Perhaps you have heard other dog owners rave about how intelligent their pups are and wondered why your pooch is not as gifted. Alternatively, perhaps your dog is perfectly smart, but you are simply curious about whether or not dogs can be mentally challenged or be affected by mental retardation.
There are a variety of behaviors and conditions that may lead a person to wonder if their dog is not neurotypical compared to other dogs. Some dogs might take a long time to learn new things, easily forget what they were previously taught, or generally act in an incomprehensible manner.
You may find yourself wondering, “Can dogs experience mental retardation?”
Simply put, yes, it is possible for dogs to experience certain health problems that negatively affect their mental capacities, to experience psychological problems, or to be intellectually disabled. It is also true that, from a human perspective, some dogs are simply not as smart as other dogs.
So Can Dogs Be Retarded or Mentally Challenged?
(A Note on the Use of the Word “Retarded”)
While the word “retardation” was once used in medical contexts to refer to people with intellectual or developmental disabilities, over time it came to be used as an insult. In addition to its potential for hurtfulness, the use of the word is often too ambiguous to be helpful, especially when used as part of a serious question.
Though the person using the word may not mean to be hurtful or offensive, the word is not acceptable to use in modern contexts. In 2010, Rosa’s Law was signed into effect, replacing U.S. federal law references to “mental retardation” with “mental disability,” which is considered to be acceptable terminology for referring to intellectual disability.
It is also important to clarify what you are wondering when you ask if dogs can experience mental retardation: Are you wondering if dogs can have a lower level of intelligence compared to other dogs, if dogs can have mental illness or a disability, or something else?
Psychological, Neurological, and Developmental Problems in Dogs
While it is not as simple to spot psychological problems in dogs as in humans (primarily because dogs cannot verbalize how they are feeling), there are certain signs and symptoms that might indicate to you that your dog is struggling with a psychological, developmental, or neurological issue.
If you suspect that your dog is experiencing any of the following, be sure to follow up with your veterinarian. Some behavioral and emotional changes are signs of other health problems, and as such, should be taken seriously.
Extreme fear in dogs may be a sign of canine post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). Some dogs may experience phobias, such as fear of thunderstorms or of other animals. Fear is often also evident in dogs with generalized anxiety or separation anxiety.
It is also possible for dogs to experience depression, sometimes prompted by life changes. It is not unusual for depressed dogs to become significantly less active or lose interest in things they used to enjoy, though it is important for dogs whose activity levels sharply decline to be checked by a vet to rule out other medical conditions.
Dogs are not diagnosed with autism, though some pups may exhibit behaviors that appear similar to those of humans with autism. Dogs may also experience ADHD-like behaviors, though they are not diagnosed with ADHD—a rare disorder called hyperkinesis may instead be the culprit.
Dogs can experience canine compulsive disorder (CCD), the canine analogue to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) in humans. This may be characterized by obsessive licking or by other repetitive behaviors.
Dogs cannot have Down syndrome: Dogs and humans have different numbers of chromosomes (dogs have 39 sets, while humans have 23), and Down syndrome, which is caused by an extra full or partial copy of chromosome 21 in humans, has not been observed in dogs.
Brain damage that results in behavioral changes can be caused by the ingestion of a harmful substance (such as a toxin), by way of an unfortunate accident that results in physical trauma (such as a car accident), or though contact with a disease or virus (such as rabies or canine distemper).
Some conditions may also be hereditary, such as cerebellar hypoplasia, a neurological disorder in which the cerebellum (the part of the brain that helps with depth perception and coordination, among other functions) is underdeveloped. Dogs with cerebellar hypoplasia have an unsteady walk and may experience head or limb tremors.
Cognitive decline associated with aging may contribute to sudden changes in a dog’s behavior. Dog dementia, or Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, can cause changes in personality, aggressive behaviors, and memory problems.
Although there are certain behaviors in which all dogs engage, each pooch is unique and only you know what is and is not normal for your dog. If you sense a major change in your dog’s behavior or the development of an odd quirk that does not go away with training, it might be time to visit your veterinarian.
How Is Intelligence Measured in Dogs?
When assessing how smart a dog can be, it is important to consider that measurements of a dog’s intelligence are designed by humans, and are therefore skewed based on human preferences.
Based on this reasoning, yes, some dogs are smarter than others. However, it is worth keeping in mind that some canine behaviors that are preferred (or not preferred) by dog owners may not actually indicate intelligence but instead simply measure how well a dog can follow their training or their owner’s preferences.
For example, one dog owner lives in an apartment with strict noise regulations that cause the owner to discourage their dog from barking, while another dog owner lives in a house surrounded by wilderness and potentially dangerous wildlife that can be deterred by their dog’s ferocious bark.
In both of these cases, the dog who follows their owner’s preferences is probably considered by the owner to be smarter than one who does not listen. This does not account for the dog’s natural inclinations: Would one dog consider another dog who didn’t bark at a “threat” to be smart? As pet owners, though, we usually measure our pet’s intelligence based on how well and how often they listen.
Some of the common tests of canine intelligence that can be found online are based on Dr. Stanley Coren’s assertions that a dog’s intelligence can be measured along three dimensions.
The first, instinctive intelligence, is related to how well a dog follows the instincts of its breeds (e.g., how well a retriever can fetch). The second, adaptive intelligence, measures how easily dogs learn and problem solve without human intervention, while the third, obedience intelligence, relates to how successful dogs are when being taught by humans.
It is important to remember that different dog breeds were bred with different purposes—it doesn’t make sense to expect a cattle-herding dog to be a good pointer. Just as with humans, dogs also have differing levels of ability when it comes to their learning and reasoning skills. This does not mean that a dog who is not as sharp as another is any less special.
Can I Help My Dog Become Smarter?
While dogs are born with a certain level of intelligence, through patience and effort, dog owners may be able to encourage their dogs to learn more and thereby increase their dog’s “smarts.”
Committing to regular training sessions can be one way to help encourage your dog to keep learning or to reinforce past lessons that didn’t quite stick. Try not to be too hard on your pooch if they just don’t seem to be able to retain the information, though. A dog’s attention span is not as long as a human’s, and overwhelming them with information will likely not lead to successful learning.
Unfortunately, some dogs may be unable to successfully follow certain commands even if you are very patient with them.
Additionally, older dogs may forget things they had previously learned, or may experience weakened senses that impede their ability to understand: for instance, not responding to commands because they are becoming deaf.
So, while there are some things you can do to try to encourage learning and help your dog retain past lessons, certain health conditions, natural ability levels, and the effects of aging may prevent you from being able to make much progress in boosting your dog’s intelligence.
While many dogs are very intelligent, it is unfair to judge a dog’s smartness or capabilities based on human expectations. Certain behaviors that are natural in dogs may appear unnatural to humans; because of this, it is better to try to learn more about a dog’s “odd” behaviors before attributing them to low intelligence.
Just like the human population, the dog population has a wide range of intelligence and cognitive abilities. Every dog is individual and has their own challenges. So yes, dogs can be mentally challenged relative to other dogs.
The sudden appearance of mental illness in a previously healthy dog might indicate a serious health problem. If this occurs, it is a good idea to consult with your vet. When discussing the development with your vet, try to use language more specific and appropriate than “Can dogs be retarded?”.
If your dog does have a behavioral quirk, mental disability, or other condition, treat them with kindness and patience. Though a dog may not comprehend insults or rude language, it is better to address them kindly than to be unnecessarily hurtful.