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Smartest Dogs - Canine Intelligence

Updated on August 29, 2013
Smartest Dog Breeds - and the dumbest
Smartest Dog Breeds - and the dumbest | Source

Smart Dogs

I’ve been reading a lot lately about smart dogs, along with the smartest dog breeds, in general. I've even been giving my pooches some dog IQ tests. My family and I have owned a lot of dogs, representing a lot of different breeds, crossbreeds, and mutts. I’ve done dog training for others, too, and have been involved with dog breeding. We’ve bred and raised German shepherds, Great Danes, Brittany spaniels, golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, and English pointers. We also had an “accidental” litter of pointer-border collie crosses, along with some timber wolf-German shepherd crosses. Believe me – I know canines, and I understand a lot about dog behavior. Most owners like to think that their beloved pooches are smart, but I always tried to be objective in assessing canine intelligence. Not all my furkids have been smart dogs. In fact, I’ve had some pretty dumb four-legged kids in my life, but that didn’t make me love them any less. I don’t always agree with the judgment from experts on the most intelligent dogs, as some of the information is in direct opposition to what I’ve witnessed and experienced myself over the decades. Still, I think it’s interesting to read what a dog behaviorist or two have to say on the subject, especially when I can compare their findings with my own experiences in categorizing the smartest dog breeds.

one of my canine intelligence tests
one of my canine intelligence tests | Source
Another way to test dog intelligence. Sparky failed.
Another way to test dog intelligence. Sparky failed. | Source

Canine Intelligence:

Canine Intelligence

How is canine intelligence measured? It’s not like we humans can give canines a pencil and have them complete an IQ test. Dog IQ tests can use problems for the animals to solve, or they might be based on how trainable a dog is. A dog behaviorist administering a test will often give extra points for persistence. In other words, a dog that will keep trying to solve a problem is usually considered more intelligent than one that gives up quickly.

I’ve tried some of these tests at home with my own pooches. I have a fawn Great Dane named Hamlet, a harlequin Dane named Grendel, and a Basset hound named Buford T. Sparkplug, or “Sparky” for short. Hamlet is definitely the smartest of the three, and Sparky is at the bottom rung of the smart ladder. All these beliefs are based on my personal, daily interactions with the three canines. I was interested in finding out if the “tests” backed up my assessments.

For the first problem, I placed a large towel over the head of each dog. It took Hamlet four seconds to get rid of the towel, and it took Grendel eight seconds. Sparky seemed unaware that his head was covered, so I finally gave up timing him. I think he’d just stay there all day with the towel covering his head. Finally, Hamlet went over and freed Sparkplug from his towel prison.

For the next test, I used a treat and three bowls. I figured Sparky would have an advantage over the Danes here because of his incredible nose. Basset hounds have the second-best noses in the canine world, second only to the bloodhound. Anyway, I showed each dog the treat and allowed it to see which bowl I was placing the goodie under. Then I let them find the treat and timed them to see how long it took. Hamlet went straight to the right bowl, and it took Grendel two seconds to locate the treat. Sparky sniffed all the bowls carefully before locating the treat – then he tried to eat the bowl.

Next, I used a sort of “barrier test.” I made a passageway between the couch and the coffee table, and at the end, I blocked it with a piece of cardboard. The only cardboard I could find was a pizza box. I placed each dog in the “passageway.” On the other side of the barrier, I dropped a strawberry jam sandwich. By the way, the dogs could see around the edges of the box, but the space was too narrow for them to go through. Hamlet stood there for a second and then went around the coffee table and found the treat. He looked at me for permission to eat the sandwich before eating it. Sparky took forever to figure out that he had to go around the coffee table. Grendel actually won this one. He immediately went around the table and gobbled down the jam and bread.

Some dog behaviorists measure canine intelligence by how readily they learn new commands or tasks. I’m not completely convinced that this is a reliable measure of intelligence. Dog training methods vary widely, for one thing, and some trainers are much more effective than others. It could be that the dog training methods employed weren’t ones that best “fit” the individual canines being tested. I present more thoughts on this in the next section.

Dog Training can be much easier with smart dogs.
Dog Training can be much easier with smart dogs. | Source
Dog Training that uses food and treat rewards works best with Grendel.
Dog Training that uses food and treat rewards works best with Grendel. | Source

Dog Training

Dog training and an individual canine’s response to it are sometimes used to assess how smart a dog is. Is this really a fair way to differentiate between smart dogs and dumb dogs? Maybe, maybe not. Some dogs have more “trainable” temperaments. They might have a strong desire to please, which might not always be in line with intelligence. Also, some dogs respond much more quickly to rewards, especially rewards of food. For example, Grendel is highly motivated by food, while Hamlet usually isn’t. It seems that Grendel would be more willing to work harder for treats than Hamlet would. Hamlet, on the other hand, is more motivated by praise. I haven’t yet discovered what really motivates Sparky – if anything does.

How does dog training and intelligence work with dog breeds that think independently of their owners? Because such canines can think for themselves instead of learning tricks or commands by repetition shouldn’t be a sign of low intelligence, should it? I’m not sure. I’m sort of on the fence with this one. I can tell you that it took no time at all to house train the Great Danes, but it seemed as if it took forever to potty train our hound dog. He still has “accidents” occasionally, while Hamlet and Grendel never, ever “go” in the house.

The smartest dog I ever had as far as learning tricks goes was a fox terrier I had as a kid. I was able to train Friskie to do all sorts of tricks, and some of them were pretty complicated and involved. Obviously, I wasn’t a professional dog trainer at the time – I was just a little kid. Friskie picked up new tricks very quickly, but I’ve never seen the fox terrier near the top of any smartest dogs list. Perhaps Friskie was really smart for her breed?

Border collies are often considered to be the most intelligent dog breed.
Border collies are often considered to be the most intelligent dog breed. | Source

Smartest Dogs List

The problem with a smartest dogs list is that most of them have some huge disagreements. Just as an example, I’ve found some of the same dog breeds appear on lists of the smartest dog breeds and on lists of the dumbest dogs. One such breed I recall is the Saint Bernard. Evidently, some experts see this big guy as one of the smartest dogs on the planet, while others see it as one of the dumbest. I found the same thing with the pit bull. What’s up with that? How can the same breed be found at both extremes?

I think one problem here is judging an entire breed by a few representatives. German shepherds are near the top of just about any smartest dog list you can find, but we had a not-so-smart German shepherd once. Poor ole Blossom was sweet and beautiful, but she missed the IQ boat. On the other hand, we’ve also had some very intelligent members of the same breed. The same goes for the Great Dane. I’ve owned nine Danes, and they’ve ranged in intelligence. Most were of average canine intelligence, but one was far below average. I’ve also had a couple of very smart Great Danes, including one of the boys I have now.

Smartest Dogs List:

Most German shepherds are very smart dogs.
Most German shepherds are very smart dogs. | Source

Smartest Dog Breeds

I’ve compared and contrasted many lists of the smartest dog breeds. Like I’ve already mentioned, such lists rarely agree on the top ten or fifteen most intelligent dogs. Often near the very top are the border collie, the poodle, the German shepherd, and the Australian cattle dog. From there, however, the most intelligent dog breeds tend to vary. Other breeds often mentioned as the smartest dogs include the Papillon, the golden retriever, the Doberman pinscher, the Shetland sheepdog, the Labrador retriever, the Brittany spaniel, the Akita, the Australian shepherd, the Rottweiler, and the Great Dane.

Based on my experience with several of these breeds, I agree with some of the findings but disagree with others. Some of the smartest dogs I’ve known were German shepherds, border collies, and golden retrievers. To be honest, I haven’t had much experience with poodles, so I can’t provide an honest assessment there. I didn’t find our Labs to be particularly intelligent, nor did I find our Brittanies to be so. The Brittany spaniels we had were great at their job of quail hunting, but beyond that, they seemed of average or slightly above average intelligence. My Akitas, on the other hand, were scary intelligent! The two sisters often worked together as a team and were great at problem solving.

If you were to peruse a few lists of the most intelligent dog breeds, with 100 breeds included, you'll probably see that most of the top spots are usually awarded to members of the working group and the herding group. Members of the sporting group are usually rated between average and above average. Toy dogs are all over the place, and terriers and hounds are often scraping the bottom of the brainy bottom. My best friend has a Jack Russell that seems to be pretty bright, however. What I'm trying to say is - don't take this information personally, and take it with a large grain of salt. I think it's pretty difficult to assess dog intelligence by using human standards.

Smartest Dog
Smartest Dog | Source
Hamlet is the most wonderful canine I've ever known!
Hamlet is the most wonderful canine I've ever known! | Source

What Is The Smartest Dog

What is the smartest dog? I can only answer based on my own experience with canines. As I’ve said, I’ve owned and worked with some very smart dogs and some pretty dumb dogs. Of all the dogs I’ve ever known, my Hamlet is the smartest dog – hands down. I’m not just saying this because I love him so much, and I’ve tried to be objective in my assessments. Why do I think Hammie is the most intelligent dog in the world? Allow me to explain.

Hamlet has been incredibly easy to train, even as a puppy. I think part of this easy dog training was due to his incredible desire to please me. When I decided to teach him and Grendel to ring a bell in order to go outside to “do their business,” I had to show Hamlet the routine only once. I kid you not. After placing the cord with the bell on the front door, I took Hammie’s nose and made him ring the bell, then I opened the door and let him out. That was all it took. From that point on, he always rang the little bell when he needed to relieve himself. Grendel caught on fairly quickly, too, but I didn’t even try this dog training method with Sparky.

Another reason I say Hamlet is the most intelligent dog is because of all the commands and gestures he’s learned. Some of these were taught to him, but he picked up many of them all on his own. It always amazes me how much human language he understands. He has a huge “vocabulary.” He also minds well, even when he’s excited. For example, he loves people, and when company comes to visit, he wants to give everyone some doggie love. We usually allow him to say hello to our guests, then I tell him to go to his sofa in the office, and he dutifully obeys. Grendel is pretty good about this, too, while Sparky isn’t. When I give him the command and the arm gesture, he just stands there looking at me with those sad brown eyes.

Our yard isn’t fenced, but Hamlet quickly learned the boundaries of our front yard. I can let him out to use the bathroom, run, or play without having to worry about his crossing his boundaries. Sometimes I join him in play, but sometimes I just stand on the front porch and watch him. He’s also helped Grendel learn the boundaries. Sometimes at night I let the two Danes out together so they can play chase. If Grendel steps into the street, Hamlet gives his brother a warning bark, and Grendel comes back into the yard.

Hamlet has also assigned himself the role of caretaker. He watches over the grandkids when they’re at my house, and he’s very protective of me, especially when I’m asleep. It’s like he knows that I’m more vulnerable then. With the kids, Hammie is very gentle, but when one of my sons-in-law wants to do some roughhousing, Hamlet is ready to reciprocate. It’s as if he knows he shouldn’t be rough with the kids, but it’s okay to play rough with the adult males. He even looks after his little brother, Sparky. All three dogs play together pretty well, but sometimes Grendel gets a little too rough with Sparky. When that happens, Hamlet steps in and warns Grendel with a loud bark, like he’s saying, “Hey! Calm down! Sparky is a lot smaller than you.” Amazingly, Grendel listens, too. Of course, Hamlet is the alpha out of the three pooches, so I guess it’s not so amazing that Grendel heeds the warnings.

Hamlet is also very intuitive to human emotions. He understands smiles and laughter, and he knows when members of his human pack are sad, upset, or angry. He responds accordingly. I think this is a very special quality in a pet, and it’s something that can’t really be taught, even with the best dog training efforts. Is it a sign of canine intelligence? I don’t know, but it sure is a wonderful trait. Hamlet is a joy to own – the best dog in the world!

As a breed, bulldogs are considered to be less than intelligent.
As a breed, bulldogs are considered to be less than intelligent. | Source

Dumbest Dogs:

Dumbest Dogs

Now for the dumbest dogs. Wait – is it politically correct to use the term dumbest dogs? Perhaps I should say “intelligence challenged canines.” Many of the dog lists on this subject tend to agree. The dog breeds most often mentioned in this category include the beagle, the Afghan hound, the bloodhound, the Pekingese, the English Mastiff, the English bulldog, the Pekingese, the pug, the Basenji, the chow chow, the Borzoi, the Maltese, and the Basset hound.

Do I agree with these lists? Well, my ex-brother-in-law used to raise bloodhounds, and he swore his were the dumbest dogs on Earth. One of my old friends raises chows, and according to her, the breed is a mixed bag of intelligence. I had a Maltese that was smart, but my cousin had one that wasn’t. As for the Basset hound, I’ve already told you about our Sparky.

Even if you buy into the dog IQ assessments made by a dog behaviorist or other expert, you have to remember that canines are individuals. Just because a breed is painted with the “dumb brush” doesn’t mean that every individual member of the breed is going to be “intelligence challenged.” I’m sure there are some very smart Afghan hounds, Basenjis, bloodhounds, and Basset hounds somewhere out there.

Dog Behavior Problems
Dog Behavior Problems | Source

Dog Behavior Problems

Owning the most intelligent dog breeds might not always be the best idea. Believe it or not, some of the smartest dogs often exhibit the most dog behavior problems. This is especially true when very smart dogs are also very energetic. Such canines need a job or tasks to keep them busy. Notice that some of the smartest dog breeds are members of the working or herding group. They expect to work for a living, and many aren’t happy unless they have a job.

Of course, most pet owners don’t usually have formal jobs for their furkids to do, so tasks have to be created. Such breeds should get plenty of physical exercise, but they need mental exercise, too. You’d do well to work with such breeds with activities and games like Frisbee, ball fetching, and obstacle coursing. You can make an obstacle course in your own back yard. Just change it up every so often to keep the pooch on its toes. Include some problem-solving activities, too, and add some smart dog toys to your pet’s toy collection. Smart dog toys require the dog to do some problem solving in order to get a treat or some other reward. Most intelligent dog breeds also thrive on other types of interaction with humans. When smart dogs don’t get what they need, dog behavior problems often pop up. They might include such behaviors as destroying your possessions, nipping, excessive barking, restlessness, or other forms of hyperactivity.

Super smart dogs aren’t for everyone. There’s something to be said for calm, not-so-smart pooches who are content to sit in your lap for hours on end. On the other hand, I think a combination of intelligence and calm temperament makes for the perfect dog. Hamlet, for example, is super smart, but he’s calm and gentle. He gets regular exercise and lots and lots of human interaction, along with a nice supply of toys, including smart dog toys. If you’re not prepared for owning a really smart dog, you’ll probably be much happier with a pooch of average intelligence. Smart dogs that are very energetic can be a real handful, and if you’re not willing to commit to their mental and physical needs, you’ll most likely find yourself dealing with some pretty nasty dog behavior problems. Think long and hard before you decide to shop for smart dogs.


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