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Are Bird Dogs Really Smart?

Canine intelligence is a tricky issue, but it's certainly possible our four-legged hunting partners sport more mental bandwidth than we think.

Are Bird Dogs Really Smart?
Bill Buckley Photo

When we talk about positive attributes of our bird dogs, we almost always go down a familiar route.

Stops along the way will include strong prey drive, a good nose, health, perhaps size and color, and sometimes intelligence. Dog smarts are highly subjective and prone to extreme levels of owner bias, but there are canines in the world that seem to demonstrate intelligence at a level that proves (somewhat) they are capable of complex thinking, and better yet, learning.

A couple of border collies have made the nightly news circuit in recent years for learning over 1,000 words. Some are said to understand complex nouns, complete with modifiers. That’s not nothing, and while it might seem like an advanced trick based firmly in an advanced ability to retain information (memory), it’s also a window into how dogs learn and how we might better train them—and hunt with them.

Repetition vs. Knowledge

To most of us, a good dog is one that figures out how to answer questions we carefully ask them, over and over. From basic obedience commands to more advanced field work, our job as handlers is to frame up the questions in such a way that they can’t fail, and then repeat them over and over until a desired behavior settles in.

We try to accelerate this specific learning curve by offering up rewards like treats and praise, making a positive outcome far more desirable for our dogs. This works, and the quicker a lesson seems to stick without being false-positive in danger of being forgotten the next morning, the smarter we think our dogs are.

After all, isn’t learning something quickly a sign of intelligence?

It is. But it’s also intelligence gleaned from designed lessons, and for most commands, something every dog can learn over time. Does the commoditized nature of obedience commands mean a dog that nails the foundation work is only as good as the next pup? Maybe, but maybe not. Quick and efficient progress is always a plus, and points to a problem solver that is learning on the go. That’s not nothing, but it’s also not exactly what we think of when we’re pondering over how smart dogs really are—or can be.

Problem Solving With & Without Help

Last year, I interviewed dog trainer Jordan Horak for my Sporting Dog Talk podcast. He’s an up-and-comer in the training world who has already accomplished more than plenty of trainers who’ve got a decade or two on him, and he’s also got a penchant for English cockers. During our chat, we got on the topic of how smart the breed really is, and he told a story about a particularly crafty male.

The dog, which spent his non-training time in a run, figured out how to open the door to his enclosure. This in itself is pretty fascinating, considering most dogs just accept their fate and either don’t try, or don’t have the mental prowess to work on a locking mechanism designed by us.

black lab holding bird in mouth
Denver Bryan Photo

Either way, this male figured out how to work the latch and free himself, and instead of enjoying his freedom solo, would go along the other dog runs and unlock only the females. The rest of the males—his competition—were left boarded and dateless. While I’m sure there could be some alternative explanation for this specific behavior, it seems like that suave cocker was working on an impressive level. Not only did he jailbreak himself, he let out every potential girlfriend in the kennel, which seems an awful lot like he was capable of reasoning out a thing or two.

It wouldn’t be a crazy leap to label that male as intelligent. But I’ve also posed the question to other podcast guests and got a different answer. When I asked world-renowned border collie trainer, Faansie Basson, how smart he thought his favorite breed was, he wasn’t so quick to over-credit them with being brainiacs.

He offered up a story about a particular dog he had that would ride in the back of his truck while they were working sheep, and when Faansie would maneuver the vehicle a certain way, the dog would leap out and do his job. Faansie could call his shots with that dog, and his guests would often remark on how incredible that behavior was.

But Faansie put it in perspective by saying, “That dog had done that a thousand times before,” meaning while it appeared to be a crazy demonstration of intelligence—knowing exactly when to exit the vehicle to do his job without being told—it was nothing more impressive than the learned behavior of all dogs.

I had a similar experience myself with my current Lab, Luna. We had set out for a trip to hunt multiple species of upland birds in Nebraska. After climbing a river bluff one morning, we set out along a cedar-dotted flat that was covered in knee-high grass. It looked like the kind of spot where we might bump into a covey of quail, and I was curious how Luna would hunt them since it was her first real exposure to bobwhites.

A quarter-mile into it, I saw Luna poking her nose under one of the cedars. Her tail was whipping, and in a forehead-slapping moment, I just thought that she must be working some robins or other songbirds. Obviously, I was wrong, and when the covey exploded, I wasn’t in a position to shoot. After working the singles, I realized that Luna was looking at the landscape ahead of us and swinging downwind of every single cedar tree she saw. Maybe it was coincidence, but it sure seemed like she made the connection between the new species of birds we were hunting and the type of cover in which she’d first encountered them.

Canine Intelligence Research

While it’s impressive to see a collie that can identify hundreds of different objects by name, there is also a new wave of canine research going on that reverses the role and allows dogs to talk to us. This might sound like anthropomorphic lunacy, but it’s not.

There’s a speech-language pathologist in California named Christina Hunger who is working with her catahoula/blue heeler mix, Stella, and a soundboard to see if the dog can string together words in order to better communicate. So far, the results are impressive.

The soundboard Stella uses has buttons on it that she can press with her paw. Each button then produces a word like “eat,” or “play.” Not only does it seem that Stella is learning to put together words in order to be able to communicate better, but she’s also advanced from using one paw to two, so that she can more efficiently use the words she needs.

This sounds like a fraud, I know. But a legitimate speech-language pathologist, who happens to work with young children, is actively working to see if the same rules apply to dogs. It seems that to some extent, they do. And her work seems to reinforce the concept that we’ve been working together with dogs for so long, that they’ve evolved to become social learners and to look to us for help.

This is different than captive wolves, which tackle a problem themselves and won’t turn to humans for guidance. Domestic dogs do, and they’ve been a part of the human experience for so long, that it seems possible that they have evolved to communicate with us. Anyone with a good bird dog knows that eye contact and body language are just as important as verbal commands when working together. But throughout our history, we haven’t really given dogs a chance to talk in a way in which we recognize it as our kind of speech.

While it’s a stretch of the definition to say that a dog pounding away on a soundboard is a dog that is having a conversation with us, you can bet that there will be further research built around the idea that will further suss out how much dogs are capable of in this arena.

Why Does Any of This Matter?

To sporting dog owners, does a high intelligence level really matter? If you’re interested in wringing the most potential out of your retriever or pointer, then yes, it very much does. Understanding how dogs learn and how they might best communicate with us—and us with them—is a huge leap forward in structuring training drills and developing teamwork.

Intelligence research also likely has implications for future breeding opportunities, where instead of matching up dogs because of coat color or prey drive alone, we might be able to target the most intelligent animals in any given breed and get them together. That’s already done to some level with good bloodlines, but can always be improved upon with new findings and the latest credible information.

It seems like the focus on dog brains and intelligence could lead to further litmus tests for how smart each individual really is. At that point, it will be a matter of pairing up the MENSA-level dogs and seeing where the bloodlines end up when it comes to learning and problem solving. This probably seems like futuristic daydreaming, but it’s not.

It’s coming, and it’s going to be fascinating. It might even result in us having better bird dogs.

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