By Nicole Etolen
How smart are dogs? If you ask any canine parent, they’ll tell you “pretty darn clever!” Of course, like parents of human kids, pet parents are prone to exaggeration, so you might have a hard time taking their word for it.
Turns out you don’t have to! Scientists have spent generations trying to answer this question. Read on to find out what they’ve discovered.
What does it mean to be a “smart” dog?
Before we can really answer the question of canine intelligence, we have to define what it means to be “smart.” The dictionary tells us that intelligence is defined by “the ability to acquire and apply knowledge and skills.”
By that definition, if you can learn anything at all, you’re an intelligent creature to some degree. However, we don’t look at someone who learned how to use the bathroom and say, “Wow, that guy is really smart!” We associate intelligence with the ability to master complex skills and solve.
So, when we set out to answer the question of canine intellect, we can’t really ask ourselves, “How fast can a dog learn to go to the bathroom outside?” We have to look at how well they can solve problems on their own. One has to do with training through repetition, which is something that nearly every creature can master given enough time. The other has to do with genuine intelligence.
Just how smart is the average dog?
Now that we have a good idea of what it means to be a smart dog, we can really dive into the answer to the original question. It gets a little tricky here because there are studies that say dogs are smarter than we ever knew as well as those that say they’re not as smart as we originally thought. Lost yet? Here’s the thing about studies, for every one that says A, there’s at least another that says B.
I will say this, the 2018 study that came down on the side of “not all that smart” was a bit skewed. They pitted dogs against chimps, which is kind of like pitting oranges against apples. They’re two completely different creatures who express intelligence in completely different ways. Still, I mention the study because it provides a bit of balance.
As a dog lover and pet parent to what I think of as a highly intelligent breed, I much prefer the numerous studies that lean towards “smarter than we thought.”
One ongoing study done by the Duke Canine Cognition Center (part of Duke University) shows that dogs have a “rich understanding of their world, which allows them to be flexible problem solvers.” Researchers have studied both domestic and wild dogs from all over the world. Even after 15 years, they admit that they’re only just scratching the surface of canine intelligence.
Brian Hare, director of the Duke center, explains that one way of measuring intelligence is by looking at how well an animal has managed to survive and increase its numbers. He says that the dog is “…arguably the most successful mammal on the planet besides us. Dogs have spread to all corners of the world, including inside our homes and in some cases onto our beds. While a majority of mammals on the planet have seen a steep decline in their populations as a result of human activity, there have never been more dogs on the planet than today.”
If simply being able to survive and reproduce made one smart, then mosquitoes and cockroaches would be considered downright brilliant. So, we’re back to looking at how well they solve problems.
I’ve seen their problem-solving skills in action first hand more times than I can count. For example, when I was a child, I had a German Shepherd who would stop at nothing to come find me outside. He not only learned how to turn the handle on the front door, but even how to use his teeth to unlock it!
When it comes to research on the problem-solving skills of dogs, no one has studied it more fervently than Stanley Coren, author of over a dozen books on the subject. Coren claims that dogs are “among the most intelligent animals and can rival apes and parrots for their ability to understand language.”
Throughout his studies, he’s found that some dogs can understand 200+ words and master basic counting skills. He even used tests designed for young children to prove it!
So, as you can see, dogs really are pretty smart! However, Coren and other researchers have found that some breeds show a bit more intelligence than others. Keep reading to discover the top 5 smartest breeds.
Top 5 Smartest Dog Breeds
These top 5 smartest dog breeds are considered the “most trainable,” making them ideal for those who need a working dog, such as a service dog, a police dog, or even a helpful canine farmhand.
- Border Collie
Bred for herding sheep, this dog consistently ranks as THE most intelligent breed. My aunt’s Border Collie was capable of learning the names of every single one of his toys and knew how to turn on the TV using the remote. He loved watching certain shows and knew what time they came on!
Dog behaviorists rank the poodle as a very close second to the Border Collie, and he’s a popular choice for service dog work. Training is typically a breeze, and they excel at everything from agility coursework to tracking work. If you’re looking for the most intelligent small dogs, you’ll be happy to know that all Poodle sizes are equally smart.
- German Shepherd
There is a very good reason that this breed is chosen for police work more often than any other breed: they are not only exceptionally intelligent and easy to train, but also able to quickly adapt to new situations. They can easily handle just about any job given to them.
- Golden Retriever
The 3rd most popular dog in the United States ranks #4 as the most intelligent. Their trainability comes mainly from the fact that they are so eager to please their families, making them masters when it comes to tasks that require complete obedience.
Forget that image of a snarling junkyard dog that comes to mind when we think about the Doberman! These dogs are loyal, playful, and eager to please. Like the Golden, it’s that last part that makes them able to master obedience training quickly and easily.
As the AKC points out, though, these dogs can be a bit stubborn and pushy, so it’s important to socialize and train them at an early age.
If your dog isn’t on the list of the smartest dog breeds, don’t feel bad. The rankings are determined primarily by trainability and not overall problem-solving skills. Some breeds are incredibly intelligent, yet their independence makes them a challenge to train.
My Pharaoh Hound, for instance, is definitely the smartest dog we’ve ever had, but she has an independence streak is a mile long. Her breed excels in reward-based training, but even the most obedient Pharaoh Hound will completely ignore you when they are hunting prey. Basically, they have zero recall when off-leash, and many have been lost forever after darting out the front door after a stray cat.
Another thing to remember, like people, every dog displays its own unique blend of intelligence. Many factors come into play, including socialization, training, and even just how you treat your dog. So, it’s entirely possible to have a brilliant dog that doesn’t make the top 5, top 10, or even the top 100 smartest breeds.
So, just how smart are dogs? As the Duke University Canine Cognition Center explains, you can’t really rank their intelligence on a number scale, but the research speaks for itself: they’re pretty darn smart!
About the Author: Nicole Etolen is a writer and editor at DogVills.com, a site dedicated to helping both new and seasoned dog parents lead the very best lives possible with their canine companions. She’s also a pet parent to a highly intelligent Pharaoh Hound.