Does Breed Size Play a Role in Dog Intelligence?

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You've no doubt seen lists declaring which breeds are the most intelligent dogs. Though these lists may vary slightly, they usually have one thing in common — they're dominated by larger dog breeds. But what about small dogs? Aren't they smart, too? You may know your Chihuahua or miniature poodle is a genius, so why are those breeds never included? We've got the lowdown on small dogs vs. big dogs when it comes to intelligence, so keep reading to learn why your favorite small breed never makes the cut.

Intelligent Dogs

Guide dog is helping a blind man in the cityJust as humans have different types of intelligence and aptitudes — one person may be a math whiz, for example, while others may be musical, artistic or athletic — dogs do, too. Psychology Today identifies three different categories of canine intelligence. These include:Instinctive intelligence: This is a dog's aptitude for performing the tasks he was bred to do. For example, hounds are bred for tracking and hunting prey, while herding dogs are bred to herd sheep and cattle, and other working breeds are bred to perform specific tasks. This measure indicates how well these dogs perform instinctive tasks. It also indicates how attuned companion dogs are to their owners' moods and emotional cues. Every dog possesses a measure of instinctive intelligence.Adaptive intelligence:This measure of intelligence identifies how well a dog can solve problems without human intervention. For example, a dog requires adaptive intelligence to retrieve a piece of food that fell in a hard-to-reach place without being shown how.Working and obedience intelligence: This measure of intelligence demonstrates how well and how quickly dogs can be trained to behave and to perform tasks on command. Dogs that score well in this category tend to excel in obedience, agility, sports and other types of training.

Lists of intelligent dog breeds typically focus on the third category while mostly ignoring the first two. And with very few exceptions, large breeds weighing between 55 and 85 pounds perform best in the last category, according to Psychology Today.

Small Dogs vs. Big Dogs

Does this mean that smaller dog breeds — those weighing less than 35 pounds — are dumb? Absolutely not. Many small dogs score well on the other measures of intelligence. And it's worth noting that dog IQ tests focus more on reasoning and problem-solving skills than on obedience and trainability. So then why do small dogs tend to perform poorly in this latter category? There are a few theories, none of which require your small pup to don a dunce cap.

Shape of Head

One notable study links the shape of a dog's head to ease of training, says Psychology Today. The theory is that both brachycephalic dogs — those with short faces and flat noses, such as bulldogs and pugs — and dolichocephalic dogs — those with narrow, elongated faces, such as greyhounds — were bred for specific tasks; the former for fighting and guarding, the latter for running and chasing prey. Meanwhile, mesocephalic dogs — those with average-shaped heads, like Labrador retrievers — tend to lack such specialization, which, according to researchers, may give them more cognitive flexibility that makes them better at learning new tasks.


cute maltese dog sitting in grassA dog's temperament may also affect their trainability and submissiveness. Breeds that typically make the intelligent dog lists, such as golden retrievers or border collies, tend to be extremely friendly and eager to please. Small dogs, on the other hand, are often more willful and stubborn, as well as anxious and excitable, says Psychology Today.

Some may argue that having a mind and will of their own actually makes small dogs more intelligent than their larger, more happy-go-lucky counterparts. As for fearfulness and excitability, it's understandable that the world is a scarier place for small dogs than it is for large dogs. It's possible that small dogs are too busy watching for possible dangers to be bothered with learning new tricks.

Influence of Pet Parents

Another theory is that small dogs' overall poorer performance in the obedience and training category has nothing to do with innate ability and everything to do with their treatment and conditioning. A 2010 study in Applied Animal Behaviour Science found that small-dog parents tend to interact with their dogs in ways that reinforce aggression, excitability and fearfulness and undermine obedience learning.

For example, small-dog parents are generally less consistent in training and interacting with their dogs than large-dog parents are. Small-dog parents also tend to rely more on punishment, such as scolding and leash-jerking, to correct their dogs' behavior — which has been shown to reinforce fearfulness and aggression in dogs, says Psychology Today. The study also found that small-dog parents typically engage less in play and shared activities, such as playing fetch or taking walks — activities that tend to produce more well-behaved, obedient dogs.

Though it may seem like those lists of the most intelligent dogs are biased toward larger dogs, the truth is that they're usually biased toward dogs that are eager to please and easy to train. Don't get us wrong — it certainly takes smarts to learn good manners and to perform certain tasks. And many of the breeds on intelligent dog lists make excellent service, police and military dogs, all of which command our respect.

But you know your dog best. If you're convinced your small dog is brilliant, you're not wrong. The bottom line is you don't need a list to tell you whether your dog is intelligent — and your dog doesn't need to be smart to be worthy of love and affection.

Contributor Bio

Jean Marie Bauhaus

Jean Marie Bauhaus

Jean Marie Bauhaus is a pet parent, pet blogger and novelist from Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she usually writes under the supervision of a lapful of furbabies.

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