Every dog breed has it’s own fans. There is a dog breed for everyone, with it’s own good and bad qualities and peculiarities. Every breed’s fans say their breed is “intelligent” or very “smart”, but can be “stubborn”, easy or difficult to train. There seem to be so many variables and many differing opinions.
Why would a breed be listed at a high position on an intelligence list, indicating that the breed is only of average intelligence? Good question (aren’t they all). Let’s examine that.
The Boxer breed is listed as #48 on the “dog intelligence list” and is often thought to be a “stubborn” or difficult to train breed. I’m not sure why this idea is prevalent, but long-time Boxer owners must have a theory about that. I myself have never owned a Boxer, but I have trained many behaviours to a Boxer who lived with us for about a year, if all the times we looked after her was condensed into one. Her age during the time she was with us were from about 1 to 8 years of age.
What I have found from training a Boxer, and many other breeds, is that there was no real difference in how fast a particular breed learned a basic behaviour when everything was taken into account. I basically do the same thing with all dogs when I start training them. There was a small difference between different individual DOGS of a breed (although I have only every done training with one Boxer so that didn’t count), and different considerations for each breed when training, but in my experience, none of these reasons would be due to “intelligence” per say, or even, lack of intelligence.
Below are the things that I have found that seemed to make a difference when training a Boxer.
The Boxer’s facial expression may have something to do with how the breed is perceived by the dog owning public as well as by non-dog people. They look cute to some people and scary to others. We had Molly with us when my brother was here and he avoided her, even though Molly is completely friendly and has never shown any aggression towards anyone or dog. The perception is that dogs with heavy faces are dangerous. The same happened when I was looking after my friends “pitbull” puppy. My brother wouldn’t go near the dog, and wouldn’t even hold her leash for a minute while I attended to something else.
So, if the Boxer breed is perceived this way, why would anyone think about training a Boxer to a high level of obedience? As a regular competitor and attendee of dog shows and trials, I have never seen a Boxer in an obedience or rally competition, although I’m sure other people have. The public perception is that Boxers are a mean and aggressive dog breed, even though it is listed as one of the top 15 dog breeds in the world. Breed perception might be one of the reasons that the majority of Boxer owners do not participate in dog sports competition with their dogs. But, the lack of Boxer dogs participating in dog sports actually contributes to its negative perception in society. So the result is a focus on looks and temperament that give the impression that Boxers are not intelligent.
Boxers were bred originally as guard dogs. They often display a high degree of alerting in certain situations. This can sometime translate into a preoccupation with the environment by the dog and if not addressed early (like it should be with all dogs) can turn into reactivity, among other things. The usual way this manifests to start is barking at movement outside through a window, or barking at people coming to the door or walking by a vehicle. I have seen Boxer being trained by their owners, and the thing that got my attention was that the dogs were very focused on being with their owners, yet at the same time were watching the environment around them. Not all breeds or dogs do this. Some dogs may be nervous of the location or have other behaviour issues but in the case of a normal, healthy Boxer, watching for things is what they do.
Boxers can also become (but not always) protective with new people entering the home as a function of their in-bred job, so training in this area is non-negotiable for the Boxer owner. A well bred Boxer is not going to be predisposed towards aggression anymore than any other well bred dog. A good upbringing that acknowledges the dog’s inborn protectiveness and with training modifies or guides that protectiveness is the ultimate goal. Dogs of this breed is not less intelligent, they are concentrating on other things and need more work to modify that. This leads us into:
All dogs learn in the same way – I have said it many times. There is no “method” of training that is specific to Boxers or different from any other dog breed.
There are, however, certain things that need to be taken into consideration with Boxers that do affect learning ability. It is not that the Boxer is any less intelligent than any other breed, rather it’s what I have seen to be a “distraction level” due to more focus on guarding or protecting. This is not an intelligence thing or an lower ability to learn. Other breeds will show similar tendencies to differing degrees depending on what they were bred to do. But other so-called “smarter” breeds will be “easier” to work with or have their behaviour modified based on their in-bred job’s “connection” with humans.
For example, the Border Collie, considered the smartest breed in the world, has been bred to focus on moving objects and need for large amounts of exercise, mostly running, and have a close association with humans for direction. Border Collies are not a guarding breed, so are less likely to be constantly looking around for predators or intruders (unless a dog has an anxiety issue, but that’s not what were talking about here), as most livestock guardians dogs do.
When training a Boxer, there may be some concern about swallowing food rewards. Given too fast, small food rewards sometimes cause the dog to cough up or choke on the food and this can slow down training. Some of my other dogs do this as well, but what I found when working with the Boxer is that food catching in the throat happens more often. I experienced this when I was working with Molly. She would cough up a piece of food after I had given it to her often because she was panting and taking food into her mouth quickly. This did slow down our training sessions since I had to wait for her to finish coughing and re-focus.
This means that with Boxers you need to slow down the training and not give food too rapidly.
All the training I did with Molly was videoed so I have a record of what we did and how the training worked. She did have a preference to certain foods. Some dogs will take anything you offer them. Molly would not take freeze dried liver but would eat cut up wieners. I’m sure you’ve experienced this with one of your dogs. My Kuvaszok have been fussy about the food and reward type which is typical of large independent livestock Guardian dog breeds. Molly’s issue is not necessarily a Boxer issue, however, you may hear from other Boxer owners that their dogs are finicky about foods. Dogs that take any food reward and can do so at a fast rate are generally easier to train because of it.
Popularity does not indicate ability nor does lack of it indicate the opposite. It indicates a preference by the dog owning public to have or not have a certain breed. The reasons for this are likely many. Some breeds are very common and therefore east to find. Many breeds are being bred without registration papers (and therefore are not considered purebred) and so that increases the numbers of that breed. Rare breeds are not often trained for competition or dog sports simply because it is difficult to find a breeder and not many people can obtain one. I would like to suggest that some popular breeds need a bit more work to train (are considered not as trainable by a novice trainers, NOT less intelligent) and therefore are not represented well in dog sports events or placements. This makes them less popular to the serious dog training segment of the population. These breeds include the French Bulldog, Pug, and Beagle. I HAVE seen dogs of these breeds being trained to a high level, but only one of each.
Depending on what list you are looking at, the Boxer is consistently found either in the top ten or 15 in overall popularity. This means there are a lot of people who have Boxer dogs. Since we are talking about purebred Boxers – those with registration papers – we have accurate information directly from the kennel clubs. There are likely many, many other Boxer-like dogs who are not purebred but are owned by many people because they are appealing for whatever reason.
On the list for Trick Dog Champions for “Do More With Your Dog”, the largest trick dog titling program in the world, there are only 10 listings (as of March 6 2020) for the Boxer and two, and then three of those are with the same people. This means that very few Boxers are being trained to a high level. I have not been able to find any overall statistics on the Boxer breed for competition obedience with either the AKC or the CKC and as I have said I have never seen a Boxer trialling in obedience.
My conclusion is not surprising: Boxers are just as capable as any other breed to learn things. In order to be able to do that, however, a person will need a bit more patience and persistence to get to the same level as with another breed such as a Border Collie, Golden Retriever or German Shepherd which are considered among the top 10 of “Smartest” dog breeds. All this means to me is that these breeds are super focused on humans and are “trainable” based on a novice trainer’s skills. “Smarter” breeds are predisposed to wait for instruction from humans rather than deciding things on their own.
Someone will likely take offence to what I am presenting here and think I am trying to put down her/his particular dog breed. I have had people want me to stop focusing on breed and focus more on the relationship with your dog. That’s fine and dandy, but I’m trying to dispel a myth here that most people in society believe – that some dogs are more intelligent than others just because they are fast, agile and take human direction readily. There is a reason some breeds are more difficult to train and I think I have explained that here. It’s not intelligence. The majority of people also believe that you have to use forceful methods with these breeds to train them. I am trying to explain that it is all not true and why.
It’s good to take into account each dog breed’s special talent(s) when deciding on a breed of dog for yourself, and then make sure that individual dog is the one for you (although that often doesn’t work out). Boxers are a fun and silly breed but have a serious side. All of this should not prevent your Boxer from learning anything at all.