Everyone would like to think that their dog is the smartest dog in the world. However, a dog’s breed, life experiences, and training can all play into how smart your dog is. Let’s take a look at what the smartest dog breeds in the world are.
Certain breeds are known to be more intelligent. Although, there is debate about the types of intelligence in dogs and which types of intelligence should be ranked among the best.
We’ll look at the types of intelligence in dogs, what studies have shown us how smart dogs can be, and the top 10 smartest dog breeds. In the end, you’ll have a complete picture of dog intelligence.
What are the different intelligences within dog breeds?
To start talking about dogs’ intelligence, we need to introduce Dr. Stanley Coren, a well-known expert on smartest dog breeds. Dr. Coren is a professor at the University of British Columbia in the psychology department. He has been studying psychology and the mental abilities of dogs for decades.
In fact, Dr. Coren has authored a wide variety of research papers and books on the subject. To date, he’s published over 400 papers and articles!
His book, The Intelligence of Dogs, published information ranking dog breeds by how smart they were. The smartest dog breeds were ranked after surveying close to 200 professional dog obedience judges.
Before he could rank the intelligence of the smartest dog breeds, Dr. Coren needed to categorize dogs’ intelligence.
The following three categories were developed by Dr. Coren to classify the intellect of dogs:
- Instinctive Intelligence
- Adaptive Intelligence
- Working and Obedience Intelligence
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Smartest Dog Breeds: Instinctive Intelligence in smartest dog breeds
Instinctive intelligence can be defined as the intrinsic and native characteristics of a breed. Common examples of instinctive intelligence include:
- The ability to herd animals
- The ability to work with humans for hunting
- The ability to “go to ground” and find vermin
The important thing is that instinctive intelligence isn’t taught to a dog. If the dog is born with an innate ability to do something, particularly something common to its breed, it falls into this category.
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Smartest Dog Breeds: Adaptive Intelligence
When dogs are described as having adaptive intelligence, it refers to their ability to learn from their environment.
Dogs that are adept at using their adaptive intelligence can learn how to solve problems by watching other dogs or humans. They are excellent at recognizing their owner’s facial expressions.
A dog that has a high level of adaptive intelligence will be socially aware and learn through observation. The smartest dog breeds will also have good problem-solving skills, even if the problem is new to them.
Smartest Dog Breeds: Working and Obedience Intelligence
While slightly different, working and obedience intelligence go hand-in-hand.
Dogs with high working intelligence levels can be trained to comprehend complex tasks, such as being a service dog.
When a dog has high levels of obedience intelligence, they’ll learn many specific cues and commands.
The smartest dog breeds dogs won’t only train to a high level of obedience or perform a specific job. Dogs with working and obedience intelligence will also learn new tasks faster than other breeds.
How Smart is the Average Dog?
To fully understand intelligence in the smartest dog breeds and how it is measured, we’ll also need to look at some information on an average dog’s IQ.
The understanding of canine behavior, and animal behavior in general, has boomed in recent years. Previously, most knowledge came from anecdotal evidence and assumptions. However, we’re now able to study how dogs behave and learn in a more clinical setting, giving us more concrete and reliable data.
How smart dogs actually are is often different from what their owners perceive, however.
One study of 565 dog owners found that almost half of the dog owners believed their dog’s mental ability to be equal to 3-5-year-old human children. A quarter of them believed that dogs were smarter than most people.
Instead, when the dogs themselves are tested, they are assumed to have a two or two and a half-year-old child’s average intelligence. In Dr. Coren’s work, he’s concluded that most dogs can learn to recognize around 165 words and gestures.
This may seem like a lot if the average owner is only teaching their dogs the basics – sit, down, stay. When you consider all the things your dog learns to understand, it becomes easy for the average dog to reach 165 words and actions. (walk, car ride, treat, time for bed, etc.)
Most dogs can also count up to four or five, understanding basic math problems such as 1+1=2. This accounts for why a dog may see you grab 3 treats and wait until all 3 treats have been given to them.
How smart are the smartest dog breeds?
In addition, Dr. Coren believes that the dogs he calls “super dogs,” or those in the top 20% of canine intelligence, can learn 250+ words and gestures. He suggests that these super dogs, including Chaser (aka “The Smartest Dog in the World), are more similar to a three-year-old human child.
The Smartest Dog in the World (Border Collie Chaser)
A Border Collie named Chaser is often thought to have been the smartest dog in the world. Unfortunately, Chaser passed away in 2019 at 15 years old, but she’s maintained her title to this day.
Dr. John Pilley, a psychology professor in South Carolina, had delved into some research on canine cognition before his retirement.
He believed that dogs couldn’t learn the independent meaning of words and that dogs didn’t understand their name or other forms of proper nouns. Farmers working with Border Collies told Dr. Pilley that the science simply hadn’t fully explored dog intelligence yet. Dr. Pilley’s interest was piqued.
In 2004, Dr. Pilley and Chaser’s life together began. He wanted to see just how capable Chaser could be at learning human language and solving problems.
By the time Chaser was 6 months old, she already knew 40 different words, including those that asked her to find specific toys.
In the end, Chaser had learned over 1000 proper nouns, and she was able to learn new names the very first time they were introduced.
Chaser had started understanding the concept of how objects were named and learning by inference. Previously, it was assumed that not many animals outside of humans and primates learned this way.
Being the smartest dog in the world also came with learning categories for her toys and adjectives: bigger, faster, smaller, and slower. Chaser could grab “another ball” just by knowing the categories of her toys.
Dr. Pilley also passed away in 2018, but the duo has left a legacy that will be treasured by dog cognition researchers for years to come.
Over a decade, their shared bond allowed Chaser to push the boundaries of what we thought was possible for dog intelligence. Together, they progressed much further than the average animal being studied in a group in a lab.
How is Dog Intelligence Measured?
Now that we’ve looked at the basics of intelligence in dogs, it’s time to examine how we measure intelligence in dogs when ranking various breeds.
It’s incredibly difficult to try and rank instinctive intelligence, especially between breeds. Is a dog that herds more intelligent than a dog that retrieves? Is a dog that can hunt for pests on a farm more intelligent than a dog that can hunt in the field with a handler?
You can see the difficulties that arise when trying to rank instinctive intelligence. This is especially hard to do in a scientific manner that can be measured.
Adaptive intelligence has been studied in dogs, but prior learning history can influence how well they can solve problems. There are also more variables to control when studying adaptive intelligence.
For these reasons, most lists of the smartest dog breeds are created by ranking the breed’s working and obedience intelligence.
It’s much easier to measure how quickly a dog learns and how many cues they know. Thus, most of the research on dog intelligence to date uses obedience intelligence to rank the various breeds.
The Top 10 Smartest Dog Breeds
This top 10 list of the smartest breeds of dogs is based on Dr. Coren’s work. He interviewed dog obedience judges from the American Kennel Club and Canadian Kennel Club. This information was then published in The Intelligence of Dogs.
In each case, these breeds have all had at least 100 responses from judges. This creates a general consensus on their working and obedience intelligence.
This means that most of the breeds on this list are fairly common breeds.
The top 10 smartest breeds of dogs are expected to:
- learn a new command in fewer than 5 repetitions
- obey the first command 95% of the time or better, in most cases
The Australian Cattle Dog is not as common of a pet as other breeds in the top 10. Still, it is an incredibly important working dog. The American Kennel Club states that they are “…intelligent enough to routinely outsmart their owners.” Australian Cattle Dogs also often have incredible instinctive intelligence as well. This instinctive intelligence allows them to work efficiently and effectively as a herding dog.
The 8th most popular breed in the American Kennel Club, Rottweiler, is considered the 9th smartest dog breed.
Rottweilers were bred to be a loving family dog but a protector to outside threats. It’s sometimes thought that Rottweilers are a stubborn breed of dog, but when treated and trained fairly, they can be very trainable.
This breed prefers their family and close friends only and is reserved and aloof with strangers.
The smallest breed in the top 10, weighing only 5-10lbs, is the Papillon. Don’t let their small size fool you – the Papillon is an incredible bundle of intelligence in their little body!
Even in the highest levels of dog agility competitions, Papillons outshine the other breeds their size.
The American Kennel Club also considers Papillons to be among the most eager to please of all dogs. They are a loyal companion dog and love to learn as long as it means spending more time with their people.
As the most popular breed in the United States, the Labrador Retriever deserves its place on the top 10 list of smartest dog breeds. Labs are known for their friendly and outgoing personality. They are often convinced that they’ve never met a stranger in their life. Because Labrador Retrievers care so deeply about their owners, they thrive on learning new skills. They also enjoy participating in any training activities with their owners.
Labrador Retrievers are often considered hunting dogs. However, many also excel in competitive obedience, agility, dock diving, therapy dog work, and various other sports.
The Shetland Sheepdog is more commonly known as the Sheltie. This breed originated on the remote and rugged Shetland Islands of Scotland. They are known for being extremely intelligent and obedient herding dogs.
Outside of herding, they also excel in obedience and agility trials, including worldwide competitions.
Shelties are known for being talkative and barking more frequently than other breeds, along with being aloof to strangers. However, that can make them an excellent partner for the right owner.
The Doberman Pinscher is considered to be the nobleman among dog breeds. They are known for their intelligence, power, and fearlessness. The American Kennel Club also notes they train easily and respond quickly, along with being a loving companion.
As with all other breeds on this list, the Doberman Pinscher requires exercise for both their mind and body to be content. Without a proper outlet, the Doberman Pinscher will create their own games, which may be destructive and undesired.
Another retriever from the sporting group, the Golden Retriever, falls 4th on the list’s top 10 smartest dog breed. Having instinctive intelligence is essential for the Golden Retriever that does fieldwork. Even so, their obedience and working intelligence shine above many other dogs.
Today, the Golden Retriever is an excellent candidate for search-and-rescue work. They also make excellent service dogs for their disabled handlers. Never one to sit at home, they are also a willing companion to learn almost any sport or competition.
Similarly to Labrador Retrievers, the Golden Retriever can be very eager to please and has a strong desire to work with their owner.
The German Shepherd Dog is an all-around dog, able to succeed in almost any task. Their high levels of working intelligence make them an excellent choice for the military and police. They are also a favorite of owners that want a dog that’s incredibly intelligent and fun to train.
It may not surprise many people to know that the German Shepherd Dog is a herding group member. The name says it. While they’re known for a wide variety of other jobs today, the German Shepherd Dog was developed in the field as they tended to sheep.
The Poodle comes in 3 sizes – Standard, Miniature, and Toy. Many may consider the Poodle to be a dog regaled for their looks and not their brains. Still, Poodles are one of the smartest dog breeds overall.
The cut of the Poodle coat was actually developed to keep vital parts of the body warm when the Poodle swam in cold water assisting hunters.
Poodles tend to have a fun and goofy personality to go with their wicked smarts. They are also a very athletic breed and enjoy a variety of active adventures.
Knowing that Chaser the Border Collie is the smartest dog in the world, it is no surprise that Border Collies are the number one breed on the top 10 list.
This breed is considered to be a workaholic, with an intense working and obedience energy that can be too much for many owners. Without an outlet for their energy, Border Collies will become extremely bored.
They thrive working to their fullest potential. Border Collies also have high levels of instinctive intelligence, as they work to herd groups of animals. They are known for their amazing problem-solving ability as well.
Others in the Top Smartest Dog Breeds
Dr. Coren ranked 100 dog breeds overall. Additional breeds that ranked among the smartest dog breeds include:
- Brittany: An intelligent dog breed belonging to the sporting group is primarily used for hunting.
- Great Dane: A large and gentle giant, they are often relatively easy to train.
- English Setter: Another hunting breed on the list is the English Setter since working with their owners is essential for hunting.
- Akita Inu: Many Akita owners would consider the dog too smart for their own good. Training an Akita often involves convincing the Akita it’s in their best interest to cooperate!
- Saint Bernard: While they’re known for being large couch potatoes, Saint Bernard was originally bred to help rescue those lost in the Swiss Alps. Breeding for rescue work is why they’re often very biddable and enjoy working with people.
- Australian Shepherd: Another breed that is often too smart for their own good. The Aussie will invent their own games and activities if not kept occupied.
- Chesapeake Bay Retriever: This retriever originated in the USA and tends to be more stubborn and independent than their Lab and Golden relatives, yet still an intelligent breed.
- Collie: The classic “Lassie” dog, Collies, are incredibly in tune with their owners and smart.
- Alaskan Malamute: As their job is to work with humans in pulling sleds, Malamutes are also one of the smartest dog breeds. However, they do have an independent streak.
- Siberian Husky: The Husky was also bred to work for humans. As their work is often more independently guided than sporting and herding breeds, it makes their training more difficult.
Least Intelligent Breeds of Dogs
It’s unfair to label any dog stupid or dumb, especially based on their breed. Though, some breeds are considered lower intelligence – especially on the working and obedience scale.
In Dr. Coren’s work, he considered these breeds to be of the lowest degree of working and obedience intelligence. In general, they are thought to take 80-100+ repetitions to learn a new command and often only obey the first command 25% of the time or less.
The least intelligent breeds of dogs based on working and obedience intelligence are:
- Shih Tzu
- Basset Hound
- Chow Chow
- Afghan Hound
Owners of these breeds will tell you that their dogs are still plenty smart in other ways – they simply are not the easiest to train.
Looking at these dogs’ history, it makes sense that many of them have a little more independent streak.
Dogs such as the Beagle, Bloodhound, and Afghan Hound were bred to track prey with little or no help from their handlers. Stopping to check in with their owners every few minutes might make sense when you’re a Border Collie being directed on where to herd a flock of sheep. This same behavior, though, would make for a rather useless hound.
In short, if your dog’s breed is on the list of the least intelligent breeds of dogs, it doesn’t mean they are stupid. Instead, they are likely to be independent thinkers who are great at problem-solving and working independently. They prefer this rather than learning obedience skills with you.
Can You Make Your Dog Smarter?
Is there a way to teach your dog to be more intelligent, or is it all about the genes they were born with?
Research is starting to show that you can help your dog be better at problem solving and training by working with them. Anecdotally, a lot of things may help your dog become smarter.
Zachary Silver is a Ph.D. student from Yale University studying the way dogs interpret the social world. He provides some context for how dogs can learn to be more intelligent.
His research has found that dogs pay incredibly close attention to humans and their behavior, such as following where we look or point.
There’s research that suggests dogs can notice if a human appears to be helpful or not. The dogs then favor the helpful person when they need assistance.
It’s even been found that when finding hidden food, dogs will notice which human knows where the food is hidden. If the dog sees that Person A is observing the food being hidden, and Person B is not, they are more likely to seek assistance and follow cues from Person A.
Dr. Alexandra Horowitz suggests allowing dogs to explore the world with their nose to help them learn.
When the dogs she studied were able to participate in a nose work activity, the dogs could perform faster on a cognitive bias test. They also showed more optimism about their experiences.
The control group of dogs did not participate in nose work and instead engaged in heelwork. This research shows that getting to sniff and forage can benefit your dog’s overall mental state.
However, the more you train your dog, the more you can help your dog learn and engage with the world.
Agility, rally, obedience, tricks, scent work, dock diving, and more are some of the many sports and activities you can do with your dog.
When you engage your dog’s mind, you’ll be able to keep their brain smart and sharp, even as they age.
Research into how dogs learn, such as in the book How Dogs Learn by Drs. Burch and Bailey teaches us that dogs are more likely to offer new behaviors and try new things when taught with positive reinforcement.
Dr. Burch notes that “Dogs are motivated to perform by the promise of rewards.” By encouraging your dog to perform behaviors for rewards, you’ll be able to encourage them to offer more behaviors throughout their life.
Are Big Dogs Smarter than Small Dogs?
It makes sense that the size of a brain affects the intelligence of the animal. Consider humans, which have large brains, especially relative to their size.
Dog breeds vary in size an incredible amount for a single species, from a mere 2-3 pounds to almost 300 pounds.
Through data collected by Dognition.com, the cognitive abilities of a variety of dogs were tested and analyzed. A group of 10 tests was given to pet dogs by their owners, and the information was submitted back to Dognition for a citizen science project.
This research found that larger dogs could remember information for longer than smaller dogs. Large dogs performed better than small dogs on all aspects of tests relating to their memory.
The researchers for this study also took the skull’s size and shape for various dog breeds into account. They still came to the significant conclusion that larger dogs are often smarter than smaller dogs.
Unfortunately for smaller dogs, they simply don’t have as much space for their brain as larger dogs, and brain size is one area where size matters. If you’d like to help with future research projects on dog intelligence, you can visit www.dognition.com.
Do Dogs Learn Faster with Visual or Verbal Signals?
Dog trainers have long debated whether dogs learn better with verbal or visual signals. For example, a fist with a finger pointing upwards to indicate that the dog should sit. Many dog trainers have noticed that dogs appear to respond quicker when hand signals are used, and now there is scientific data to help back that up.
In Georgia, the Psychology Department at Emory University conducted a study that looked directly at the neural learning happening in a dog’s brain when they were being taught with different signals.
For their research, dogs were taught to lay still in an MRI machine so they could monitor their brain activity. Several months of training was often needed to prepare the dogs for the noisy machines.
In the experiment, dogs were taught that one signal was associated with a reward, and another signal was not. The signal pairs were:
|Type of Signal||Signal 1||Signal 2|
|Visual||Plastic Pineapple||Pink Flamingo|
In the end, dogs learned most quickly via scent. However, there was a minimal difference in how long it also took them to learn visual cues. Learning via verbal cues alone was the most difficult for the dogs to learn.
If dogs rely heavily on visual cues, why do humans train dogs with verbal cues anyways?
In the end, it’s likely because we – humans – communicate extensively via verbal communication.
As we try and communicate with another species, it makes sense for us to continue to communicate the same way.
Other studies on the difference in a dog’s ability to learn based on visual cues compared to verbal cues have had similar results.
One such study trained a group of dogs to identify 3 different objects, both by the object’s name and by pointing at the object.
The goal was for the dog to bring back the desired object, whether or not the handler spoke the name or pointed at the object.
The dogs were able to successfully bring back the objects based on name or pointing. The interesting point of the study, though, was when the researchers combined the two cues.
In these combined tests, a verbal cue and a physical cue would both be given at the same time, but in contradiction to each other. The dog would have to choose one of the cues they deemed more important since the cues gave conflicting information.
The majority of dogs in the study chose the object that was pointed at rather than the object that was verbally said. This occurred more often than should occur due to chance.
This tells us that dogs prefer visual cues and are more likely to respond to a hand signal than a spoken word.
Interestingly, toddlers are also more likely to choose the object that is pointed at rather than the item that was said. This point goes along with the idea that dogs truly do have a 2-3-year-old child’s average intelligence. They are similar down to how they process and learn information and how they respond to their world.
If you’re having trouble training your dog, try to add more visual cues and gestures instead of relying on verbal cues alone. By paying more attention to your own signals and body language, you’ll likely be able to train your dog much faster!