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Your Grumpy Pup Is a Very Smart Dog — Science Says So

This study found that cranky pups are actually very fast social learners.

by Sean Zucker
March 22, 2023
profile portrait of grumpy a ginger dog, inside on a golden retro velvet armchair
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While our now three-year-long pandemic-induced stress and subsequent trauma continue to be immeasurable, the past few years have not been without their lessons. For one, many of us has established a healthier relationship with boundaries — physically and mentally. We’ve learned that we can survive with minimal human contact, especially with those we were never thrilled to see in the first place. In short, we’re all more comfortable embracing our crankiness — wisdom some of our pets have long been enjoying. In fact, during the tumultuous time that was 2021, one study found that the grumpiest pups among us may also be the smartest.

The Hungarian study examined how quickly dogs can learn based on their temperament. “People usually look at the different behaviors of dogs as completely separate phenomena and handle them as such. While I think it is important to be able to identify behaviors separately, it is as important to see their connections,” says biologist and one of the study’s authors Kata Vékony.

Before starting the experiment, researchers issued a questionnaire to participating pet parents to gauge their dog’s behavior. Questions were not super obvious like, “Is your dog grumpy?” or “Is your dog cheerful?”. Instead, they enlisted a series of inquiries to effectively determine each dog’s vibe. This featured questions on how pups behaved when groomed or bathed, whether they barked at things or situations they don’t like, or if they’ve ever snapped at or bit other dogs or people. The team then used this information to assign each animal an “irritability” score.

How the Grumpy-Dog Study Worked

At Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, Vékony and her colleagues essentially tried their best to tick off every dog by presenting a favorite treat or toy in plain sight behind a V-shaped wire mesh fence. Naturally, an animal’s instinct is to head straight for the thing they want, so the test was to see how quickly they’d learn to go around the fence. The dogs were divided into three groups, starting with one that had figure their way around the V alone. After the designated 60-second timer was up, most didn’t make it to the prize. Next, the researchers watched a group of dogs attempt the pseudo maze with assistance from their parents. To Vékony’s shock, dogs categorized as agreeable and those holding the “grumpy” label performed equally well in these groups.

“We initially thought that dogs with more ‘smooth’ relationships with their owner would learn better from them so it was a surprise that we found no difference between dogs in learning from the owner,” Vékony explains. But the true revelation came with the third group, which went through the experiment with guidance from a stranger. What the researchers found was that the grumpy canines were significantly more successful in completing the task, in comparison to those defined as cheerful.

“Interestingly, it turned out that dogs that are less tolerant to being bathed or groomed or not getting things their way, in general, are also the ones who are more persistent and goal-oriented,” Vékony says, before noting that this does not mean crabbier dogs are necessarily more intelligent.

A Grumpy Dog Is a Socially Intelligent Dog

Given the parameters of the study, these findings only indicate that grouchy pups are more susceptible to social learning. As she explains, “It’s not intelligence overall or problem-solving ability but specifically social learning. These dogs are sensitive and not very tolerant of unpleasant or uncomfortable social situations so it is understandable that they pay more keen attention to the actions of humans around them. And attention is a key ingredient of social learning.”

Of course, there are a few caveats to the results. Notably, the researchers didn’t consider breed in the study. Additionally, behavioral issues, such as human or animal aggression or separation anxiety, were not factored in. Vékony confirms that to include these components, they would have needed a much larger sample size. 

That being said, there is plenty to take away from the study — namely that grumpy dogs are not less good or productive. Clearly, the research shows that cranky pups can be perfectly well-behaved. And as long as you’re not trying to make them wear colorful sweaters or hang with too many upbeat characters, they’ll listen and pick up training cues quickly. Ultimately, these dogs are just comfortable with their wants and dislikes. They’re happy to pursue the things they like and avoid what they don’t. It’s something we could probably continue to learn from them.

“After the events of the past few years, I’m surprised most people still have some of their social skills left,” Vékony says. “But as a grumpy human of a grumpy dog, I can say that sometimes we should just embrace our grumpiness.”

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Sean Zucker

Sean Zucker

Sean Zucker is a writer whose work has been featured in Points In Case, The Daily Drunk, Posty, and WellWell. He has an adopted Pit Bull named Banshee whose work has been featured on the kitchen floor and whose behavioral issues rival his own.