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Pushing Canine IQ: Is Breeding for Intelligence Possible?

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For the past 200 years, humans have been the main factor in the evolution of dogs.

We’ve bred them to become our friendly companions, and we will be the ones to decide where their evolution goes. One of the most interesting aspects of dog evolution is whether we can breed them for intelligence.

It is possible to breed dogs to perform specific tasks that require intelligence. We’ve been doing it with Border Collies and many other breeds for some time. These clever dogs are intelligent mostly because we’ve been breeding them for their smarts.

Interestingly, when comparing a Border Collie to breeds like the Shetland Sheepdog or Golden Retriever, you’ll often find that while all these breeds are intelligent, they manifest their intelligence in varied ways due to different breeding goals.

In this blog post, we explore how we breed dogs for intelligence, the obstacles to overcome, and whether we could ever breed dogs to be as smart as humans.

smart dog wearing glasses

Can You Breed Intelligence in Dogs?

For a long time, humans have been breeding dogs for intelligence. That is why some breeds are more intelligent and can do various tasks more efficiently.

Border collies are one such breed. They can recognize a toy image and then get that toy. That is abstract reasoning, which almost all animals are incapable of.

Some work is done to improve the performance of working dogs, such as service dogs and police dogs. However, intelligence is only one of many essential characteristics in animals such as guide dogs. It is critical to be easily trainable.

People have bred dogs for obedience and understanding of humans, which is sometimes different from intelligence. That is why labradors are the most commonly used guide dog breed, not because they are the most intelligent breed but because they enjoy food and so are easy to train with food rewards.

On the flip side, while a Belgian Malinois might possess high intelligence and alertness, they might not be the first choice for a family pet due to their intensive energy levels and training needs.

We’ve been breeding dogs with specific goals for thousands of years and now have breeds specializing in various tasks. All of this means that we can artificially produce intelligent dog breeds. The question is, how far can we take this?

What Are the Obstacles in Breeding Dogs for Intelligence?

Cognitive enhancement in animals other than humans is an important topic right now. We can already make small but significant changes to an animal’s cognitive abilities, such as their memory. However, numerous issues arise along the way.

The first issue is determining how to measure the intelligence of nonhuman animals. You need a straightforward way to selectively compare a trait between two individuals if you want to breed for it.

Animal intelligence is frequently hampered because an animal’s aptitude for a task doesn’t always mean how intelligent it is. We would need to figure out how to measure their intelligence correctly. We can hardly do it with humans, and with animals, it would be almost impossible unless they evolved to learn the language.

In fact, sometimes the most ‘intelligent’ behaviors in pups are mistaken for mischief. For instance, a puppy that learns to open doors or escape enclosures isn’t just being troublesome; they’re showcasing problem-solving skills.

It’s equally crucial to acknowledge the emotional intelligence of dogs. Breeds like the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel might not be herders or search-and-rescue experts, but their empathetic nature and ability to connect with humans on an emotional level are unparalleled.

Make no mistake, breeding dogs only to learn a language would be an incredible feat. Animals may have sign language but lack vocabulary, morphology, inflections, etc. A dog can express that it is angry right now, but it cannot say that it was angry in the past, for example.

This has several implications for our cognitive research practice, particularly in terms of ethical concerns about increased sensitivity to harm and a growing need to achieve a state of well-being.

You could breed intelligent dogs, but there may be limits to how complex the canine brain can become without some form of mutation to increase complexity. If we knew how to genetically engineer them to have more complex brains, we would then have to discuss why we would need more intelligent dogs in the first place, let alone the ethical concerns of modifying possibly sentient beings.

It is hard to recognize intelligence early on and is influenced by various environmental and genetic factors, which would significantly increase the time required.

These issues become even more complicated when you consider the possibility of creating animals with human-level cognitive abilities and how this might affect our perceptions of personhood and moral standing.

brown dog wearing glasses sitting in front of a book

Can We Breed Dogs to Become As Smart As Humans?

In theory, we could breed intelligence, even sapience, in dogs. In practice, however, you face a major problem related to how species change and various other issues.

It would take far too long to spark an intellectual revolution in any species if the core functions of their cognition were not understood.

The main issue is that it is challenging to breed something that does not already exist in the brain. Foxes, for example, were bred for obedience, but this may not work with intelligence. Human intelligence does not have the obedience that the fox brain does.

You could selectively breed the smartest dogs, but this may not result in a human type of intelligence. It would simply make them good at doing their “dog stuff.” A change in the capacity of the dog brain would be required to accomplish this.

Sapience, true self-aware ‘sentience,’ and the ability to reason logically when instinctual reactions conflict is difficult to define and test for.

The gradual degrees are also an issue, as it may take thousands of years of breeding to achieve any significant gains in intelligence, even if we could test for it.

But, assuming you achieve some degree of that, when does what you’re doing become unethical because you’re experimenting on sapient/sentient beings?

Some argue that another issue would be a lack of genome. We’d have to either wait for a random mutation to advance in some areas or manipulate the DNA to overcome this, which can be dangerous. We may run out of usable variation in the traits you select after several generations. The population would become indefinitely stuck at a plateau.

To counter-argue this, it has been demonstrated that selection is frequently far from exhausting the total stock of relevant mutations. That means we could push dogs for intelligence for who knows how long. But I hope we never find out because it would probably cause a lot of canine suffering.

It would take a long time and many dead dogs to get a “self-aware” dog. Finally, there’s no guarantee you’d be able to interact with that dog in a “human-like” manner. You may have a dog performing well on an intelligence test, such as recognizing itself in the mirror, but incapable of much more.

Lastly, it may be that no amount of breeding the smartest dogs results in human-level intelligence. It may simply be that human intelligence is far more qualitatively different from dog intelligence.

While the notion of a dog displaying human-like thinking is fascinating, one must wonder if a dog with such intelligence would still maintain its inherent dog-like behaviors, or if it would become a hybrid of sorts, caught between two worlds.

How Do You Improve Dog’s Intelligence Without Breeding?

There are numerous methods for increasing a dog’s intelligence without breeding.

One of the most common methods is to start training them when they are puppies. They can begin elementary training as early as eight weeks of age. Always keep training sessions short, around t to 10 minutes, and end on a positive note.

Start socializing your dog when they are young. Try dog parks, playdates with other dogs, playgroups, and leash walks. Taking your dog out more frequently and exposing him to new situations will benefit them in many ways, physically and mentally.

Introduce them to dog games that stimulate their mental activity, such as puzzles or intelligence dog toys. The best dog puzzle toys stimulate your dog’s mind and help them improve their problem-solving skills.

The more you expose your dog to new problems and situations since they are puppies, the more they should be prepared to respond to the world and various stimuli.

Interactive training tools like clickers not only fine-tune obedience but also amplify a dog’s ability to recognize patterns and anticipate commands, giving their cognitive skills a solid workout.


Which dog breeds are the most intelligent?

Border Collies are thought to be the most intelligent dogs. They are often considered as smart as a small child. The other most intelligent dogs include Poodles, German Shepherds, Golden Retrievers, and Dobermans.

What are the least intelligent dog breeds?

Taking into account adaptive, intuitive, and working intelligence, we can say that Afghan hounds are considered one of the least intelligent dog breeds, along with Basset Hounds, Mastiffs, Beagles, Pekingese, Bloodhounds, Borzois, Chow Chows, Bulldogs, and Basenjis.

What are the easiest dogs to train?

Some of the easiest dogs to train include Border collies, German shepherds, Labrador retrievers, Golden retrievers, Papillons, Australian shepherds, Border terriers, Poodles, Corgis, and Dobermans.

  • Alex

    Alex, a passionate animal lover, has experience in training and understanding animal behavior. As a proud pet parent to two dogs and three cats, he founded AnimalReport.net to share insights from animal experts and expand his knowledge of the animal kingdom.