Would it be possible to breed (not gene-engineer) a dog with near-human-level intelligence?

So far as I know, it has never really been tried. (Perhaps a dog breeder can correct me on that.) If you had enough time, and enough intelligent-for-a-dog breeding stock, would it be possible to produce a breed of dog that, in its general level of intelligence, surpasses the great apes and approaches humans? Or do our minds depend on too many specialized brain-parts, such as the speech center, that can’t be bred into dogs because there’s just no starting material to work with in a non-primate brain?

Heck, there was a whole TV show about such a dog.

It was called The Smallest Transient, or something.

National Geography had an articlefeaturing a Border collie (a breed used to herd sheep) that had the vocabulary and intelligence of a three year old child.

I don’t know if that counts . . . Can a child that age be considered more intelligent than an adult chimpanzee?

I have often wondered if there are any animal geniuses. Sometime in humans people are born with exceptional intelligence like Einstein or Hawking. Marilyn Savant is supposed to have an IQ of over 200, so would the chance mutation or a one in ten million good luck shot in the genetic draw ever produce an animal with exceptional intelligence and if identified breed with others of it’s kind.

In some ways, yes. There are different types of intelligence, and it’s not at all easy to compare the intelligence level of different species. Chimps, for example, are much better are remembering sequences than humans are. If you show them a grid with a random arrangement of sequential numbers in it, they can remember the sequence even if they only see it for a fraction of a second. Most humans can’t do that.

I’m fairly certain this is not possible. It seem akin to asking if we can breed a dog that has human arms. There are some substantial differences between the brains of dogs and humans just like the differences between the limbs are large. I think breeding is used to exaggerate existing traits rather than create new ones.

I have seen animals in a Parade.

One of the big things that separates us from other animals is abstract thought. I don’t believe that a mutation would cause this in a particular animal. This is definitely something that would take many mutations over huge amounts of time…if it is even possible given the starting material.

The accompanying article expores that question in detail.

I think this sums up the answer to the OP rather succinctly.

Is it true that dogs have no speech centers at all? The communicate vocally, if not verbally. Does that come from an area other than the “speech center?”

Anyway, even if you greatly exaggerate the intelligence of a dog, I doubt that its intelligence would be human-like.

But one thing that I find pretty amazing about dogs is that they can be trained to exercise human-like judgement in some respects. Seeing Eye dogs are taught to selectively disobey commands, such as if the blind person wants to cross a street but the dog sees a hazard coming and refuses to budge. It’s one thing to teach a dog to be obedient, but it’s quite another to teach him the concept of veto power.

I wouldn’t be so quick to discount the ability of animals to engage in some form of abstract thought. I’ve personally witnessed dogs engaging in some form of problem-solving cognition that displays some degree of abstraction (i.e. attempting novel approaches in a trial-and-error fashion). Other non-primate animals have been shown to display what is pretty clearly abstract problem-solving behavior. Some species of cephalopods, for instance, have demonstrated sophisticated problem solving capability that implies at least a degree of abstraction.

However, we can’t know to what degree animals can engage in some form of abstraction because they lack the ability (i.e. a grammar) by which to convey complex operations and abstract concepts. Octopods, for instance, can learn problem solving skills quickly from each other by observation; however, while their means of communication through the dilation and contraction of chromatophores has a fairly complex variation, doesn’t (appear to) have the bandwidth required for communication of abstraction, nor do octopods experience long rearing periods in which basic common cultural concepts are conveyed, which is the basis for abstract communication between groups, i.e. going from “Dick and Jane and Spot ran down the street,” to “What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! in form, in moving, how express and admirable!”

So I would say that it is the inability to form or comprehend statements using a shared grammar with sufficient complexity and versatility to convey novel concepts that is the limiting factor, and the cognitive capability of dogs and other mammalian animals is inherently limited by the scope and extent of neural structures in the auditory cortex and the frontal lobe where language structures (pars triangularis and pars opercularis in the inferior frontal gyrus) reside in humans. No amount of simple breeding is going to develop these regions in canines because they just don’t exist. Intelligent breeds of dog can acquire a large vocabulary of simple words and even words in particular combinations, but they won’t be able to really understand anything more than a very trivial grammar if that. In other words, their language capability is limited to a simple one-to-one correspondence between word and concept.

A comparison of the cognitive capabilities between an adult dog and an immature child on the basis of ability is an apples to oranges comparison; a 2 year old may have a smaller vocabulary than a smart dog, but that is because the 2 year old is still developing what will eventually be a far more complex language capability, while the ability of the dog is matured and relatively unexpandable. It would be like comparing the image of a fifty piece jigsaw puzzle versus a two thousand piece puzzle on the basis of ten minutes of assembly time.


I don’t think problem-solving behavior necessarily involves abstract thought. Hell, even ants will try different ways to move around an obstacle and I don’t think anyone would accuse them of having abstract thought. Also, the ability to understand a one-to-one relationship between a word and an action doesn’t require abstract thought. It’s more the ability to understand ideas from words alone.

Can you define exactly what you mean by abstract thought? I don’t think we are the only animals with that ability. Chimps and some cetaceans, I believe, can solve problems in their minds before they execute. As for your ant example, that is trial and error.

We HAVE been trying to select out for intelligence in dogs, for a long time. Border Collies are bred for intelligence and herding ability. German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers have been bred for intelligence.

As sports like Agility, frisbee, dog dancing, and other dog activities that require high intelligence grow in popularity, you’ll see even more of this. The smartest dogs become the best, and they are in high demand as breeding stock so their genes flourish.

In the Border Collie world, a large number of dogs trace their heritage to a handful of a dogs that had exceptional intelligence. Border Collie associations even fought against their breed being recognized by the American Kennel Club, because they didn’t want their dogs being bred to meet a physical ‘breed standard’. The reason you can find border collies in many different sizes, colors, ear sets, and other traits is because they are bred exclusively for brains and herding ability - looks don’t matter.

So I think it’s fair to say that the Border Collie probably represents the pinnacle today of what you can accomplish when trying to intentionally breed dogs for high intelligence. And judging from what I saw my Border Collie eating the other day, that’s not too high…

Oh, I’m sure you can. But you’ll wait a LOOONG time, long enough for new genetic mutations, and it depends on how you define “dog.” I’m sure you could start with a dog, but will the end really be a dog? Every generation you may be confronted with a choice of: well, this one is smarter, but this one is more dog-like- what do I pick?
I mean, we got here from single celled organisms through selective breeding, so going from dog to super-smart thing that is descended from a dog is positively trivial, from an evolutionary standpoint. From a practical standpoint, much less so.

It is difficult to define. I would think mathematics and the creation of music would be examples of pure abstraction. But, the ability to think outside of the here and now would also count. For example, humans look and the moon and think about how to get there. Or, we think about ways to travel through time. Maybe certain emotions such as regret or guilt would count. Unfortunately none of these can really be tested and we have to rely on what a species has accomplished.

Well done.

Those are pretty high level abstract thought examples. At a basic level, it’s just being able to understand an idea not tied to a specific object. Chimps, for example, can understand the concept of “stone” independent of a particular stone. They are also capable of doing simple math.

Emotions are a whole different thing.