The intelligence traits that any puppy will grow up with come down to a large combination of factors, such as their handling, early experiences, socialisation, and breeding. Some breeds and types of dogs are universally recognised to be more intelligent than others, and some breeds have a very specific aptitude for certain things, such as herding or detection work.
However, even within the same breed, no two puppies are alike, and within just one litter you will usually see a fairly wide range of differences in personalities, intelligence levels and aptitude for learning.
It is not always obvious when a litter is young which puppies will be the brightest, fastest to learn and most intelligent, and these are traits that develop at different rates in different dogs. Added to this, trying to work out how smart a puppy is before they have even learned any commands and have only just begun to explore the world is no easy endeavour!
However, in some situations, it is important for breeders and potential buyers to be able to make a reasonable assessment of puppy intelligence and aptitude before the puppies even leave the dam, as this may dictate potential skills and talents that the puppy will display in later life.
Particularly for dogs that are ultimately intended to work as assistance dogs for people with disabilities, for police and security work or for high-level agility and other competitions, training and development starts very early on, and so being able to make a reasoned assessment of the pup’s skills is vital to select the right dog for the job!
Read on to find out more about how to assess the intelligence and potential working aptitude of puppies.
While most of us are fairly clear on what is meant by the term intelligence, aptitude can be harder to define. While aptitude and intelligence are often closely linked, they do not refer to the same trait! Aptitude refers to a specific trait of intelligence for one particular skill or range of skills, such as problem solving, herding, scent detecting or being trained. Different canine activities require different types of aptitude, and so even a very intelligent puppy may not be well suited to certain types of working roles. Aptitude also refers to a puppy’s ability to concentrate on something or work through something regardless of external distractions, and can best be described as a talent that can be developed, rather than a learned skill.
In some cases, puppies are tested for their intelligence or aptitude for certain things when they are as young as six to eight weeks old, and this is often done by the breeder in order to allow them to match up puppies and make suggestions to potential buyers who are looking for different things from their dog. This is particularly important for dogs that will go on to working roles, as their training starts very early in life, and time and effort will be wasted if it turns out that a selected puppy does not live up to their promise!
The very first things that are assessed as part of aptitude testing are the very basic reactions that the puppies have to different things, when placed within a new situation such as a strange room, garden, or somewhere away from the dam.
The breeder or observer will watch the puppies’ behaviour to see which ones are anxious, which are inquisitive, which are confident and which are shy, and these core personality traits form the basis of making an informed appraisal of the puppy’s future potential.
In some cases, dominance or boldness in the puppy can be considered to be a positive trait, while in others, cooperation and submission is required. Ergo, one of the easiest and most common aptitude and intelligence tests that breeders and potential buyers may conduct is to suss out the puppy’s response to situations when put on the spot and faced with something they may find odd or outside of their range of experience.
It is easy to find out a puppy’s natural response to this type of stimulus, and it is undertaken by holding the puppy up in front of your face, supporting them under the armpits. Virtually all puppies will wriggle about at first, but they will then either relax and allow you to hold them so, or whine, nip or claw at you to get down. The puppies can then be ranked in terms of how long it takes them to relax and submit, and how they display their initial uncertainty or displeasure.
Pups are very inquisitive and like to get into everything going on around them, and this provides an opportunity to suss out how quick your pup is to solve problems and how keen they are to work with you.
Go into a room with your pup, and hide from them, or place the pup behind a physical barrier. Then, call the pup, and time how long it takes to get their attention, and how long it takes them to work out the best way to get around the barrier to come and find you.
You can suss out how cooperative your pup is likely to be and how keen they are to learn from you by assessing how willing your pup is to follow you when you try to leave their line of sight, and if they can maintain attention on one thing for more than a few moments at a time.