Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Eternal IQ Question

A few weeks back a friend sent me this message:

“I would say that Bow is one of the smartest dogs I know, but according to this article, she’s not likely to end up at canine Harvard anytime soon.”

Maybe I’m opening up the wrong can of worms just mentioning the topic since it made the rounds on BRAT-CHAT this summer, but my initial response was “I’d like to see the companion survey where basenjis got a chance to rank the intelligence of humans.”

My response back to my friend was, “Well, if you want a dog that is always compliant, that follows commands without questioning, that is always looking for your approval, that will play the role of the faithful servant, then a basenji is not very bright. However, if you like a dog that is independent, that you constantly have to outsmart, that can figure out how to climb over two baby gates without any effort, can open doors and cabinets and is always testing your intelligence, then a basenji might be for you.”

My friend says that one of the reasons that he likes Bow is that her approval is not easily won, she isn’t a face licking love muffin but when she approves of you, she is a steadfast friend.

Asking someone if they think they have a smart dog is as futile a question as asking someone if they think their grandchild is cute. But I have to agree with those who feel that “scientific studies” which rank basenjis low on the intelligence scale look at them through a skewed lens. And how intelligent does a dog need to be? Considering that Bow has managed to get someone to lavish the best canine food, medical care, back and tummy massages and protection, would she be doing any better were she to learn Greek and calculus?

I’ve also heard such mixed opinions from other basenji owners of whether or not they are trainable? After months of working on it, Bow responds to quite a number of commands she ignored when she arrived a year ago. “Leave it.” “Off.” “Down.” “Give me five.” and a few others get the appropriate, immediate response now. I don’t know that I have “taught” her these commands – I suspect she knew them all along. But we have managed to negotiate them successfully as a team. The fact that I can now say “Leave it” and get an immediate response without a treat even when she’s spotted a smelly chicken bone on the sidewalk feels like someone’s IQ has gone up a point or two.

Though it may not qualify as an indicator of intelligence, I keep getting mixed opinions about whether or not basenjis or dogs in general have any specific memories about events, people, places and activities. Bow does seem to remember that more than a year ago she saw a cat run through the side yard at 25th and Hampshire since every time we pass it she glances over and will pull a bit on the leash just in case that cat is there again. She also clearly remembers humans that remember their commands, such as a friend who has yet to understand the “Let her approach you first” command, and he’s the only human visitor she’s ever been snippy with.

Finally, I have a debate with a couple of friends about whether Bow can recognize representations of animals in pictures, TV or other likenesses. Most say they are oblivious to such likenesses, but the first time we walked by the house with the figurine on the right, Bow bolted backward, looked up at me and then circled around with great trepidation and her Mohawk at full mast. When was came back around the block she was calm but before heading on down the block, she had to paw at the plaster pooch for just a second to let it know she was the boss.


  1. In my basenji experiences, there is no doubt that basenjis absolutely remember people, places, and things. I'm pretty sure if my Kirby could reach the gas pedals, he could drive himself to the dog park, his Auntie's house, and to the vet (or in that case, he would drive away from the vet - at high speeds). They also remember and greet an out-of-state friend of mine who only visit around once every 6 to 8 months with no hesitation, like they have with new visitors.

    There is also no doubt in my mind that they recognize images - both my basenjis like to look at themselves (or the other dogs?) that appear in the full length mirror at our house. They love to watch Rachael Ray and will stop what they are doing to sit down on the futon and watch the TV. Now that may be her voice more than her image, but either way, I am convinced they like to watch her on TV - probably because she is making delicious food.

    How's that for intelligence?

  2. Bow usually doesn't pay much attention to TV, but when the news reports were made about the Obamas adopting their Beau, her ears perked up every time and she looked at the screen as if to see why it was saying her name.