News & Politics

How Smart Is Your Dog?

From stealing cookies to opening drawers, the smartest dogs can create the most mischief

Photograph by Mark Gsellman/Getty Images.

Little Bit, a 25-pound beagle, was a master at avoiding crate time. She could push free a pin and loosen the sides of her wire-framed crate, then squeeze herself out through the gap. For unsuspecting pet sitters, she had a flare for the dramatic: When it was time to go into the crate, she began to limp and roll on the ground as if in sudden agony.

When her owner, Karin Kairchoff, took Little Bit to a friend’s house, the dog found her way out of the barricaded kitchen and polished off a bag of Fig Newtons. Then she hid the remnants behind the dryer.

Owners are often surprised by the smart things their dogs do, but can intelligence be measured? Smarts vary both on an individual basis and among breeds, says Laura Sharkey, owner of Woofs Dog Training Center in Arlington.

The Pooch IQ Kit tests a dog’s ability to complete 15 exercises, including learning to spin and finding a treat hidden under one of three cups. Working breeds such as the Border collie, Australian shepherd, and German shepherd—all known for their ability to carry out directions—excel at such tasks. More independent-minded breeds, such as hounds, may score lower because they’re less inclined to follow commands.

Being smart is different from being cooperative or trainable, says Jane Huelle of the Dog Shop in Georgetown. The basenji, shiba inu, and saluki are smart but difficult dogs, she says.

Leigh Siegfried of Opportunity Barks in Arlington had a client with a 16-month-old husky, Tala, who was “scary smart,” but the dog became anxious when confined to her owner’s apartment. She created her own entertainment—opening closets, pulling out drawers, and tearing apart everything from clothing to wallets. According to Siegfried, the dog caused $15,000 worth of damage.

Dogs bred to work require more stimulation, says Siegfried: “If you don’t give a sheltie, cattle dog, or corgi something to do, they will create their own activities, whether it’s lunging, chasing, or other destructive behavior. Every dog needs enrichment.”

There are toys designed to maintain a dog’s interest for long periods. For high-energy dogs, including huskies and Jack Russell terriers, Siegfried recommends Kong Time ($70 to $120), which dispenses food-filled Kong toys on a timer. A more affordable alternative is the Buster Cube ($12), which the dog has to shake or roll to free its treats.

Smart dogs are very driven, a trait that can make them hard to live with. Kathleen Murray of Zoolatry, a dog-walking service in DC, says 60 percent of her clients have Labrador retrievers: “They make great house pets because they aren’t so brilliant and are happy to live in a house. They don’t get upset about not having a job to do.”

That doesn’t mean they don’t get into trouble. DC resident Michaela Keeling’s yellow Lab, Eloise, followed a scent all the way into the storm drainpipes under Glover-Archbold Park. A park-police ranger ended up walking two miles deep into the pipes before finding the dog, in cold water and nearly lifeless. He carried her the entire way back.

When Eloise saw her owner again, she sprang to life. Says Keeling: “She ran to me wagging her thick Labrador tail as if absolutely nothing had happened.”

This article first appeared in the May 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.