

Linguistic, instinctive, adaptive,  and working or obedience intelligence are the areas examined in “The Intelligence of Dogs”. The linguistic capacity of dogs is referred to as receptive. A well-trained dog can have a vocabulary of over seventy-five words and be considered unremarkable. Of course, the other component of a dog’s linguistic ability is his use of his own language; communicated by body language and vocalizations. Given that psychologists recognize gestures as language components it is perfectly reasonable to term canine body talk language. Adaptive intelligence refers to what the dog can do for himself. The example given by Coren is that of the dog who has learned to push his water bowl around on the floor to request a drink. Instinctive intelligence, on the other hand, is the innate ability of a dog. Watchdogs, hunting dogs and herding dogs are all prized for various types of instinctive intelligence. Finally, working or obedience intelligence has to do with the dog’s ability to perform certain externally requested tasks on command.

Meeting of the minds

Meeting of the minds

Stanley Coren includes a chart ranking the obedience intelligence of various breeds of dogs. He assembled his rankings based on questionnaires filled in by over 200 registered obedience judges in Canada and the US. Which breeds come out on top? It is no surprise that Border Collies are ranked first on this list. Next come Poodles, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and Doberman Pinschers in that order. It seems a little unfortunate that many people will be excessively influenced by this evaluation in their choice of breed. Obedience intelligence is the most easily quantifiable aspect of canine intelligence although it is by no means always the most important.

What the author refers to as “the Personality Factor” should also be an essential element in the evaluation of a dog. In the dog world the term  “temperament” is used rather than “personality” the latter being seen as too likely to lead to anthropomorphization.  In Chapter 11 Coren lays out a detailed assessment comprised of 12 separate tests as well as a guide to interpreting the results. Dog owners can have some fun with this and learn quite a bit about their dog in the process. In addition he provides exercises designed to improve a dog’s intelligence including specific ones for puppies which help to maximize the puppy’s potential.

The fact that I’m finding many references to Stanley Coren’s work in the pages of all kinds of dog books is a very fine thing. His work is original and accessible, well-written and extremely useful.


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