Creating a Mensa Dog: What Learning Really Is, and How Dogs Learn


This month features an interview with Katherine Albro Houpt, VMD, PhD, DACVB, a leader in the field of veterinary behavior and author of the chapter “Creating a Mensa Dog” from “Decoding Your Dog,” a new book by the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists on dog behavior.

Katherine Albro Houpt, VMD, PhD, DACVB with her Cairn Terrier named Denver.VMD, PhD, DACVB

(Originally published July 2014)

Can you tell us how you decided to become a veterinary behaviorist?

Dr. Houpt: I became interested in domestic animal behavior as a student at Penn State University. The professor of animal behavior advised me: ‘Go to veterinary school because then you can do anything you want to do.’ That was good advice and after my first year at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine I spent a summer with J.P. Scott and J. Fuller, who studied breed differences in dog behavior at Jackson Laboratory, an independent laboratory in Bar Harbor, Me.

Can you teach an old dog new tricks?

Dr. Houpt: Yes. Even old dogs can learn new tricks, although some old dogs suffer from cognitive dysfunction and may not be able to master as complex a task as older dogs. Nevertheless, you should probably keep teaching your older dogs new skills because that is a form of enrichment for them. All too often we tend to ignore the older dog because he does not demand our attention and beg as much for walks and play. Teaching him a new trick like holding up his paw or going to a certain rug will give him the attention, treats and petting he needs.

Is the learning curve for a mixed-breed dog harder to pinpoint than that for a purebred dog?

Dr. Houpt: That is a generalization that should not be made for two reasons: (1) It depends on the mix of breeds. For example, a border collie mix will probably have a higher learning curve – that is learn more quickly – than a purebred basset hound; (2) The curve probably depends on the skill of the instructor more than on the genes of the dog. In some cases you might get hybrid vigor, meaning that the mixed-breed dog is smarter than dogs of the parental breeds. More important is the early life of the dog.

To better understand your mixed-breed puppy and its learning capabilities, do you recommend getting a DNA test run?

Dr. Houpt: No. Save your money for hiring an excellent trainer. Group training classes help not only to teach the dog how to sit, stay, down and heel, but also socialize him to other dogs and people. It will be easier to teach a Labrador to fetch than a Maltese, and it will be easier to teach a Newfoundland to swim than a border collie, but how the different breeds that may be represented in one pet will affect his response to training is unknown. In fact, a purebred isolated in a kennel may find it harder to learn than the mixed-breed puppy born and raised in the more social environment of the kitchen.

Are wolves smarter than dogs?

Dr. Houpt: It depends on the task. Wolves are better at problem solving. Dogs are better at asking for help. For example, a wolf may try to get past a barrier by tearing at it with tooth and claw, but the dog, after a few cursory attempts, will look at its owner for help. This is a phenomenon that apparently accompanies domestication because puppies will look at humans for help on their first exposure to people. When foxes were selected for friendly behavior to humans they also began to look to a human to help solve a problem.

What’s the difference between negative reinforcement and punishment?

Dr. Houpt: Negative reinforcement increases the frequency of a behavior. Punishment decreases the frequency of a behavior. The dog has to do something before punishment occurs. He barks and his collar delivers a spray of air or citronella. He should bark less. You have to do something unpleasant to the animal as a negative reinforcement — to stop the unpleasant thing the dog has to do something. For example, you pull on the leash and the dog walks toward you, thus releasing the pressure on the leash. He should walk toward you sooner to avoid the pull on his collar. Negative reinforcement is not a fancy word for punishment.

What are the most important factors to remember when several family members are involved in the training of a dog?

Dr. Houpt: Uniformity and consistency top the list. If one person in the household says ‘Please sit down’ and another simply orders ‘Sit,’ the dog will be confused. It will be even worse if the husband orders ‘Down’ when he wants the dog to refrain from jumping on him and the wife says ‘Down’ when she wants it to lie on the floor. All family members need to participate in training. One-word commands are best, and since most people say ‘Lay Down’ when they should say ‘Lie Down’ a one-word command is more grammatical, too.

What is the most challenging of the basic commands for a dog to learn?

Dr. Houpt: Come is the most challenging command. Come is the most critical command to prevent problems — and even to save his life. Most dogs will come, especially at meal time, if there are no distractions. But the occasion when you really want the dog to come is when he is chasing a rabbit or when he is headed toward a busy road. Unfortunately, many people make the mistake of shouting to the dog or even worse, punishing it when it returns. Owners should practice come inside and out with and without distractions until the dog is perfect at off-leash recall.

What are the best environments in which to train your dog – and why?

Dr. Houpt: The best environment for training is a puppy class where there is no aggression between dogs as there might be in a class of adult dogs. That’s when the puppy’s brain is ready to absorb many new things. The next best choice is a quiet site with no distractions — other pets, human conversation or blaring TV. When he is perfect in those surroundings at Sit and Stay, begin to add distractions, since your goal is to have a dog that is under control at all times and is happy because he knows good things will result if he does what he is told.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Dr. Houpt: Sit! Stay! Down! Look! Heel!


To order a copy of Decoding Your Dog click here. To learn more about the College of Veterinary Behaviorists, visit or visit us on facebook at dacvb.

The information provided in the Goodnewsforpets ACVB Helping People Help Their Pets columns is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to replace the services of a veterinary behaviorist. The information should also not be construed as a recommendation by the ACVB or for any course of action regarding veterinary medical or behavioral advice. The editors, authors and publisher disclaim any responsibility for adverse effects resulting directly or indirectly from information in this column.


Leave A Reply