The smartest dog breeds – What makes a dog smart?
You may be looking for a quick-witted, clever canine to teach them countless impressive tricks and train to absolute paw-fection.
Way, way back, all breeds of dog were bred to fulfil a specific duty for us humans, whether that’s guarding, hunting, herding, racing, retrieving, you name it. This means that all dog breeds inherently have some kind of specialised skill that you can channel out of them during their training.
When thinking of a smart dog, you probably picture a pooch that will do anything at their paw-rents beck and call, follows all commands and could never step a foot (paw) out of line. However, intelligence comes in many forms.
Every dog has traits that are impressive and interesting, but the pooches that are considered the smartest are usually the ones that know lots of tricks. We’re going to define what makes a dog smart and give you a round-up of which dog breeds are universally considered to be top of the class.
What makes a dog smart?
It’s difficult to determine what constitutes smartness in a dog, it can be quite similar to human intelligence really. A lot of the time, it’s viewed that people who are academically smart, constantly getting full marks in class are the smartest.
Realistically, intelligence is subjective. Some people are good at academics, some people aren’t. Some people are much more creative, some people are more logical. The same goes for measuring our pup’s brainpower.
Dogs that were bred for a specific job tend to be deemed as the clever ones, as they are more inclined to listen and follow various commands.
Typical markers of dog intelligence:
- Extremely trainable
- Ability to concentrate for a long time
- Devoted to their owners
- Chatty (although barking is often seen as a bad quality, a talkative dog usually means a clever one, as barking indicates they were once taught to be a guard or herding dog)
- Energetic and driven, usually a key indicator they were previously working dogs
If your dog doesn’t tick these boxes, not knowing a whole array of tricks, it doesn’t mean they’re not smart, there’s no such thing as a dumb dog.
Some pooches are much more people-oriented, they’re devoted and want nothing more than to please their paw-rents. Some dogs, quite frankly, couldn’t care less! The dogs that love social interaction will respond well to you, being much more highly trainable and as a result will look more intelligent.
Every single dog has a skill, whether that be following commands, tracking scents or running incredibly fast. Intelligence truly does depend on what quality and skill you’re basing it off. It’s uncertain if you can class sleeping all day as a skill of intelligence for lazy old dogs like the Bulldog however.
Do dogs have an IQ?
IQ stands for intelligence quotient, and it’s essentially a set of standardised tests to judge a person’s intelligence levels.
An IQ test isn’t exactly applicable in the canine world however, it all relies on what trait you are searching to test. Several doggy ‘IQ tests’ have been carried out, but they mostly all rely on how responsive and interested the dog is to praise, toys and probably most im-paw-tently, treats.
This means that the results can be skewed depending on how food-oriented that specific dog is. Some dogs will do anything for a tasty treat, some would rather do their own thing. This might come as a shock to paw-rents of greedy pooches, but not all dogs are that interested in food!
Intelligence test – Stanley Coren’s assessment indicators
Universally, the smartest dog breeds are ranked based on Stanley Coren’s study and research. Coren is a professor of canine psychology and in his book titled The Intelligence of Dogs, Coren judged dogs on their intellect through two main tests.
Firstly, he judged the pooches on how long it took them to understand and completely learn a new command. The fewer times the new command needed to be repeated for the dog to fully know it, the smarter the dog.
Coren also ranked the pups on the success rate percentage that breeds would recognise and follow a command that they already knew on the first try. The breeds that had a higher percentage of success were ranked higher up on the intelligence scale.
Of course, this is one completely black and white way of judging intelligence and is by no means the only method of assessing how clever your canine is.
What are the smartest dog breeds?
This list is based on Coren’s ranking of intelligent breeds.
Border Collie – The Teacher’s Pet
Here we have the teacher’s pet, the overachiever, the know it all and most im-paw-tently the show-off all combined into one super-smart dog breed.
The Border Collie is considered by many to be the number one most intelligent dog breed, taking the top spot for smartest dog breeds in Coren’s famous book The Intelligence of Dogs. It’s no surprise as to why.
The Collie’s intelligence, athleticism and trainability are totally off the scales. Experts estimate that the average dog can learn around 170 words, whereas Border Collies have the mental capacity to learn an already high amount of 250 words to a whopping 1000!
A Border Collie named Chaser holds the title of the largest tested memory of any animal, with the ability to remember and retrieve 1,022 dif-fur-ent toys by their individual names. Now that’s impressive!
This breed is always on the ball, their intense level of intellect is no doubt due to their herding background where they developed their agility, devotion and desire to please their owners. Collies love to learn, always wanting to be on the move or training.
Without enough physical and mental stimulation, this breed will get bored and subsequently start being destructive in a bid to amuse themselves. They’re notorious for chewing holes in walls and furniture, so make sure you’ve got plenty of tricks up your sleeve to teach your clever Collie!
- Size: Medium
- Exercise needs: Very high
- Trainability: Very high
- Temperament: Energetic, devoted, alert
Poodle – The Stylish Smarty-Pants
On first glance of the pompous, posh Poodle, you may question why this seemingly airheaded beauty has made the list. Underneath that fluffy, puffy hair the Poodle is one of the cleverest dog breeds there is, picking up a new trick almost instantly.
Poodles are extremely trainable and enthusiastic about learning, originally bred as water retrievers, and they’re incredibly talented at this role. Many might think their crazy hairdo is just a wacky fashion choice, but it’s actually there to facilitate their original role. Less hair makes swimming easier but in turn makes their bodies more susceptible to the chilly water. As a result, puffs of hair were trimmed into little fluffballs around the torso and joints to retain heat.
Due to their swimming and hunting background, the Poodle excels in all tasks that are given to them, with an eagerness to do it to the best standard. Agility, obedience, swimming and hunting are all easy work for a Poodle, they’re one of the brightest breeds of the bunch.
Poodles are cute, charming and insanely clever, it’s no wonder they’ve become the basis of many pup-ular crossbreeds, the Cockapoo, Labradoodle and Golden Doodle, to list a few.
As with many clever dogs, they need a lot of mental stimulation and entertainment to keep that busy brain from going stir crazy. Regular exercise, mind games and attention are im-paw-tent to keep this brilliant breed from getting bored.
- Size: Toy, miniature or standard
- Exercise needs: High
- Trainability: Very high
- Temperament: Loyal, alert, playful
German Shepherd – The Multitalented Mastermind
The German Shepherd is the epitome of an all-rounder. Capable of herding, search and rescue, drug detection, obedience, medical assistance, guiding, therapy and overall great family fur-iends, is there anything the German Shepherd can’t do? It’s no surprise as to why they’ve been the beloved breed of many for several years.
They can be slightly aloof when it comes to meeting new people, but their devotion to their loved ones is unmatched. As a result, this devotion and eagerness to please you makes the German Shepherd easy to train.
You can probably teach them just about anything, they thrive on learning and having something to do. Do you ever think, ‘it’d be great if someone could run upstairs and bring my slippers down’ or ‘if only there was someone to grab the TV remote, so I don’t have to get up’?
Seriously, if you train them to, your German Shepherd will do these little tricks for you happily, no questions asked. It’s definitely a trick that’ll impress any visitors too!
Keep in mind though, German Shepherds like to bark, so maybe try and teach yours the ‘quiet’ command to save yourself the headache.
- Size: Large
- Exercise needs: High
- Trainability: Very high
- Temperament: Confident, loyal, brave
Golden Retriever – The Goofy Genius
Don’t be fooled by the goofy Golden Retriever’s silly paw-sonality, they’re actually an incredibly intelligent breed. Initially they were bred to retrieve dead animals from the water, but more recently Goldens have ventured into service, guide, therapy and even search and rescue careers. Not just a pretty face!
Instinctively, Golden Retrievers are skilled swimmers, but they also have the ability to adapt to any situation. Great with kids, cats, people, dogs, it’s no wonder why Golden Retrievers are chosen by many to be faithful family members, they cope well in all scenarios.
Owners of the breed may comment on the strange fact that their Golden can sense emotions and tell exactly how their paw-rents are feeling. If you’re feeling low, your big bustling golden ball of love will be instantly there to inundate you with kisses, cuddles and affection.
Despite this, Goldens can sometimes get a little crafty and mischievous due to their high levels of intelligence. Try to keep your socks out of reach otherwise your Golden Retriever will have dragged them up the garden hoping to play a game of chase.
This is all in good fun though, and those big doting eyes and goofy paw-sonality will make you forgive them almost instantly.
- Size: Large
- Exercise needs: High
- Trainability: High
- Temperament: Family orientated, cheerful, confident
Doberman Pinscher - The Wise Watchdog
Slender, sleek and smart, the Doberman has a great intelligence to match their great physical presence. Surprisingly, Dobermans are a pretty modern breed in terms of the canine world, originating in the early 1880s for guard and protecting duties.
A tax collector called Louis Dobermann created the breed as he was in need of a guard dog due to his job requiring him to carry around lots of money. Nowadays, Dobermans find themselves as excellent police and military dogs, but also loving, affectionate fur-iends to many.
Of course, the Doberman was created to be the ultimutt guard dog, so they have a natural instinct to protect. This means they will be utterly devoted to you and will be very easily trainable. Don’t be put off by their guarding instincts however, their high levels of intelligence mean they have a natural ability to determine who is a fur-iend and who is a foe.
You will be able to train your Doberman to absolute paw-fection and as a result, you’ll have a dog that is well behaved, loyal, courageous and affectionate. Even though they have a reputation as fierce guard dogs, Dobermans are incredibly sweet and will shock you with their intellect.
- Size: Large
- Exercise needs: High
- Trainability: High
- Temperament: Fearless, devoted, loving
Overall, Coren ranks 130 dog breeds, and his top 10 continues, including the Shetland Sheepdog, Labrador, Papillon, Rottweiler and the Australian Cattle Dog.
Does this mean that bigger dogs are smarter than smaller dogs?
All the breeds that made the top 5 smartest dogs are of a medium to large size, which seems to confirm that bigger dogs are smarter.
A recent study by the University of Arizona assessed whether a larger breed with a larger brain meant that the breed would be smarter overall due to their increased brain capacity. Overall, the study confirmed that bigger dog breeds were smarter, outperforming the smaller ones with both their short-term memory and self-control abilities.
The bigger dogs were better at remembering which cup a treat was hidden under and were better at waiting patiently for their owner to allow them a treat.
This reinforces Coren’s findings too, with larger breeds overall performing better in his tests. There is a clear trend here, however, these tests are not complete measures of intelligence.
Also, the idea that a bigger dog with a bigger brain will be smarter doesn’t make total sense. Humans are considered the smartest animals on the planet, but there are several animals with much larger brains that don’t have the same capabilities as us humans.
Anyway, we can’t give the bigger breeds all the credit.
Papillon – The Pocket-Sized Prodigy
The Papillon is an absolutely tiny dog, weighing in at a miniscule 3-4.5kg, but it’s the only toy breed to make Coren’s top 10 most intelligent breeds.
Their breed’s name refers to the French word for butterfly, of course a hint at those unique pointed ears.
Don’t underestimate Papillons, they aren’t just lapdogs. Insanely active with a huge brain, the Papillon consistently scores number 1 in toy dog obedience competitions, they’re adaptable athletes who will happily be trained to conduct plenty of tricks.
The Papillon absolutely excels at agility and outdoor sports, you just need to make sure everything is miniature!
What about the dogs who ranked the lowest?
As we know, Stanley Coren judged dog breeds using two tests which essentially rank how smart dogs are in accordance to their responsiveness and willingness to learn and obey commands. Overall, some dogs reached the bottom of his list, but remember, this doesn’t mean these dogs aren’t intelligent!
Various hound breeds are ranked as the ‘least intelligent' dogs according to Coren’s test results. Despite this, it doesn’t mean they aren’t smart, it basically just means they’re hard to train. Remember, Coren’s tests are based on learning new commands and obeying already known ones.
Hound breeds typically don’t care about listening to their owners, there’s far more interesting things to be sniffed on the ground! Scent-tracking is the ideal job for these dogs due to their super powerful noses and they’re brilliant and totally unbeatable at this job. A Border Collie wouldn’t even be a competition for a Bloodhound.
Ranked right at the bottom, as the least intelligent dog breed is the silky, regal, elegant-looking Afghan Hound. Lovers of this unique breed would argue against this low rating.
Afghan Hounds are a breed of sighthound, their sight is second to none and they’ll be able to catch their prey in the blink of an eye. Also, their paw-sonality is definitely unique, Afghan Hounds are fiercely independent, stubborn and reserved. Overall, this makes them quite tricky to train.
The Afghan simply likes to live their life how they want to, doing things when they want to, all completely on their terms and not yours. To train your Afghan, you’ll need patience, time and probably some creativity to work your way around their stubborn nature.
Other dogs that make the list of the least intelligent dogs are Basenjis, Bloodhounds, Chow Chows, Bulldogs, Beagles, Basset Hounds and Borzois.
Realistically, it’s easy to dismiss a dog as stupid if they don’t listen to their owners and doesn’t know how to lie down on command. But every dog has dif-fur-ent talents and traits that make them clever.
Could you argue that the Afghan Hound is smarter than the Border Collie? Afghan Hounds will do their own thing and simply just live their life how they want to, whereas a Border Collie will rely on other people’s directions and commands to be satisfied.
Should I get a smart dog?
We all find it impressive when a pooch performs tricks and appears to be trained to paw-fection. But does this mean a smart dog will always be well-behaved and the ideal pet for everyone?
Simply put, no. Coren explicitly states ‘smart dogs don’t mean easy’. As we’ve found, dogs that supposedly have the highest levels of intelligence are the ones that are chaotic, with bounds of energy and in constant need of activity.
Dogs that are calmer will probably be the ones that are better behaved and easier to live with. Don’t expect them to be doing any impressive flips or tricks though…
Smart dogs constantly need to have their minds put to work, meaning that without the required amount of exercise and mental stimulation, these brainy pups can get up to some serious trouble. Expect chewed furniture and skirting boards, ripped-up cushions and essentially whatever they can get their paws on.
- The Intelligence of Dogs Stanley Coren, 1994
- Do bigger brains equal smarter dogs? Science Daily, University of Arizona, January 2019
- Absolute brain size predicts dog breed differences in executive function Animal Cognition, 22, January 2019, 187-198, doi.org/10.1007/s10071-018-01234-1