“I would rather train a striped zebra to balance an Indian club than induce a Dachshund to heed my slightest command.” -E.B. White
We all have ideas about how easy one breed is to train versus another. When Stanley Coren wrote his popular book, The Intelligence of Dogs (Free Press, 1994), he tallied input from 200 obedience judges to rank breeds from most to least obedient. The breeds ranked as most obedient were the Border Collie, Poodle, German Shepherd Dog, Golden Retriever, Doberman Pinscher, Shetland Sheepdog, and Labrador Retriever. Those ranked as least obedient were the Afghan Hound, Basenji, Bulldog, Chow Chow, Borzoi, Bloodhound, and Pekingese.
Of the top seven breeds, six come from herding or retrieving backgrounds, jobs for which the ability to follow human cues is important. A good retriever must be able to follow its handler’s directions to locate fowl downed out of the dog’s sight, or to avoid swimming into danger. A good herder must be able to follow the shepherd’s directions to place the sheep where they are wanted.
Of the bottom seven breeds, four are hounds used in hunting, breeds in which independent thinking is more critical to success. A hound that continuously looks to its handler for directions is useless. Of these bottom seven breeds, four (the Afghan Hound, Basenji, Chow Chow, and Pekingese) are considered to be progenitor breeds according to recent DNA research. These breeds share more genes in common with ancestral wolves and perhaps are less affected by domestication pressures of trainability.
As trainability is an integral part of functioning in human society, domestication has selected for dogs that have an aptitude for training to some greater degree than do typical wolves, which are notoriously hard to train. Wolves react to forceful obedience training by fleeing and struggling, reactions adaptive to their lives in the wild.
People with highly trainable dogs tend to assert that trainability and intelligence go hand in hand. People with less easily trained dogs tend to assert that refusal to follow rote commands is a sign of intelligence. Both are correct. If intelligence is defined as an innate ability to learn or perform at the optimal mental capacity to perform a function, then intelligence in one breed should be defined differently from that in another. An intelligent Border Collie understands and controls sheep; an intelligent Saluki understands and catches jack rabbits. If they switched jobs (or brains) they would both be labeled dumb.
J.P. Scott and J.L. Fuller’s landmark study of dog behavior included one of Coren’s top-ranked obedience breeds, the Shetland Sheepdog, and one of his bottom-ranked breeds, the Basenji, along with Wire Fox Terriers, Beagles, and Cocker Spaniels.Page 1 | 2