Albert Einstein once said, “if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” When it comes to the discussion about dogs and their intelligence, this notion speaks volumes: dogs are bred to be good at certain things. For hunting dogs, this means they use their noses to track animals over miles and can even be taught how to not damage the kill in its mouth. Medical alert dogs can be trained to sense a seizure before it happens and to even retrieve medication for their owner.
Guard dogs can be taught how to defend their home from intruders and protect the ones they love. Are any of these dogs smarter than the other? Maybe a better question is, what defines intelligence? They say an intelligent dog has the mental capacity of a two-year-old human child. On some levels, this is impressive: children of that age know and understand many words and are capable of learning lessons, but can a toddler be taught how to herd a hundred sheep, or how to guide a blind person through a busy city street? Probably not.
When it comes to determining the smartest dog breeds, many factors must be taken into consideration, including inherited traits, training, a dog’s bond with his owner, and the different types of intelligence measured in our canine companions. This article will also discuss the top ten smartest breeds recognized by a dog behavior expert, dog IQ tests you can perform at home, and finally, whether you should consider getting a highly intelligent dog for your family.
What makes a dog smart?
The answer to this question is highly debated, and it seems the best answer is that it is relative: for companion dogs, the smartest ones of the litter know when their human is distressed and can offer comfort. For working dogs like St Bernards, the brightest have an uncanny ability to find and rescue trapped travelers in the snow, while the most awarded police dogs can detect bombs and drugs when machines fail. So what makes a dog able to perform these jobs when humans wouldn’t stand a chance?
There are three things to consider:
Inherited traits #1
There are over one hundred dog breeds recognized by the American Kennel Club, and each breed is assigned to a group, of which there are seven: herding, hound, sporting, non-sporting, terrier, toy, and working. A dog’s group will likely tell you what qualities he has inherited through hundreds of years of breeding to develop these traits. A dog’s size, sense of smell, energy level, coat and grooming requirements, and temperament are all honed to create a specific breed, which showcases each of these characteristics uniquely.
Dog breeding works by taking desirable characteristics of one dog and combining it with the sought-out qualities of another. For example, a Goldendoodle is a popular cross between a Poodle and a Golden Retriever that has the hypoallergenic coat of the Poodle while retaining the coloring and temperament of the Golden Retriever. Through this process of selective breeding, dogs can be bred to perform almost any job a human could need.
From picking up the telephone to opening the refrigerator door, dogs can be taught to do practically anything (that doesn’t require opposable thumbs). While there is a consensus among canine experts that certain breeds are better suited for specific tasks, one thing they all agree on is that training should be started as early as possible to ensure success. Positive reinforcement is the most popular method of training dogs to perform tasks for their owners, and training can be completed by a certified professional dog trainer or by the owner himself.
Typically, more advanced jobs such as seizure alert and drug detection require extensive training by a professional, while simple commands such as sit and stay (along with walking on a leash) can easily be taught by the average owner. While companion dogs can be taught basic commands at any age, most service dogs begin their training before they even leave the whelping box!
Bond with owner #3
There is no denying that dogs that can perform miraculous feats with no prior training if their owner is in distress. Perhaps it is because Fido is so in tune with his owner that he can sense small changes in behavior and smells that serve as clues. Certainly a dog can’t be trained to mourn for their late owners or visit their grave, but it is not uncommon to hear these stories.
Likewise, dogs that have no training in scent work have been known to wake the entire family up during a house fire or carbon monoxide leak. A dog’s bond with his owner may be great while his IQ may be on the lower end, but this does not mean that he cannot perform extraordinary feats when the time calls.
What are the different types of intelligence?
According to Stanley Coren, canine behavior expert and author of “The intelligence of dogs“, there are three types of intelligence that can be measured in our furry friends.
As the name implies, instinctive intelligence is just that: instinct. In other words, it is what the dog was specifically bred for. Examples of instinctive intelligence would include a Retriever’s desire to jump into the water and bring back a stick thrown by his owner, a terrier’s instinct to dig out and capture small vermin in the yard, or a herding dog’s ability to herd other pets (or small children) around the yard.
Adaptive intelligence is measured by how well your dog can problem solve on his own. An example of adaptive intelligence would be to show your dog a treat, place it under an object, and see how long it takes him to work out how to get the piece of food. Obviously the quicker your dog can get the treat, the better he is at problem solving. Adaptive intelligence is measured by not training the dog to perform in a certain way, but to use his own smarts to figure the problem out.
Working and obedience intelligence
Dogs with a high working and obedience intelligence learn quickly from humans and are easily trained. Intelligent dogs need not be taught the same command over and over again; sometimes the lesson is learned after only one or two repetitions. This area of intelligence is measured in performance tests by how many repetitions it takes for the dog to understand the command and obey.
What are the top ten most intelligent dog breeds?
The top ten breeds with a high IQ is based on surveys taken by over 200 professional judges in dog obedience:
- Border Collie. Energetic and clever, the Border Collie has consistently ranked among the smartest dogs throughout history. This herding dog still works throughout the world rounding up livestock, although he is becoming a more popular family pet and is a familiar sight at dog shows. Because of their high energy level, Border Collies do best in homes with older children and require extensive exercise;
Border Collies that are not mentally stimulated are often destructive due to boredom, so remember that a leisurely stroll around your neighborhood once a day will not make the cut. The Collie excels at agility courses with their ability to make hairpins turns, and they are one of the fastest dogs in the world.
- Poodle. Don’t let the dainty haircut fool you—poodles are consistently used to assist their humans with needs ranging from autism support to therapy dogs, although they were originally bred to retrieve waterfowl! Today the Poodle is the seventh most popular breed in the United States, and their iconic curly coat is actually hypoallergenic.
Although the breed standard cut requires professional grooming, many Poodle owners are content to let their dog’s coat grow naturally without the recognizable puffy ankle and chest area. Standard, miniature, and toy are the three different sizes of the poodle breed, but no matter the size, they are all bright and eager to learn.
- German Shepherd. A familiar sight on the big screen and also in police cars, the German Shepherd is no stranger to working jobs, although he is the second most popular dog breed as a pet in the U.S. Often used in police work for their sheer strength, the German Shepherd is also a common sight on a search and rescue teams. This large breed dog is also used often in drug detection, and they have a knack for tracking down and holding criminals.
The German Shepherd was originally bred for herding sheep, and today they are considered one of the most easily trainable dogs. The recognizable black and tan double coat sheds year round and requires frequent brushing, and (like other large dogs), this breed often suffers from hip dysplasia. If you’d like learn more about this breed, you should check out this article on the German Shepherd.
- Golden Retriever. As the third most popular dog in the United States, it is no surprise that this friendly pup tops the charts as one of the most intelligent dogs. The Golden Retriever is often used a guide dog for the visually impaired, and their friendly temperament is a hallmark of the breed. Patience towards children and their love of the water make the Golden a great family pet. Goldens need daily exercise and frequent brushing to maintain their long coat.
- Doberman Pinscher. Energetic, muscular, and alert, it’s no wonder that Dobermans are a popular choice as guard dogs. The breed was actually developed to capture and hold burglars in the 19th century, and their size and muscular frame certainly are well up to the job.
Although they are large (averaging around 75-95 pounds), they make great house pets and require minimal grooming due to their short coat. Although once portrayed as aggressive fighters, the Doberman Pinscher is a loyal family dog and is highly intelligent and trainable.
- Shetland Sheepdog. More commonly known as Shelties, the Shetland Sheepdog is a medium sized mutt bred to (you guessed it) herd sheep. This sheepdog excels at obedience training and is a popular sight at dog agility tests and dog shows. Highly energetic and eager to please, the Sheltie is a popular family pet and also requires frequent exercise. The recognizable brown and white coat is long and requires frequent brushing.
- Labrador Retriever. The award for most popular dog in the U.S. goes to the Labrador Retriever, who has held the spot for more than 20 years, and thought by some to be the most popular breed in the world. An overwhelming majority of guide dogs are Labradors, and their friendly temperament and patience also make them ideal family pets and also popular choices for therapy dogs.
Black, Golden, and Chocolate are the three coat colors recognized by the AKC, and they require minimal grooming. Since they prone to obesity for their tendency to overeat, owners must be vigilant in supplying this pup with the proper diet and make sure he has plenty of opportunities to exercise.
- Papillon. The only toy breed to make the cut for the top ten most intelligent dogs is this Spaniel with a recognizable butterfly hairstyle around the face and ears. Although full of energy, the Papillon’s exercise requirements are not as extensive as a dog in the working group, and this miniature pup can easily get his daily exercise in by playing with the family, although he excels in agility courses. Eager to learn new tricks, the Papillon is a popular family pet, though care should be taken around young children because of the dog’s small frame. There are a lot more details about this great breed in our article on the Papillon.
- Rottweiler. Originally bred to pull carts, it’s no wonder that the Rottweiler can top the charts at nearly 130 lbs. for a full grown male. Although portrayed in Hollywood as an aggressive man-killer, the Rottweiler can be a devoted family pet that will fiercely protect his loved ones if needed. Although robust, the Rottweiler still needs ample exercise (at least twice a day) to stay in good physical shape. The short coat requires minimal grooming other than an occasional bath and quick brush, and they are generally a healthy breed.
- Australian Cattle Dog. Although not a widely recognized dog breed in the U.S., the Australian Cattle Dog is a popular working dog down under, where he is typically trained to drive cattle across large distances. This highly intelligent pup would greatly benefit from performance events like agility tests or tracking to remain a happy dog, and they typically don’t fare well being left alone for long periods of time. Since they have a tendency to herd (and sometimes nip) young children, the Cattle Dog isn’t a great choice for family with small kids.
This pup’s high energy makes him a good fit for active families, so if you are the type that would rather lounge on the couch than go for a hike, the Australian Cattle Dog probably wouldn’t be a great fit for your family.
Can I test my dog’s IQ?
Many pet owners are eager to test their dog’s intelligence, and luckily, the method for testing can be both fun and enjoyable for both human and dog. There are also many free online tests and quizzes for owners to fill out, but if you are really interested, you can pay to have a more extensive toolkit that you can purchase from a university study that will give you a detailed analysis about your dog’s behavior.
For a quick test at home, however, start by making sure that your dog is alert and not overly hungry. There are many different “tests” you can perform, and the five below will test a variety of skills.
- With your dog in the same room, call your dog without using his name. Try a random word but use the same inflection in your voice as your would if you were normally calling him. If he comes, give him 5 points. If he looks at you and maybe wags his tail, assign 3 points. If he ignores you or leaves the room, give 1 point.
- Place your dog’s favorite treat under a lightweight bowl or can. Or, place a treat (after he has seen it) underneath a piece of furniture or something similar to where he can only reach it with his paw. If he retrieves it in less than 15 seconds, give 5 points. 15-45 seconds, 3 points, and over 45 seconds, assign 1 point
- Throw a towel or small blanket over your dog’s head. If he gets out in less than 15 seconds, give him 5 points. For an escape between 15-30 seconds, assign 3 points, and it takes him over 30 seconds, give 1 point.
- Purchase a new toy for your dog (or simply get an object he has never seen before). Act very excited when you take the toy out the bag, and see how your dog responds when you finally give him the new treat. If he grabs it and runs off, give 5 points. If he acts slightly intrigued but loses interest after a few seconds, assign 3 points. If he doesn’t take the toy or act interested at all, give 1 point.
- Place a treat within eyesight of your dog, but put a barrier in the way so that he must go around it to get to the treat. If your dog walks around the barrier and gets the treat in less than 10 seconds, award 5 points. If he gets to the treat in 10-45 seconds, give him 3 points. If it takes him over 45 seconds (or he never figures it out), award 1 point.
Add up your dog’s totals and see the scoring chart below:
- 21 – 25: Your dog is one smart cookie. Keep up the hard work, Fido!
- 15 – 20: Your dog has aptitude and some problem solving skills; work on more complex commands to sharpen your pup’s mind.
- 11 – 14: Your dog is average in terms of intelligence. Play with your pup frequently and use positive reinforcement when teaching new tricks.
- 5 – 10: Your dog may need some training in basic obedience. Remember, even an old dog can learn new tricks! Shower him with praise and affection and he is sure to catch on quickly.
If you’d like to try out a few more tests, you should definitely read up on the Dog IQ Test.
What dogs aren’t so smart?
According to Coren’s study, the five dog breeds that ranked near the bottom of the IQ scale include the Borzoi, Chow Chow, Bull Dog, Basenji, and Afghan Hound (the latter of which happens to be a beautiful dog!). Some dogs’ intelligence is low because other factors (like a hound’s incredible sense of smell) get in the way and cause distractions to obedience training.
Other breeds, like the Bull Dog, are naturally more laid back—which some might call lazy!—and this characteristic can interfere with a dog’s enthusiasm for training as well.
Should I get a smart dog?
Many prospective dog owners consider intelligence when shopping breeds of dogs for their family; some believe that smarter automatically means better, while others are convinced that potty training will be easier for a smart pup vs. a not so smart pooch. If you are in the market for a dog, however, you may want to reconsider getting a highly intelligent dog: dogs that rank high on the IQ scale often rank high on the misbehavior scale as well.
A bulldog, for example, may be content to sleep on the couch all day and only begrudgingly goes for his daily walk. A Border Collie, on the other hand, would not fair well being left at home all day with no interaction and minimal exercise. Smart pooches that are not challenged (much like children) will often result to destructive behaviors and even deteriorate mentally if not given ample opportunity to exercise his body and mind.
When you are searching for a forever friend, the most important thing to consider is your family’s lifestyle: how much time will you have to devote to Fido? Who will take him on daily walks? Do you have a large yard? If not, where will he get exercise? Also don’t forget about the intelligent pup’s mind: how will you make sure that his smarts are being put to good use (and not mischief)?
Owners of smart dogs find that doggie puzzles work wonders, while others enroll their pup in a therapy dog course so he can be taken to hospitals and nursing homes to bring joy to the residents (and fulfillment to Fido). Others find their dogs excel at agility, tracking, lure coursing, and dock jumping.
Whether you have a pup that is the smartest dog on the block, or have a pooch that is more cute than clever, remember that the most important thing between a dog and his owner is love and care. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter whether your dog has an IQ like Einstein or Frankenstein, but what really matters is the joy he brings into your life, so be sure to treat him like family no matter what.