Written by Ella White
Once bred as fighting dogs, Pitbulls have been on a long road to overcome their reputation as aggressive, dangerous breed – which in reality is far from the truth. In fact, many owners of Pitbull pets have reported that their dogs are some of the smartest they’ve ever had, despite their stubborn streak.
So are pitbulls smart? Are they emotionally intelligent? Are they obedient? And how do we measure the intelligence of dogs, anyway?
Despite their historic reputation as ‘dumb’ dogs that are led by their aggression, Pitbulls actually rank above average in terms of intelligence when compared to other dog breeds. These rankings are based on a study that informed Stanley Coren’s 1994 book, The Intelligence of Dogs, which ranked different breeds for intelligence based on how responsive they were to different commands.
But there’s more to intelligence than obedience: Pitbulls have also proven time and time again that they are fast learners, with high levels of both cognitive and emotional intelligence.
Stanley Coren’s dog intelligence tests were run with the help of 199 trial judges that ranked different breeds on their obedience. Coren’s criteria included how many repetitions it took for a dog to learn a new command – the fewer, the better – and how often a dog will obey a known command on the first try.
Though all four breeds of Pitbulls were not included in the trials, judges were only able to rank the intelligence of the American Staffordshire Terrier and Staffordshire Bull Terrier. The former ranked 48th out of 138 while the latter ranked 94th.
The American Staffordshire Terrier proved it could learn a new command in 15-25 repetitions and obey a known command on the first attempt 70% of the time. The Staffordshire Bull Terrier learned a new command in 25-50 repetitions and obeyed a known command on the first attempt 50% of the time.
In terms of Coren’s trial, these scores concluded that the American Staffordshire Terriers scored is of “above average intelligence” while the Staffordshire Bull Terrier has “average intelligence”.
While Coren’s tests were designed to rank the obedience and learning speed of dogs involved in the trials, there are certain personality factors that they do not take into account. Pitbulls are known to be empathetic and adaptable, but they’re also known for their head-strong stubbornness and independence.
So if a Pitbull doesn’t obey a known command on the first try, does it mean they don’t understand the command? Or does it mean that they just didn’t feel like obeying it this time? Similarly, owners of Pitbulls will tell you how eager they are to please, and how well they respond to reward-based training and positive reinforcement.
So if Coren’s trials didn’t offer the rewards and praise that Pitbulls require to guarantee their obedience, it isn’t necessarily a mark against the Pitbull’s intelligence. It just proves that different breeds respond to different commands in different ways. And while working intelligence and obedience are a good start when it comes to understanding how smart dogs are, it doesn’t give the whole picture.
Many Pitbull owners have anecdotes that imply their pets feel guilt when they behave badly or do something ‘wrong’. And while studies have shown that dogs don’t actually experience what humans know as guilt, it is true that they have the emotional intelligence to understand when they’ve broken the rules and can anticipate their owner’s reaction.
Essentially, what the Pitbull is experiencing in these moments is fear. They might cower, keep their heads low, avoid eye contact, or avoid you altogether when they know they’ve done something that will get them a telling off. This implies an understanding of the behavior expected of them, and the knowledge that they will be told off for disobeying their owner.
Similarly, studies have also shown that Pitbulls are able to recognise their owner’s facial expressions, and understand whether their humans are happy or sad. If you’ve ever noticed that your Pitbull seems to ‘just know’ when you’re stressed, worried, or sad, it’s because these emotionally intelligent dogs are able to read our emotions through eye contact.
Pitbulls are also known to tip their heads as if they’re curious or listening intently to what you have to say. Not only is this adorable to witness, but it’s also another sign that emotionally intelligent Pitbulls are trying to communicate with us and understand or recognize the words we’re saying.
Dr Brian Hare studied the phenomenon of empathy yawning in dogs whereby – like humans – they yawn in response to someone else yawning. In humans, this behavior is believed to imply a higher level of social awareness, and Dr Hare’s studies found that it could mean the same in dogs, too.
One of the breeds most commonly known to yawn when their owner does is the Pitbull. And though it doesn’t happen every time, according to Dr Hare it does imply a connectedness between Pitbull and owner.
Though intelligent in their own way, the Pitbull does fall below some of America’s favorite breeds in terms of intelligence. The German Shepherd, Golden Retriever, Labrador, Poodle, Rottweiler and the Doberman all rank higher according to Coren’s trials – with most learning a new command in fewer than five tries and obeying known commands 95% of the time.
But just because these breeds were up to three times quicker to learn and obey than Pitbulls doesn’t mean the Pitbull is ‘dumb’ – as many believe. In fact, it’s likely that this reputation has come from the idea that dogs with a strong working or hunting instinct are ‘smart’ and those who are more interested in doing their own thing are ‘dumb’ or ‘lazy’. But as we’ve learned – there’s more than one way to be smart. And emotionally, Pitbulls outperform many breeds.
Because almost all dog breeds were originally bred with a specific purpose in mind – from hunting to guarding to sitting pretty on the laps of nobility – they all have an ingrained ‘instinctive intelligence’ that drives them to do what they were bred to do.
For Pitbulls, this was initially bull-baiting and fighting though they have since been put to work as versatile, multi-purpose animals. Instinctively, they make great watchdogs and guard dogs that love the company and approval of their human pack leaders.
Their adaptive nature means that Pitbulls have a high capacity for learning – including new skills, commands, and other jobs that add to their versatility as a breed. Though they might need more guidance to meet Coren’s working and obedience requirements, they’re great at learning from mistakes and communicating emotion with their owners.
Despite their stubborn streak and strong-minded nature, Pitbulls make loyal and dedicated pets that are eager to please their family. Training can be arduous as they’re wont to do their own thing, but with plenty of praise and positive reinforcement, you’ll have a well-trained, socialized, and obedient Bully in no time.
As with all dog breeds, thorough training is important to ensure that Pitbulls are happy and healthy, won’t become aggressive or destructive, and do not suffer from anxiety.