Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Smartest Dog in the World

Lately I have seen a number of video clips of dogs that are being presented as the “smartest dog in the world”.  They know thousands of words, can identify endless objects by name, perform all kinds of clever acts like covering themselves with a blanket, opening the refrigerator and bringing a beer, putting the dirty laundry in the basket, balancing a cookie on their nose, and all performed perfectly to their master’s command.  And after performing these acts, the dogs stand there with a keen and alert look, asking, “What else can I do? Please, please, please!!!”

I truly admire these dogs and their abilities.  I admire even more the time, effort,  and commitment of someone who teaches his dog a specific name for each of a thousand different stuffed animals.  Wow!

But does this make him the smartest dog in the world?

Habibi understands every word that I say.  I have no doubt that he has a huge vocabulary, and if we include facial expressions and body language, his abilities are encyclopedic.  However, understanding everything does not mean that he intends to do everything I ask whenever I decide to request it.  He knows perfectly well what “fetch” means, but if he is comfortably ensconced in his basket with a bone, and I tell him “Fetch!” because I feel like playing right now, I get a raised eyebrow in reply and a look that says, “Do you seriously think that I should get up now and run after a stupid ball when I am busy???  Do it yourself!”

Should we be playing outside, and I accidentally, in my normal uncoordinated fashion, throw his rope toy into a puddle, you can forget about “Fetch!”, even though we had been happily playing before.  “You must be kidding!  You really think I am going to pick up that disgusting wet thing in my mouth?? Learn to throw properly!”

He understands instantly all the words that are relevant to important things in his life, no matter in what context or tone they are uttered – out, cookie, car, not now – and responds in what is to him a completely appropriate manner to get a result that is positive for him.  “What do you want?” will get the response that is relevant – standing by the door dancing from foot to foot, sitting at the refrigerator door ready to point at the sausages when it is opened, or twisting his head with an imploring expression to convince me “Yes, now”.   Words are of course not necessary; I think he can read my mind – I only have to think of doing something, and he already knows what the schedule is.  And he is extremely adept at communicating to me what he wants me to do and persuading me to do it, all without using words.

So I really wonder if we should believe that dogs that are so enthusiastic about following orders are the smartest, or if they are simply following orders that smarter dogs can’t be bothered with.

Habibi is certainly the smartest dog in the world.


  1. How true! I identify with every word! (Or at least I would after I've done laughing)
    All the conversations you described, I have had with my dog. She was especially good in giving me "The Look" the one that says "what on earth are you talking about? You want ME to do WHAT? Go do it yourself..."

  2. Great story, Myrna - bidability and intelligence are very different, and silly the human who mixes up those two characteristics. I'll take intelligence any day!