What a Blockhead! Head Shape and Trainability in Dogs

Jim Ha, PhD, CAABCanine Cognition

An interesting paper appeared in a recent issue of Behavioural Processes (2009, vol. 82, pp. 355).  The author, William Helton from New Zealand, examined results from three published studies in which breed and head shape were reported, to answer the question of whether morphology (head shape, in this case) reflected intelligence in dogs.  Now, a little background because there a lot of caveats associated with this work.

First, what do we mean by head shape?  The classic measure of head shape, used here, is the cranial index.  This is the ratio of the width of the skull to the overall length of the skull, and can be easily measured with calipers.  But of course, this is only one possible way to measure a skull shape.  It turns out that dogs are interesting for this kind of question because, through our breeding, we have produced a wide range of head shapes, on a continuum of cranial indices.  So extremes in the cranial index values reveal dolichocephalic dogs (with a long cranium, the running dogs and sight hounds; think greyhound) and brachycephalic dogs (with a very wide cranium, bred for fighting and holding, grasping; think Staffordshire Bull Terriers) and in between, mesocephalic breeds, whose heads are less extreme in length or width.  So we can divide breeds into three parts of this continuum, or ask as the author did, whether dogs of extreme shapes, the breeds that are more specialized in their breeding, might have a lower or higher intelligence.  One hypothesis might be that medium-head-shape dogs, of less specialized duty (historically), might be less intelligent.

I Am Not SureAnother issue is, “what do we mean by intelligence, and how was it measured?”  A very good, and very difficult, question.  We really have VERY little data on the cognitive capabilities of breeds of dogs (or of course, of most species of animals).  But some work HAS been done on what might be one aspect of intelligence: trainability.  Now, while we have a few studies on this topic, among breeds, we still have very little.  But one way that has been used to “get at this question” has been to survey experienced dog owners, especially those with a broad exposure to breeds, to rank the PERCEIVED trainability of various breeds.  One good source of such information is obedience judges, and Coren has published these very consistent and repeatable results in a number of places.  So now we are no longer talking about intelligence, or even trainability, but perceived trainability… but it’s the best we’ve got, until we do more research!

So now, to the results of this work: what is the relationship between head shape, especially extremes of head shape, and ranking of perceived trainability (our stand-in for intelligence)?  Well, to a degree not accountable by simple chance, medium-head-shape dogs are perceived to be more trainable, and dogs with more extreme head shapes, whether long or wide, are perceived to be less trainable.

chess gameThere are some other interesting findings to go with this main point.  For instance, what else does head shape tell us?  It turns out that the shape of the head also tells us a lot about the visual abilities of dog.  Breeds with long heads, associated with coursing or hunting by long-distance running, like greyhounds, have a retina designed with a wide area of receptivity: their vision is most acute in the horizontal and at the horizon.  Breeds with wide heads have their greatest receptivity in the center, like primates including us, and thus have their best vision in the center and close up.  So there are differences in the nervous system associated with head shape and there certainly could be differences in other facets of their brains and learning abilities.  Perhaps it is true that highly specialized breeds, so specialized that they LOOK different, might not have needed a broad intelligence to do their job, while your basic, unspecialized, medium-head-shape dog needed more wits to get the job(s) done!

Or perhaps this study tells us more about human perception.  Perhaps there is something in us that tells us that things that look different are (have to be?) different in other ways.  The answer lies in learning more about the actual intelligence, or at least the actual trainability, of dog breeds, a project that we at Companion Animal Solutions have begun, and that other ethologists around the world are undertaking.  The questions never end, and I hope that if you have questions, you will contact us here at Companion Animal Solutions.


  1. says

    Perceived trainability? I have to wonder how much owner characteristics come into the picture. For example, an owner who wants a (wide-headed) bully breed may want it for status and protection without having any real understanding of how to handle and train the breed. And obedience judges are not seeing a representative segment of the dog population, because it’s the owner who decides whether to enter formal obedience training. Anyway, this was an interesting read.

  2. says


    I would agree, that’s why I commented at the end of my piece that this study may tell us more about human perceptions than dog behavior! CERTAINLY needs lots of follow-up, but it wouldn’t be surprising if there were a nugget of truth in there somewhere.

    Jim Ha

  3. Wayne, Wes says

    In this post it states….

    “But some work HAS been done on what might be one aspect of intelligence: trainability.”

    I must admit this has to be a great indicator of the intelligence of dogs. I’ve had a number of dogs, some that were easily trained and other that were not. And we also referred to the easier trained ones as “smarter.”

    interesting thoughts on the head shapes.

    hope you don’t mind a plug for my site: http://www.watchthemastersonline.org

  4. says

    I’m not sure what truth there is to this theory, however I’m sure there may be some relevance. I have a Doberman, which obviously has a fairly narrow head. Now mine is a male & is on the large size of the average one. This is not due to being over weight as he is in good shape at 90 lbs. His head is also a little bit wider than some of the skinny head show Dobermans. Now my dog is both dumb & smart. When it comes to train-ability, he excels. Everyday stuff on the other hand, well he can be a real dummy. I am curious if there is much truth to this as I may consider it in the next dog I get. I love my dog either way so dumb or smart, I will keep him.


  5. says

    I agree with “James Ha” about this blog which tells us about human perception and I would say that learning more about the actual trainability of dog breeds,

  6. says

    “But some work HAS been done on what might be one aspect of intelligence: trainability.”
    I think this would be a good measure of dog intelligence. My brother-in-law has dogs and they are pretty much trainable. I guess they’re smart! Nevertheless, I still love dogs no matter what their level of intelligence is. They are truly man’s best friend.

  7. says

    Like what most had said, I agree that the trainability factor can be the measuring tool for a dog’s perceived intelligence. However, I find it interesting to read the head shapes theory – I had never encountered that and perhaps my veterinarian cousin will be very much interested in this read, :D

    I must say that I have split views on it. As what Jim had said, about being both dumb and smart, my dog is somewhat like that. She’s a cross-breed of Labrador and a Basset hound (imagine that- but she’s very cute and very loud). She’s easy to train but can be very very stubborn.

  8. Gene Freecomb says

    Have you been following all the news about Hybrid dog mixes – “just don’t call them mutts” This is to breed out bad qualities and breed in the good. I wonder how their going to manipulate personality and intelligence on these new breeds?

  9. says

    I wonder where you fit the collie and some other herding breeds in this discussion. This study suggests longer headed dogs are less trainable, and yet the collie is regarded as a highly trainable and intelligent dog. It has a long head. I would also like to know how the length of the collie head and the almond shaped eyes which seem to me to have been developed to give more all round vision, fit in with this theory. Have you any studies giving information into collie vision?

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