Can Dogs Be Retarded Or Mentally Challenged?

Last Updated: January 20, 2024

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Handicapped dog that is mentally challenged

When most people think of dogs, they think of emotionally intelligent creatures. For most dogs, picking up commands and learning how to coexist with humans is relatively easy. Your dog may even recognize its own name and seem to understand your tone of voice when you speak to it!

But what if your dog has issues picking up things other dogs have no problem with? For example, they may seem impossible to train or fail at the simplest task. What does that mean? Can dogs be retarded?

That's a question some owners ask themselves, and the answer may surprise you.

Can Dogs Be Mentally Challenged?

Let's cut to the chase:

Dogs have a brain that is surprisingly similar to a human brain. The brain is just like any other organ. Therefore, it can experience abnormalities that impact its function. Dogs can experience mental challenges and disorders. They're rare, but they're possible.

Now, there's no concrete answer to the question, "Can dogs be retarded?" That's because there are many definitions of that word. Some people consider retardation as having a significantly lower IQ than normal.

But because canine IQ tests don't exist and there's no way to measure a dog's intelligence definitively, it's impossible to answer that question.

That said, dogs can have cognitive difficulties, disabilities, and mental challenges.

These issues can manifest in many ways. For some dogs, it's as simple as having trouble remembering commands and understanding basic concepts. For others, it appears as aggression, fear, or anxiety.

Common Mental Conditions

Dogs can experience many different mental disorders. Unfortunately, many of these conditions go undiagnosed. Even worse, these challenges tend to affect dogs more than humans. Many canines will experience a shorter lifespan and greater challenges.

Luckily, there are ways to diagnose mental conditions. Understanding what these problems are can help you provide the best care possible.

Separation Anxiety

Separation anxiety is a fairly common mental challenge. Dogs with separation anxiety experience severe panic and stress whenever owners leave them alone. Usually, dogs will resort to aggressive or destructive behaviors. Many will chew at anything they can get their teeth. Some will also yelp, bark, and urinate unpredictably.

Treating separation anxiety can be challenging, but it is possible. In most cases, this condition affects dogs that lack proper training and socialization. Dogs need companions, and isolation can lead to troubling behaviors.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Also known as OCD, this condition is similar to the disorder of the same name in humans. It's characterized by repetitive and compulsive behaviors like licking, biting, or pacing.

It can be a problem because many dogs will perform behaviors so much that they develop health issues. For example, licking can lead to hotspots and infections.

OCD can be a product of genetics. Some breeds are more prone to OCD than others. However, loneliness, improper socialization, and inadvertently rewarding compulsive behavior can worsen the condition.

Noise Phobias

Noise phobias can be genetic or acquired. When a dog suffers from a  i, it may act out when confronted with certain sounds.

Triggers can include everything from fireworks and thunder to car backfires. Depending on the severity of the issue, dogs might flee in fear or cower in the corner, crying for their life. Luckily, you can work with a behavioralist to desensitize dogs and help them cope with triggers.

Generalized Anxiety Disorder

Generalized anxiety disorder is a broad mental condition. While other challenges come with triggers, this one doesn't. Dogs can feel anxious around the clock, leading to puzzling behaviors and a generally low quality of life.

This condition requires professional treatment to overcome.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

PTSD in dogs is the same as it is in humans. When a dog experiences a traumatizing event in their past, it can lash out and get scared with triggers in the future. PTSD can occur in any dog, but it's more common in adopted dogs with unknown pasts.

Triggers can be anything with canine PTSD. Some will cower in fear when they see a person of a certain race or body type. Others may get scared when put into a kennel.


Depression in dogs is a very real thing. Canines can't get suicidal, but many will experience depressive symptoms. They'll lose energy, have difficulty getting interested in things they usually love, and will spend most of their time sleeping and being sedentary.

Many dogs will experience depression after losing a companion. It's also common in older dogs. Fortunately, you can address depression by keeping your dog engaged and active.

Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome

When you hear "Can dogs be mentally challenged?" it's likely because of issues revolving around cognitive dysfunction syndrome. This condition is an umbrella term used to describe conditions that affect a dog's ability to learn new things.

There are many forms of dysfunction, but they usually all involve disorientation, memory loss, or a lack of motivation. The condition can affect dogs in many ways.

Some may slowly lose interest in activities they used to love, such as playing fetch. Others will begin to wander around aimlessly when looking for their food bowl or listening to owner commands.

Generally, cognitive dysfunction is a slow burn. You may notice small issues here and there. However, it can progress. It can also be sudden after an injury or illness.

Related: Dog Looking Around Frantically Like He Sees Something

Can Dogs Be Autistic or Psychotic?

Autistic dog has mental issues

Occasionally, dogs exhibit strange behaviors that indicate the possibility of certain human disorders.

Currently, there is no proof that autism is possible in dogs. However, there are ongoing studies that point to autistic-like symptoms being present in some dogs. Researchers are still trying to figure out if canine autism exists.

As for psychosis, there's a more definitive answer. Psychosis from natural causes is not possible in dogs. If a canine exhibits psychotic behavior, it's always a byproduct of diseases like severe brain trauma or rabies.

Diagnosing Mental Challenges

There are many possible symptoms of a mentally challenged dog.

Some of the most basic include excessive barking, unexpected behavioral changes, aggression, and destructive actions. The inability to learn basic commands or evident mental decline could point to mental challenges, too.

Veterinarians can perform tests to better understand what your dog is going through. There are no IQ tests, but vets can assess a dog's cognitive function.

Sometimes referred to as a "retardation test," it involves evaluating a dog's short-term memory, ability to learn new things, and overall awareness. Vets will give your dog a series of simple tasks and use the results to gauge your dog's cognitive function.

While not definitive, it's an effective way to learn about a dog's mental condition. It plays a vital role in getting a dog the help it needs.

Caring for a Dog with Mental Disabilities or Disorders

Once vets diagnose your dog, they can provide valuable recommendations on what to do. They may refer you to a canine behavioralist or a specialist vet that deals with mental disorders.

Mentally challenged dogs can live healthy lives. However, you must take extra steps to overcome their unique challenges. That may involve additional training to cope with anxiety or a different approach to training.

Training a dog with mental disabilities can be difficult, but it's possible when you keep the following tips in mind.

Be Patient and Vigilant

One important thing to remember is that you must be patient. It will take a dog with mental challenges longer to grasp new commands well. Understand that your dog is trying.

Maintain your training techniques for as long as necessary. It can feel like you're hitting a brick wall, but being patient will lead to results.

Use Positive Reinforcement

Never resort to hitting or yelling. Training can be frustrating, but you should always stick to positivity. Provide rewards to help dogs make a connection with your commands.

Keep Training Sessions Short

Don't overwhelm your dog with hours of training. Stick to short training sessions of about 10 minutes. You can repeat those sessions several times throughout the day, but keeping them short will ensure you have maximum attention.

Provide Lots of Love

Finally, give your dog all the affection they need! Mentally challenged dogs can get just as frustrated as you when trying to learn.

Instead of getting angry, give your dog the love they deserve.

A Final Word

Dogs can be mentally challenged, but that doesn't mean they deserve any less love. Patience is a must. While it can be disheartening to see your dog struggle, there are many things you can do to set your pup up for success.

Talk to your vet, connect with specialists who can help, and be by their side the entire time to help them as much as possible.

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About the author 


Steve is a writer with over 10 years of experience in dog training and nutritiion.

His goal is to educate dog owners about the ins and outs of canine behavior as well as keeping up with the latest scientific research in the field.