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More Than a Goofy Face


June 9, 2013 by Julia

I cringe when I see lists or rankings of canine intelligence. The first issue I have is that the lists I have encountered seem to measure biddability (willingness to work) rather than true intelligence. The second is that Boxers tend to rank low on those lists. I realize I’m biased, but it is very hard to live with a Boxer and believe they aren’t keenly intelligent. Goofy as all get out, sure, but not dumb.

Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers are consistently highly ranked on these lists. My experience is that most of these dogs are very compliant but don’t do a lot of independent thinking. Some are labeled as “dumb” but from my perspective they are simply waiting for instructions. Many breeds that score lower on the list are breeds that were bred to work independently – dogs that aren’t supposed to look for your input need to be smart enough to work on their own. 

Which brings me back to the way these lists rank Boxers. The breed standard lists among the characteristics of its temperament “guard dog” and “self-assured”. Neither of those attributes lend themselves to simply waiting for direction. Most Boxers I have encountered enjoy attention and pleasing people but they are looking out for themselves at the same time. If you ask a Boxer to do something that doesn’t benefit them, it is likely you aren’t going to get a very willing response. If they decide not to blow you off completely then you are likely to witness (and hopefully appreciate) their intelligence.

I know I may not be the typical owner, but I appreciate a dog that can negotiate with me. One of my favorite examples comes from my first bitch, Xena. One of her many nicknames was the “comfort queen”. If there was some reason she couldn’t be on a couch, you’d find her curled up on a fallen pillow or wadded up blanket. If neither of those were available, she’d curl up in the crate. 

Sometimes you need a couch and a pillow to be comfy

You can imagine that she was not eager to give up her comfy seat just because we said so. We had trained a “move over” command – we weren’t always interested in evicting her, but we did want our choice of seats in the house. Occasionally I’d pat a far couch cushion and tell her “move over” and she’d try to compromise. She’d look at me, shuffle over a foot or two and then look back to see if she’d moved far enough. Most times, she moved far enough so I’d sit down and let her snuggle back against me. Sometimes I’d tell her to keep on trucking and she’d typically slide off the couch, giving me a dirty look as she walked away.

Adjacent to the ability to negotiate is problem-solving skills. Delta is not as interested in negotiating as Xena was, but she certainly makes life interesting with her problem-solving. Last year when she had gotten tall enough to counter surf, she stole half a bowl of thawing shrimp when my mother turned her back. She showed a great deal of interest in shrimp after the “Shrimp Bandit” incident, so we thought it would be perfect bait for our trap.  We put a bunch of pan lids treacherously piled on top of a dish drying mat on the breakfast island and set a single piece of shrimp at the back. We sat nearby feigning nonchalance and waited for her to scare herself out of her bad habit. What we got instead was a show of puppy determination and dexterity. She ran around the counter, trying to see if she could reach the shrimp from the end or back side. Then she reached out and pawed at the mat.  One lid crashed to the floor and she startled backwards. Rather than stopping her, the crash only made her work harder. After a little regrouping and testing, she began to turn the mat to bring the shrimp to the front and put the lids at the back.  (Delta is still an unrepentant counter surfer, but she is camera-wise so I do not have a charming visual to go along with this tale)

Another trait I appreciate is the ability to generalize behaviors. Dash has a very good memory and is very apt at generalizing. One behavior we taught Dash was to down on our green and white throw rug.  We started the behavior at our house in New York where the rug lay at the edge of our dining room, just past the edge of our living room carpet.  We also had a door mat on the opposite side of the dining room. Dash knew that he was fed if he was in a down on the rug, but he expanded that to being down on any rug.  If we were eating at the far end of the dining room table, he’d down on the door mat. If we put the throw rug into the wash, he’d down on the living room carpet. When we moved to Maine, he immediately started offering downs on whichever throw rug was nearest, despite the fact none of them were familiar. Also, since he was fed for being down on the rug, he’d use the behavior to tell us when he was hungry.

Dash’s dramatic posture points out that dinner is overdue

So what do my explanations and stories really amount to? The Boxer is meant to be an all-around dog and that requires intelligence. I know I am not the only one who has these stories. While some people may believe those lists, myself and others know that the intelligence of Boxers can’t be confined to a one-dimensional box.

Delta fits neatly in two boxes


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