What Makes A Dog Smart? Are Certain Dog Breeds Smarter?

What Makes A Dog Smart? Are Certain Dog Breeds Smarter?

Ever looked at your dog and wonder just what they’re thinking?

That’s the question Dr. Brian Hare has spent his career trying to answer.

He’s a scientist, New York Times bestselling author of the book, The Genius of Dogs, and Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University in North Carolina. His publications on dog cognition are among the most heavily cited papers on dog behavior and intelligence in the world.

Below, listen to the conversation or read the transcript, and hear Dr. Brian Hare’s thoughts on:

  • How he made a career studying and researching dog intelligence
  • His take on why certain breeds of dog have never won the title “Best in Show” at the Annual Westminster Dog Show (Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers)
  • If some dog breeds are really smarter or easy to train than other breeds
  • What exactly makes a dog smart
  • If you can make your dog smarter
  • Secrets to dog training

Want to hear more from Dr. Brian Hare?

Enroll for free in his course Dog Emotion and Cognition on Coursera.

Or if you’re a member of the press, set up an interview with Dr. Brian Hare or learn more about the topics he can speak to.



Coursera: [00:00:01] From Coursera, I’m Emma Fitzpatrick, and today, I’m speaking with Dr. Brian Hare. 

He’s a scientist, New York Times bestselling author of the book, The Genius of Dogs, and Professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Duke University in North Carolina. He also founded and is the co-director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center at the university.

And in fact, his publications on dog cognition are among the most heavily cited papers on dog behavior and intelligence in the world. That’s because he also researches the evolution of cognition by studying humans, primates, and yes, domesticated dogs. 

Today, we’re hearing from him on if dogs in dog shows are really smarter, just what it means when we call our own dog smart, and how we can train them better by understanding how they learn and their intelligence.

So, let’s go ahead and get started 

Brian, I would love to hear how you got into this field. Growing up, were you always interested in dogs, or what’s a dog that’s had the most impact on you?

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:01:05] Well, first, thanks for having me, Emma. And I’m just like anybody else, who grew up with a dog. 

I had a childhood dog, who was one of my best friends, if not my best friend. And he went pretty much everywhere I went growing up. It was still the day where you could have your dog off-leash and, your dog could roam the neighborhood.

And he roamed with me, and we spent so much time together. When I went to go see my friends, he would go with me. And then I’d ride my bike back home, and he’d come right along. 

Having a relationship like that, where you kind of had a best buddy who went everywhere with you, you couldn’t help but wonder, “What they were thinking or how they were feeling? Or what exactly did your relationship mean to him?”

And, you know, as I got older and I started going to college, he was still alive. The way I thought about it started to mature as I started, reading, and taking classes and thinking more deeply about the subject of animal minds. 

Coursera: [00:01:57] Yeah. And from there, how did you get there and really wanting to dedicate your life to studying dogs?

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:02:04] Like many discoveries, my first discovery about dogs was a big accident.

I was talking to my undergraduate advisor, and he was telling me the rationale for why we were studying gestural communication or how other animals understand pointing gestures. 

And he said something to the effect of only human children can understand pointing gestures, in a way that means that they really know what you intend when you’re communicating with your point or your gesture.

And I just said, “Well, I think my dog can do that.” And he thought that was really funny because he said, “Well, every textbook, you know, dogs are the example where if you point a dog just looks at your finger. Surely, you can’t be serious.”

And I said, “No, no, no, no, no.” You know, I grew up with my dog, Oreo, and I would throw the tennis ball for him, and if he couldn’t find it, I would point and gesture where it had gone, and he would go and orbit kind of in that direction. And he’d find his ball.

Basically, we were communicating all the time about where things were in the environment, and I had no doubt that he understood my gesture. 

So, that was really fun because my undergraduate advisor, who, you know, was already a renowned scientist, he took me seriously.

And it’s when I learned how great science is because he got really interested in the fact that he might be wrong. And so he said, “Why don’t we do a kind of experiment?”

And so we did. And that’s how it all got started.

Coursera: [00:03:30] I love that because you see people around with those stickers on their car. You know, my dog’s smarter than your honor student, and it sounds like this is essentially how it all started for you. You’re like, my dog is smarter than that, and my dog can do that.

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:03:44] It is. It is.

Coursera: [00:03:45] That’s your whole career now.

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:03:47] It is basically. I mean, it really was just a fortuitous conversation as a 19-year-old undergraduate and just having a fantastic advisor, who was excited, especially when I brought back some first pilot data. He got really excited. 

He thought, “Man, we might be on a big discovery here. This is a big surprise to me and to a lot of people who study this.”

And we were off and running. So, that’s kinda how it all happened.

And the first, you know, pilot experiment was I went home and worked with my pet dog in my garage, and sort of demonstrated that, yeah, he could do that. 

And, it’s not unlike all these funny stories about start-up tech companies and people who get started in their parents’ garage. Well, that was me too.

Coursera: [00:04:30] But instead of a computer, you had a dog, which, I mean, is hard to beat.

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:04:33] That’s right. That’s right. A dog. Yup.

Coursera: [00:04:35] I feel like when you tell people you work with dogs, they’ve got to be like, “Dream job!” People are so fascinated by dogs.

In that same vein, the National Dog Show has 32 million viewers, which is 20% more than the Oscars. Are you surprised by that, or do you watch dog shows yourself?

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:04:53] I’m not surprised by that. Because I have learned as someone who studies dogs, how much enthusiasm and energy there is to learn everything there is about dogs. 

And so then when it comes to a dog show, where now you’ve got these different dogs, different breeds, and they have all these beautiful traits, you know, physical traits, and the different behaviors they might display.

I mean, it’s hard not to be fascinated. 

Coursera: [00:05:19] People are just looking for an excuse to spend more time with dogs, whether it’s on the TV or in real life. 

And as far as those dog shows go, two of the most popular dogs in America–the Labrador Retriever, Golden Retrievers– they’ve never won the Westminster Dog Show. Do you think there’s any reason why that is?

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:05:38] Well, I think that part of those dog shows is to exhibit the tremendous diversity of physical and behavioral traits that different breeds exhibit. 

And so, I guess if you’re a judge, maybe, you’re going to be really excited to have dogs that people might be less familiar with have as much time in the competition as possible. So, that’s my guess.

I don’t know if I’m surprised that Labradors and Golden Retrievers haven’t won, but I’m not surprised that some of the rarer, or less common breeds, get more time in these competitions because that’s sort of what the people who are experts in this are excited about is: the diversity and some of the rarer types of dogs

Coursera: [00:06:22] Right. And do you think show dogs are generally happy? 

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:06:24] I think in general, the number one variable that’s going to make the hugest difference on whether any pet dog is happy is how much time it gets to spend with the person that’s bonded with.

And I’m imagining that show dogs spend a lot of time with the people who take care of them and love them and take them to these shows.

So I imagine that they’re really, really happy.

Coursera: [00:06:47] Yeah, and do you do a lot of research about different dog breeds that you think some would excel more in dog shows? Or what’s your take on, you know, dog intelligence by breed?

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:06:56] Well, I think the most interesting thing to think about in terms of what we’ve discovered about dog breeds, and their behavior and cognition, is that it’s counterintuitive. But, they’re not that different actually, when it comes to differences between dog breeds and their intelligence. 

When it comes to what they look like, and maybe the emotions they feel or how strongly they feel them, maybe their activity levels–I think those are where you’re going to see the biggest differences between breeds of dogs. 

But when you’re talking about things like, how long a dog can remember something, or can a dog understand your communication? Or is a dog able to bond with a person or another dog? Those are the types of things we’ve measured in terms of cognitive performance or intelligence.

And there’s not as much difference between breeds as you might expect, so I think that’s the fun take-home. The intelligence that people attribute to breeds, when we actually go and measure it, there’s not that big of differences that you might predict. 

And so I think the reason for that is that there has been very strong selection in the last 30 years on the appearance of dogs and less so on their performance in terms of solving really complicated problems. 

Coursera: [00:08:18] But also, people say, you know, this dog’s easier to train than this dog. This type of breed is so hard to train. They don’t listen as well. Do you place any stock in that? 

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:08:28] So I sort of answer that two levels. One is just as a dog lover and person, who struggles to train dogs myself. I do put stock in people’s experiences and their perceptions, so that’s one level. 

At another level, as a scientist, though, I need to go and say, “Okay. Well, has anybody tested this? And what is the empirical evidence, and how strong is it?”

And in that case, I don’t think there’s really any evidence that certain dogs are easier to train than others. No one’s tested that in any rigorous way that you could look at a scientific paper and say, Oh, yeah, this is the breed, and this isn’t.

I mean, there are actually lots of counterintuitive findings, and I could share some of those with you.

But, you know, there’s a lot of reason to believe that some of the things we’re perceiving are really more about us than the dogs.

Coursera: [00:09:14] Yeah. Talk through some of those that you found most interesting.

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:09:17] Well, let me first just give you an example of where science can really help, but also, not everybody likes the findings.

It’s one of the struggles for science. Everyone loves science when it supports your previous belief, but when it goes against it, people aren’t as happy.

So, for instance, a labradoodle: often, I have people ask me, “Shouldn’t I get one of those cause they’re hypoallergenic?”

And actually, there have been studies to look at different breeds and whether there’s a difference in the amount of protein they produce in the saliva that then gets on dander, which causes the allergic reaction.

And there is absolutely no evidence from the studies that have been done that any breed of dog is hypoallergenic.

So, there’s no dog that science has been able to show would be safer for someone who had allergies to be with.

No one wants to believe that. But if it really is true that these dogs are hypoallergenic, we should be able to see evidence for that, but we can’t. 

So onto breed differences: Then if you take sort of the same approach where we have these really strongly held beliefs about dog behavior and intelligence and how they might be different. Well, sometimes, some of our ideas may not be as much about the dog as it is about us. 

So one example is there’s evidence, for instance, that when you give people pictures of dogs and you ask them, which are the intelligent dogs and which are the less intelligent dogs.

People and their responses actually can be explained to a large degree by the length of the dog’s nose. 

So dogs that have very short noses and very long noses, people tend to attribute less intelligence. To dogs that have medium size noses, people tend to attribute more intelligence. 

So a lot of the things that people are saying about breed differences and intelligence may not be based on actual problem-solving behavior that when we do an experiment, we would be measuring.

Coursera: [00:11:17] Does that come from anything or connect to anything? Or is that just totally random?

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:11:22] One way to think about it, though, is super short nose dogs seem more baby-like in terms of their appearance. And so maybe people think they’re sort of less cognitively competent because they are more baby-like.

The longer nose dogs, I’m not sure, but it may be that in some ways, they are too extreme the other way. 

Coursera: [00:11:39] It’s so interesting how the mind works, but I’m sure if you asked anyone on the street, “is your dog smart?”

Most people would say, “Yeah, my dog is.” Is that we’ve found through your research?

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:11:49] Yeah. I mean, I think the first thing is that dog breeds are really an expression of ourselves.

All of that happened 150 to 200 years ago. So before 200 years ago, there would be just a few dog breeds. I mean, a handful, and really it was only during the Victorian era that it became sort of this thing you did as a status symbol to breed your own special breed of dog.

And so selecting which breed in which direction you selected them is really just an expression of human preferences. Some people got excited about smaller dogs. Some people got excited about long hair. Some people got excited about short legs. Some people got excited about baby faces. These were all expressions of human preferences that ultimately are rooted in our psychology. So, we see different dogs differently.

So, onto your question, though, about people responding and saying, “You know, my dog is so smart, and I’m so convinced.”

I actually also run into a lot of people who say their dog is not smart, and so my answer to that is always, “Compared to what?”

And I think that’s been the most interesting thing I’ve learned through the experience of talking to lots of people about how smart or not smart their dog is.

People are really funny about how they decide their dog is smart or not.

Because when I say, compared to what, then you get all sorts of funny answers, and I actually think the right answer to that is we’ll compare to other dogs.

Coursera: [00:13:14] Right.

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:13:15] And so that’s why part of our Coursera course was to offer access to Dognition, which is our citizen science project where people could actually compare their dog’s cognitive performance to other dogs.

And so that’s been really fun, to see when people actually do this and then realize, “Oh my gosh! I totally have underestimated my dog, or I didn’t know that my dog was really smart in one way, and, you know, not as skilled as I would have imagined on another when you compare them to other dogs.”

Coursera: [00:13:44] So, what makes a dog smart? What kind of factors are you looking at there?

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:13:48] Well, we don’t even really think about it as is a dog smart or not. We are more interested in the question of what is a dog’s cognitive profile.

I get asked all the time, not just about dogs, but also because I study other animals.

People say, “Oh, are chimpanzees smarter than dolphins? Are our dogs smarter than cats? Or is this breed of dog smarter than that breed?”

And the way to think about it is you’re basically asking me, “Is a hammer better than a screwdriver, or is a screwdriver better than a hammer?”

Well, it depends on the problem you’re trying to solve. And so the way we think about it is really. What are the problems that a species or an individual is really good at solving? What is their cognitive profile?

And it ends up that every dog has something that they’re probably particularly good at or skilled at.

Coursera: [00:14:34] So could you give me an example of what that would look like or translate to?

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:14:38] Yeah. So at Dognition, at our citizen science website, you can go and measure your dog’s communicative skills or their memory, their ability to make inferences, their ability to bond or have empathy towards you, or even try to deceive you. And so you can then play these games. And then your dog has compared to all the other dogs in our database.

For instance, my dog was really kind of average for its working memory relative to other dogs, but when it came to eye contact, it made with me, it was really quite remarkable. So I didn’t know that.

And so, is my dog smart or not? Well, I don’t know. I mean, if, if eye contact is the thing that you call smartness, well then, yeah, my dog’s, one of the smartest ones there is, but he doesn’t have a particularly well- developed memory. So it really just depends. 

Coursera: [00:15:24] So, say your dog doesn’t have a great working memory. Would that make them harder to train to do basic things, like sit, stay, et cetera?

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:15:31] Yeah. So I think it’s a great example. So if you have a dog and you want to try and to sit and stay, and you start to get frustrated.

Well, you know, one model would be I must not have a very smart dog, so I need to practice and work really, really hard. And I’m just going to practice.

And that’s one model of how their mind might be working.

What I’m suggesting is a totally different model, and that model is that when you say sit and stay to your dog and your dog gets up and walks off, there are multiple explanations for why that dog may be doing that.

One is the dog may not have very good working memory and literally may just forget that it was told to sit and stay. Another reason that it may get up and not sit and stay is because it doesn’t have self-control. And there’s nothing that dog can do about that. We do know that smaller dogs, for instance, have less self-control than larger dogs.

And finally, it could be that your dog literally just doesn’t really understand human gestures or communicative intention as well as other dogs. It doesn’t understand what you’re trying to tell it.

So, these are all things that are going to majorly constrain how much effect you can have with elbow grease and working hard.

Coursera: [00:16:36] Right. So it sounds like there’s really no secret to dog training. Some dogs just have a better cognitive profile that they’re going to respond to those things better because they have more self-control. They’re better at understanding what you want from them. Is that right?

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:16:51] Any teacher, student relationship: when your student isn’t able to learn something, it’s time for the teacher to reflect on the teaching methods. Maybe if I present this in a different way, there’ll be a better way for my students to learn this that fits better with their skills. And let’s find their strength, and let’s teach to their strengths.

Coursera: [00:17:10] So, what would that look like in this scenario? You’re having trouble training your dog. They aren’t responding to some basic commands 

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:17:16] Let’s think about working dogs. This is a real-world scenario, where you’ve got a dog you’re trying to train to detect things in the environment. Let’s say bombs, and you’re getting really frustrated because they understand you, they know the commands. But many people would say they don’t show the drive, like they’re just not, pursuing the things you want them to find.

Well, one thing to think about is, well, is this a dog that has too much self-control? Because it ends up that dogs that have a lot of self-control are not particularly good at finding bombs or other things.

But it ends up the dogs that are like that, who have a lot of self-control may be excellent at training in service and in helping people to solve all sorts of other problems that are equally important.

And so what I’m saying is that if you’re struggling to train your dog in one way or to do one job, maybe you need to find something else to train them for that will be better suited for the skills they bring to the table.

Coursera: [00:18:10] Ah, got it. So whether it’s for a service dog or it’s for a pet, it’s about identifying what your dog’s strengths are and playing to that instead of having this like baseline of this is what the dog should do, regardless of what it’s actually doing.

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:18:23] I mean, if you find out that your child isn’t very good at catching a ball, you don’t try to get them into the major leagues. You take advantage of the fact that they love playing the piano, and they happen to have an amazing touch on the ivories. 

Coursera: [00:18:38] Yeah. And is that what you wish more people knew or understood about dog training? 

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:18:42] Well, I think part of the problem is that there are basic things that every dog needs to do. And so surely there must be like one best way to get a dog to sit, stay, or, come when you call them, and so I’m forgiving. I totally get it. And I’m not saying I’m an amazing trainer either. But the reality is that dogs definitely have different cognitive profiles, and they’re going to be better suited for different things, and they may not be perfect at everything.

I mean, my old dog was amazing as a guard dog, and we were so happy and slept peacefully at night because we knew that he was going to go off if anybody came near our house. Of course, the problem with that was that sometimes we had to put him in some place where he might not bite someone when they came into the house, so you just have to celebrate the good and cope with things that might be more challenging.

Coursera: [00:19:31] Yeah. And it’s not like you trained him to not react that way when someone came to the door. It’s just about not putting them in that situation then.

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:19:39] Yeah, exactly. And so then it’s like, well, that’s who he is, so let’s come up with a strategy to work around it.

Coursera: [00:19:44] And, I’m just curious, what do you love most about dogs 

Dr. Brian Hare: [00:19:47] I just like everybody else. I like the hug on them.

Well, my course on Coursera, “Dog Emotion and Cognition” has been so fun because I’ve just been so happy to see how many people have enjoyed taking the class.

So, the course really covers how we uncover the genius of dogs–and dogs do have a genius– by thinking about intelligence, not as sort of one thing, but as multiple things. And also back to the metaphor of hammers or screwdrivers–not is an animal intelligent or not–but how is it designed by evolution to solve problems?

And that opens up a whole door to understand dogs in a brand new way. And it really leads to solutions to real-world problems and also in your everyday life with your dog to see them in a really different way. 

Coursera: [00:20:33] To keep learning about dogs, emotion and cognition, go to Coursera.org today to enroll for free in Dr. Brian Hare’s course “Dog Emotion and Cognition.”

And as always, thanks for listening and happy learning!