Discernable intelligence gap between different animals of the same species?

Besides humans, obviously.

I’m wondering how intelligence is measured in animals. I often hear things like “Collies are really smart dogs” whereas “Labradors are dumb as rocks” or somesuch. Really? What’s on a doggy IQ test?

Furthermore, is there a way to discern a difference in intelligence between individual animals of the same species? Are there gifted chimps and chimps in remedial banana-peeling class? What about less humanoid species, like horses or cows?

Yes of course there are but this just presents a similar version of the problem you get when you design IQ tests for humans. What do you test for and what don’t you?

Dogs are and easy example. Most of us think that some dog breeds are generally smarter than others. You want to design an IQ test to measure those differences.

What skills does the test compare?

  1. Herding
  2. Scent following
  3. Hunting instincts
  4. Teamwork
  5. Following commands
  6. Learning tricks

Now Border Collies are generally acknowledged to be among the smartest dog breeds because herding takes a lot of skill and it lends itself to learning commands from humans. However, they can’t be a Bloodhound in the scent competition and they won’t be able to hunt as well as many of the hounds.

You could design a test just for border collies but that is by breed and not by species. Humans developed that species so we would just be measuring which dogs follow the desired standard more closely.

All the tests you design will have that bias even though that may be exactly what you want. What gets really hard is cross-species comparisons. What is smarter, a dolphin or a baboon for example?0

Once you pick a test, animal behaviorists can certainly test based on those criteria and you will most likely get a normal curve to represent the individual abilities just like you get with any other tests of those types.

Anecdotal: Some horses are wizards at undoing latches to let themselves (and other horses if they feel like having company) out of stalls, paddocks, etc. Other horses have easy latches all around them, see other horses escaping, and never figure out how to do it. It’s not a difference in physical ability, since all horses can do surprisingly delicate manipulations with their lips and front teeth. So is it smarts? I think so, but that’s not scientific proof by any means.

Of course dog intelligence tests tests are like human IQ tests in that they are specifically designed not to favour any particular group. For that reason they don’t test things like “Hunting instincts” or “Teamwork” or “Following commands”.

Instead dog inteligence tests are designed to test problem solving ability as it is applied to entirely novel problems. One of the most common components is to hide a food treat or a favoured toy in various containers and see how long the dog takes to open the container. The puzzles range from the ludicrously simple (under an upturned bucket) to fairly complicated designs that require the dog to remotely activate a switch not obviously attached to the container.

As you can see such tests don’t concentrate on any breed specific ability or learned skills, and so shouldn’t show any breed bias. The fact that wolves invariably outperform domestic breds in such tests is fairly strong evidence that the test is accurate. Clearly the tests aren’t testing any human desirable traits but rather ar etetsing the ability of dogs to solve problems that they want to solve.

It’s quite suprising how much bred variation there is. Many breeds simply can not work out how to overturn a bucket and will try to dig under it instead. Other breeds can open containers with extremely elaborate catches.

Insofar as intelligence is normally defined as an ability to solve problems these represent canine intelligence, just as an ability to open gates represents equine inteligence.

I agree with you for the most part Blake but human IQ tests are designed to be rather abstract as well and people still manage to throw out criticisms like the ones outlined. I don’t really believe much of that myself but you do have to be clever to design the right tests which was my main point. My example tests were simplistic and your examples are more scientifically valid.

I am curious to know the number of tests that exist for dogs like the ones you outlines. In any case, people will still brush off results that they don’t want to believe and blame it on the test design. Getting the tests to have strong face validity is one of the hard parts if you want people to believe the results.

Designing a test that can test high energy/low energy and small/large dogs equally well is a tough order but I assume someone has come up with more of those.

I agree there’s always goingt o be some room for error in any test, but to the extent that intelligence will ever be measurable dog inteligence is measurable and shows variation between breeds.

As far as problems with energy levels go, the simplest solution is to only run one test a day. The practical distinction between a dog that could solve a probelm but is to lazy to do so even once, and a dog that is too dumb to solve a problem is nonexistant. As such by conducting the tests only once a day and only running the tests for a few minutes that problem is immediately overcome. Sure someone can argue that a dog just might never want to solve the porblem, but such a dog is indistinguishable from one that is too dumb to solve the problem so it becomes an argument from ignorance.

Another complication in testing animals for intelligence is that you have to motivate them in ways that are important to them. You can’t just say, “We’re testing your intelligence today, so go work your way through that maze, okay?” Blake’s point about testing problem-solving ability in a way that avoids ability-bias is correct, but on the other hand, if the problem to be solved is too remote from the species’ imperatives, they’re unlikely to do well on it, no matter how “smart” they may be.

Smart horses opening gates aren’t doing it just for amusement; they do it because they’re rewarded with the freedom to go eat grass or raid the hay storage or get into the grain. They’ve made the connections between latch --> door open --> liberty --> FOOD. Why would some let other horses out? It’s not from some altruistic urge to share the wealth; rather, it’s because they’re herd animals and find safety in numbers. But would they make equally motivating connections if presented with, say, a maze problem to solve? For rodents a maze may be a fine sort of intelligence test; rodents patter about narrow windy places often; but that’s not a normal milieu for a horse.

Blake, you posit that

But I’d posit that there’s another alternative: that the problem to be solved is so remote from the imperatives of the species as a whole that it cannot justly measure the intelligence of the particular animals presented with it.

There’s not too many species where getting some food isn’t an imperative.

This site seems to the number of repetitions necessary to learn a new command and how often a dog obeys a known command the first time it’s given as the criteria for dog intelligence.

(Labradors do pretty well on that scale, BTW)

Blake, do you have a cite for your study about dog breed intelligence? Not doubting you, I’d just really like to see such a study for myself.

I’ve been told that if you want to get a relative idea of how smart a breed of dog is, figure out what they were bred for. For example, border collies were bred to herd sheep, a very complicated task which requires intelligence. On the other hand, dalmatians were bred to have spots and chase carriages. This generally follows my own observation in that every dalmation I’ve ever met seemed about as bright as a hammer. I’m shocked they remembered to breathe.

I’ll go wait in the corner and await Blake’s cite and my own pitting by the dalmatian lovers amongst us.

Labradors, dumb? They’re trained as guide dogs, which takes some intelligence. They’re one of the smartest breeds there is.

True that, but you have to use that incentive in a test the subject is capable of doing, and which is related to a real-life behavior. You can test a horse’s intelligence using a problem that requires it to use its lips to manipulate something, but expecting it to pick up an object and carry it to another spot in which to deposit it? For a dog, that would work; for a horse, it’s too much of a stretch from its normal behavior.

Yeah, but they suck at lateral thinking. I ran my own test as a little kid. Hung a doggie treat from the ceiling just out of jumping range (the dog would sometimes bump it with its nose on a really good jump). I then put a chair about a foot to the side. The dog could easily have hopped onto the chair and not even had to jump to get the treat, but jump it did. An hour later the thing was still repeatedly jumping for the treat when I took pity on her and moved the chair underneath the treat. She then immediately took it.

A friends dog (the breed escapes me) had no trouble figuring it out. Of course applying this to the whole breed is an overgeneralization as my dog was pretty dumb in a lot of ways (but excelled at learning tricks).

There’s a hidden assumption there that all horses WANT to escape. Is it just possible that what you see as stupidity is just contentment or lack of motivation??


I have two Beagles. Nordberg is a sweet and fun dog who spends half her life chasing after the cat. Quincy is a smart dog. For example he was licking out a dog can in the basement. It rolled on the uneven floor . He picked it up and jammed it into his dry food bowl. He then licked it clean.
One night he made a rumbling sound like I gotta go to bathroom bad. My wife got up to open the back door to the yard. As soon as she passed him he ran and jumped in bed. he got under the covers and laid his head on her pillow.
He saw problems ,developed a solution and carried it out.
he would test badly. he does not like to be pushed around and told what to do. He really does not see people as superior.

I beg to differ. Our pet dog is half border collie, half cocker spaniel, and we’ve raised four guide dogs, 2 labs and 2 goldens. Our first lab was dumb as a post. (He got career changed because of health issues, not intelligence.) Guide dogs need to obey, and deal with traffic, but they also have to sit for hours under a desk and not stir.

We have a food dispenser called a yuppie puppie machine which gives treats when the dog presses a lever. Our pet dog figured it out in two seconds flat. When our first lab got career changed we tried him on it, and he never got it.

I’ve noted differences within breeds also. Our second golden was smarter than our first - so smart we worried that she wouldn’t make a good guide. She got made a breeder, so it was okay. We kept one of her puppies, and this puppy had figured out to tap on the glass door to go out much faster then her mother. All anecdotal, of course, but I’m convinced.

Since doggie intelligence is clearly genetic in large part, I’d be curious about a mechanism that did not allow variation. I’m sure there are more than one or two genes involved, so there is ample room for variation.

Thanks for the interesting responses, everyone.

Perhaps dogs weren’t the best example for my question, because there seems to be a consensus that different breeds have different intelligence levels, and how intelligence is tested in one breed may be inappropriate for another. Anyway, the anecdotal evidence does seem to suggest that within a breed/species, some specimens do better on intelligence tests than others.

This all seems perfectly reasonable for more complex animals, such as chimps or dogs or horses. I’m curious about animals that seem “simple”. (Please forgive me for my non-scientic terminology). Is there a way to tell whether one goldfish is smarter than another one, or are goldfish totally controlled by instinct? In other words, can we only measure intelligence (insofar as that’s even possible) in species that are capable of rational thought? I hope that made sense.

[Alive At Both Ends, I wasn’t trying to suggest labs are dumb, just pulling a random breed name out of my hat since I couldn’t think of a stupid breed off the top of my head. My own dog is half lab, half rott, and she doesn’t seem any smarter or dumber than other pets I’ve encountered.]

Quite true, but also quite irrelevant. We are discussing iontelligence differences between indivdiuals of the same species.

I don’t have anyhitng tto hand, but I’ll see what I can ifnd. Don’t hold your bretah through.

Only to a very limited dextent. The trouble is defining out “What the species was actually bred for” in any meaningful way. For example greyhounds and pinschers were both bred in large part to chase down and kill prey, yet grehounds are as thick as shit while pinschers are among the more intellgent breeds. Similarly bull terriers and wolfhounds were both bred to kill other animals yet bull terriers are dumb as bricks while wolfhounds are of average doggy intelligence. Weimeraners and Cocker spaniels were both bred as gun dogs, yet the spaniels are usually only maginally more intelligent than their food, while Weis are a highly intelligent breed. Toy poodles and Pekinese were both bred as lapdogs, yet poodles are highly intelligent whiel Pekes are nice to look at.

My point is that you need a really, really, really good handle on a breed’s history before knowing what it was bred for will tell you much. Basically you already need to know how intelligent the dog has been throughout its history before knowing the history will tell you anything about intelligence.

That’s a pretty crummy criterion for testing intelligence IMO. Dingoes are amongst the most intelligent dog breeds, if not the most intelligent. But they don’t learn commands at all well. They are an extremely goal oriented and you can command them till the cows come home and they won’t respond unless they want to. They need a very definite reward as a gaol to work towards. I suspect that wolves would be just the same.

The thing is that some breeds (and some individuals) are simply very dominant animals. They won’t follow commands unless they want to. That doesn’t indicate a lack of intelligence.

Actually, I was raising that point about tests unsuited to a particular species for a different point: That to test an animal’s intelligence you have to give it a problem to solve that it will be both able and motivated to solve; that the parameters of the test have to relate closely enough to the normal needs and activities of the species being tested so that the individuals being tested can actually solve the problem.

You could, for example, set up a test for chimp intelligence that required stacking one object on top of another and measure how long it took each chimp to figure it out. If you were to test for equine intelligence using the same parameters, none of your subjects would ever beat out a box of rocks.

That’s actually a very good point. Not all horses will charge through an open gate as soon as they spot it. My own horse will stand in his stall at the doorsill, even with the door wide open, and wait for me to carry his hay to him. (One could perhaps cast this as the horse, having trained me to bring it food, contentedly conserving its energy while I carry out my task. ;))

I’m still failing to see your point. If no chimp can solve the problem then such a test doesn’t introduce any bias whatsoever. It becomes zero data point but it’s not as though certain breeds of chimp will outperform other. As such you could include as many of these tests as you like without introducing any bias. The tests would be pointless, but they wouldn’t invalidate the results. The chimps that scored the highest on the few tests they could complete would still be the most intelligent and there is no reaosn to suspect that the performace was affected by breed.