We might tell our dog how clever he is, but what do we actually mean? He’ll never recite Shakespeare or sit a further Maths A-level. Intelligence in dogs has a different value. And so if you want to pin down which are the smartest dog breeds, you’ll find the list is highly subjective – just like with the cutest dog breeds. Do you favour overall trainability or niche skills? Is stamina a virtue, or are high energy levels a sign of exasperatingly silly dog?
How we really measure smartness in dogs, is in their ability to do what they are bred and trained to do. The easier a dog is to train, the smarter it appears. Though arguably a highly intelligent dog may know how to evade work when it doesn’t see the point – they have powers of deception! Dogs that can concentrate on the task in hand for long periods will be valued for their intelligence – they are “dogged”. Some hardworking dogs that initially seem daft and hyper, however, may need to run off their excess energy before they knuckle down to the task.
Some scientists have nevertheless attempted to rank the smartest dog breeds. In 2022, the University of Helsinki tested the intelligence of 1,000 dogs (covering 13 breeds) by setting them 10 tasks, a mix of behavioural and cognitive. These included testing their ability to read human gestures, puzzles, problem-solving, dependency on humans, and so on. According to this study, the Belgian Malinois came top.
Another piece of research, a survey of over 100 veterinary professionals, ranked Border Collies top of the IQ rankings, while a book, The Intelligence of Dogs, written in 1994 by Stanley Coren, a professor of canine psychology, also found that Border Collies were consistently named as the most intelligent. Coren consulted obedience trial judges and received feedback from 50% of the judges then working in the US. He defined three aspects of canine intelligence: instinctive (performing tasks it was bred for), adaptive (independent problem-solving), and working/obedience (learning from humans). For Coren, the Belgian Malinois features only 22nd on the list – still in the category of “excellent working dogs”.
Did you know a dog’s mental abilities are roughly the same as a two-year-old child? They can learn up to 250 words and can even count up to four or five. They have the cognitive nous to solve problems at a much higher level than we might think. But are some breeds really smarter than others, or is it all down to the trainer?
7 of the smartest dog breeds
Whatever measure or research you use to find out who tops the list of the smartest dog breeds, the Border Collie tops nearly every list. They are well-known for their intelligence and herding skills, but are also first-class in obedience or agility classes and make superb search and rescue dogs. Quite simply, this British dog breed loves to work and learn. These high-energy dogs have intense focus, which they can put to good use in a working capacity, and are especially renowned as exceptional sheepdogs. They can be taught to respond to many commands and signals as well as carrying out complex tasks, providing they have consistent and firm training. One Border Collie was famed for learning 1,000 words!
Easy to train, with an appetite for learning from humans, the poodle also tends to have a stubborn streak that only serves to underline its high intelligence levels. As is common with many smart breeds, they have boundless energy, and you need to keep their busy minds occupied. Originally bred as a water retriever, poodles learn new commands quickly – and they are super swimmers. They’re also a good option if you’re in search of dog breeds that don’t shed.
A hardworking dog, bred for its herding and guarding instincts. They are capable of highly skilled tasks, especially using their exceptional sense of smell – for example in search and rescue, or assisting police in tracking down criminal activity. They are also near the top of the list as assistance dogs for the handicapped and elderly.
The most popular breed in the UK has a devoted following for good reason. They are gentle, loyal, people-orientated and love to please humans. While they were originally bred in Canada to assist fishermen, they are now the top breed being trained as guide or assistant dogs for the blind, handicapped and elderly. Intelligent, caring, and extremely kind.
Coren lists the Doberman Pinscher as fifth on his list of the smartest dogs. This German breed is indeed a superb working dog, with an iconic look. With their physical stature, they make fearless guardians and are used by both the police and the military – as well as in private security. They have exceptional ability at gauging perceived threats. This means they score very highly on the “instinctive intelligence” scale, having an innate ability to do the job they were bred for.
Another breed favoured by the police and military for its instinctive intelligence and physical presence. This Belgian sheepdog has a strong protective and territorial drive, and they are adept at reading and adapting to volatile situations. They are also highly obedient (providing well-trained), and learn quickly, with a strong work ethic.
Typically, it’s the herding, working dogs that score highest on the smartest dogs tests and they tend to be medium to large-sized. The Jack Russell is only listed as of average intelligence according to Coren’s system. However, this diminutive pooch simply knows he’s cleverer than all the rest. Jack Russells are a bundle of fun, and their brain is razor-sharp when it needs to be. If you live on a stable yard, this is the smartest dog about. They are outstanding at tracking, hunting and catching vermin, so will keep the rat population at bay. They are quick, agile, funny, and a marvellous companion to boot. What more do you want from a dog?
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