It is often said that dogs are like their owners. Maybe they learn your subtle behaviours like the way you tilt your head to one side when you watch TV, or maybe they share your traits, such as your laziness, happiness or intelligence. It’s difficult to tell just how much these traits are natural and what is nurture, but, whether you are just curious about your best friend or thinking about traits for your new pup, it is useful and fun to understand the different breeds. So, here is the low-down on the top 10 most intelligent dog breeds – is your dog on the list?
First of all, we need to understand what we mean by ‘smart’ dogs – it’s not like they take exams, or get degrees after all! Intelligence can be difficult to assess, but, on the whole, intelligent dogs respond quickly to training and pick up and learn new commands easily. The forerunning expert on doggie intelligence Dr. Stanley Coren, a neuroscientist, focuses on trainability for his assessments on intelligence. But, for some, this is still quite a simplistic view of dog intelligence.
Other traits, such as independence and obedience can also impact training. Intelligence can actually mean a dog can appear very disobedient as they can get bored easily, and act independently or act out if left alone for long periods of time. They may also be more likely to remember negative experiences which can affect training and behaviour, such as negative associations with a child who stepped on their tail or an unpleasant experience while travelling in the car which conditioned them to dislike cars. These experiences then become more difficult to retrain out of them.
This is important when considering your dog’s training because ‘unintelligent’ or disobedient dogs, such as bulldogs, can still be trained quickly with the right amount of patience and the correct motivations. Different breeds and personalities respond differently to various motivations. For example, less intelligent dogs will need a more immediate reward to encourage learning.
Dr. Cohen’s Research
Dr. Stanley Cohen’s work from the 1990s is still the leading work ranking dog intelligence, but many have spoken out against its accuracy. It is worth noting that in the list below, most sources are largely in agreement with Dr. Cohen until number 8. After this, slight variations exist between different rankings and we have chosen the last 3 rankings based on agreement across the different lists. The main criticisms of Cohen’s work are that:
- His original work used questionnaires to the American and Canadian Kennel Associations, rather than his conducting his own experiments or observations and based the results on only 199 responses. Although the 2006 update also included survey responses from dog owners.
- Elements such as instinct, problem-solving, and emotional intelligence were not included in the report.
- Dog breeds that received less than 100 responses were not included and are, therefore, not ranked.
As stated above, judging canine intelligence is difficult. Regardless, it is very helpful to get to know your dogs, so without further ado – the list!
- Border Collie
Top of every list about intelligent dogs is always the beautiful and affectionate Border Collie. Having been bred to work as a sheepherder, the Border Collies’ intelligence is demonstrated by their keen instincts and workaholic nature. Famously, they utilise their ‘herding eye’ to intimidate and dominate the animals they are herding. Studies have shown that they are able to learn a new command in less than 5 seconds and will subsequently follow it over 95% of the time.
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Border Collies are also a great example of the kind of energy that comes with having an intelligent dog. Unlike humans, intelligence doesn’t necessitate calm, academic behaviour, such as reading and thinking. Intelligent dogs are often energetic and easily bored. Coupled with their breeding for constant, daily work, the athletic Border Collie requires serious, energetic exercise to keep them healthy and happy, so owners need to be confident of their stamina and dedication.
As well as being the national dog of France, Poodles are the 7th most popular dog breed, which may be in part due to their hypoallergenic qualities. Possibly a surprising entry on this list of clever canines, the poodle is a proud and intelligent dog. They have a reputation in cartoons for being stuck up and rude, but in truth, they were bred as retrievers or truffle hunters and required skills such as tracking, hunting and obeying. This has led them to be similarly active and intelligent animals to the Border Collie.
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Some poodle owners are surprised to hear about the high intelligence of their pets because of their hyperactive, distracted nature. But this in itself is likely to be a product of their active minds. The best advice for training your poodle is to patiently try one command at a time and to only work in the right conditions when your pup is awake and undistracted.
- German shepherd
There are two distinct, but complementary, sides to German Shepherds. Their courage, confidence and, of course, intelligence makes them the fierce and highly trained working dogs that we have come to know. This is what allows them to work in all sorts of jobs, from police dogs and seeing eye dogs to therapy dogs and medical assistance dogs.
You may also like our breed guide on the Corgi German Shepherd Mix.
The other side of German Shepherd is what makes them the second most popular dog in the United States, as their obedience also translates as loyalty and care. Although they may not appear to be the most affectionate pets, once it is earned, they can be extremely loyal and well-behaved. They can be great with your children, who they will be protective of, and make great family pets and companions.
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- Golden Retriever
Possibly more surprising than the Poodle’s intelligence is that of the Golden Retriever. Generally, Golden Retrievers are thought of as goofy, friendly pets, who are perfect for the family home. You only have to think of ‘Doug’, the Golden Retriever from the movie ‘Up’, to see a typical fictional example of this easily distracted, dumb, lovable goofball. But, this stereotype isn’t entirely accurate.
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It is undeniable that Golden Retrievers are loving, friendly companions, but they are far from dumb and are actually extremely intelligent due to being bred to help with hunting. This has made them driven and devoted to their work, whether it be as a seeing eye dog, rescue dog, or companion.
- Doberman Pinscher
‘Up’ has another useful example of an intelligent dog – ‘Alpha’, the Doberman Pinscher. This depiction is much more accurate with Alpha’s speed, strength, stamina, and, of course, brains. As they were originally bred by Louis Doberman to be guard dogs and companions, Doberman Pinschers make fantastic police and war dogs.
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Doberman Pinscher’s are another breed that notably needs a lot of attention and diversion due to their high intelligence. They’ve been known to wreck furniture due to boredom when they are left inside for significant periods of time without stimulation or activity.
- Shetland Sheepdog
A close relation to the Collie, Shetland Sheepdogs are, unsurprisingly, predominately used to round up and herd sheep. So, like the Collie, they are hard-working and intelligent. Another similarity is that they can become easily bored due to their intelligence, so when it comes to training you often don’t need to repeat tasks as they will quickly become uninterested.
As pets, they are sweet, cuddly additions to the family. But, they also make fantastic watchdogs due to their reservations about other people and their tendency to bark at strangers. They are generally most comfortable with their owners and will often follow them around the home, so it is important that you are able to commit to being present in their life, rather than leaving them home alone for many hours.
- Labrador Retriever
Beautiful Labrador Retrievers are another fantastically gentle breed who are great for families. These dogs are so enduringly popular that they’ve been the United States’ favourite dog for 26 years. At home, they are kind and lively members of the family devoted to their ‘pack leader’ but are also capable of being trained to be a guide or narcotic detection dogs.
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Their trainability is famous, but also very necessary. As extremely lively and energetic pups, it is good fortune that they are also so intelligent and receptive to training. Otherwise, they could become quite loud and difficult to manage. This is not to say you can train the activity out of them; Labrador Retrievers require a lot of physical and mental activity to keep them happy and healthy.
Delicately named in French after the pointed shape of their ears, Papillon, or ‘Butterfly’, dogs are also known as dwarf spaniels due to their small stature. They are a very balanced breed who manages to neither be aggressive, nor shy and are generally sweet, happy and alert. Their intelligence comes from this trait of alertness and their natural agility, which has led them to be a favourite for prize-winning.
As a toy breed, the Papillon’s intelligence sets it apart from its peers. It often manages to avoid the nervousness and anxiety of toy breeds but is the most obedient and responsive of the group. As with other intelligent dogs, they require mental and physical activity, but it is worth noting that their small stature makes them less resilient than the other breeds on this list. They should be supervised when interacting with children who may play rough, and, while they love and need the outdoors, are only suitable to living indoors.
Another dog, like the German Shepherd and the Doberman Pinscher, who is ideal for police and service work is the Rottweiler. What is more, Rottweilers are also good therapy dogs and companions. In fact, this breed is suited to many positions due to its intelligence and, indeed, Rottweilers are often happiest when they have tasks to complete and work to achieve.
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This hardworking, intelligent nature, much like the Border Collie, means that owners of Rottweilers must be similarly dedicated and hardworking in order to provide the training and exercise that they require. Rottweilers could easily become bored if unchallenged by tasks and activity and so you must be committed to their wellbeing with active exercise regimes and plenty of attention and play.
- Australian Cattle Dog
Last in our top 10, and still an extremely intelligent breed, are Australian Cattle Dogs. Probably the least popular dog featured in our list, the Australian Cattle Dog is similarly happy to work. Like many of the other intelligent dogs, they are notably talented at herding due to their high-energy and instinctive mind.
This breed has plenty of initiative due to their role in herding cattle and are used to nipping at animals to keep them in line. This is something you may need to train out of your Australian Cattle Dog and, as it is behaviour that will only come out when they are feeling surrounded by serious chaos and misbehaviour, you may not even be aware that such a problem could exist, so be vigilant and intolerant when it does arise.
Those were the 10 most intelligent dog breeds. Some are friendlier, some are more obedient, and most are hard-workers, but all of them require dedication, love and care. There are plenty of other clever canines that you may want to consider if you are thinking of adopting one and it is worth giving an honourable mention to:
They are famous as detective dogs for a reason, and their ability and determination to sniff out and track down a scent is legendary.
Many believe they have been used since as far back as the 3rd century. With their gorgeous droopy ears and big, beautiful eyes – there is no way you won’t fall in love with this smarty pants.
- Pembroke Welsh Corgis
As another herding dog, Pembroke Welsh Corgis are smart, friendly and reliable.
Associated with the British Royal Family, they should not be confused with their close relatives the Cardigan Welsh Corgis. If you want to be able to tell them apart, check their tails as the Pembroke Welsh Corgis will have short tails, and the Cardigan Welsh Corgis have longer tails.
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