Recent studies have shed more insight onto how dogs learn and what they can remember. A 2014 study at Stockholm University found that dogs lack episodic memory, or memory of past events (meaning your pup doesn’t remember licking himself 1o minutes ago.) During the study researchers found that for dogs, events are typically forgotten after about two minutes.
So how does your dog learn a new command if he can’t remember the training session you had five minutes ago? Your pup might not remember learning how to sit, but he can remember the positive association between sitting and receiving a treat. This is because, through training sessions, your pupper has worked his procedural and associative memory and made a connection between the behavior and the reward.
Take, for example, Chaser, a Border Collie who earned the title “Most Intelligent Dog In The World,” by being able to correctly identify over 1000 different words (psssstt–most two-year old toddlers know about 300.) Chaser’s learning process is similar to how babies learn new words, and the more she learns, the faster she gets. So how come some dogs, like Chaser, can learn an extensive vocabulary in the time it takes another dog to learn one seemingly simple command?
Part of it has to do with breed. Stanley Coren, a professor of canine psychology at the University of British Colombia, and the author of The Intelligence of Dogs measured dog intelligence by testing 80 breeds in how quickly they could learn a new command.
In Coren’s assessment, breeds that understood new commands in fewer than 5 repetitions, like the Border Collie (*cough* Chaser *cough*), Poodle, and German Shepherd, were named the “most intelligent.”
On the other hand, breeds like the Basenji, Bloodhound, and Afghan Hound, who were deemed to be the least intelligent, understood a new command after 80 to 100 repetitions (it’s okay pups, we still love you).
If you want to see where your dog falls on the list, you can check here–but don’t be to down-trodden if your dog isn’t the top of the class. Bulldogs, for example rank #79 out of 80 on Coren’s list, and just look what this guy can do!
So while it’s true some breeds have a steeper learning curve than others, ancestry and pedigree aren’t everything. Timing, consistency, and the value of the reward are all factors in positive reinforcement training that can help your dog build associations between rewards and behaviors faster.