5 Smartest Dog Breeds

by Gary Le Mon

Boston terrier playing chess

Is Yours One of Them?

Should You Care?

Dogs and humans have been companions for thousands of years. This unique relationship has shaped dogs into the different domesticated breeds we see today.

The variability between dog breeds comes largely due to selective breeding carried out for different purposes and in different environments. As a result, dogs differ not only in appearance but also in intelligence.

In The Intelligence of Dogs, Stanley Coren ranks the intelligence of different breeds using data collected from obedience trial judges. Obedience intelligence, which the ranking is based on, is only one form of intelligence and there is always the possibility that a dog is in fact smarter than it lets on. Still, Coren’s ranking represents the general aptitude you can expect when interacting with different dog breeds.

At the top of Coren’s ranking are the five smartest dogs, all with one trait in common: exceptional trainability.

  • Teach these dogs a new command and you will have to repeat no more than five times before they learn.
  • Command them to do an action and they will follow exactly what you say over 95% of the time.

These five exceptional dogs are presented here in the same order in which they appear in Coren’s ranking.

1. Border Collie

border collie

From a humble beginning herding sheep in the Anglo-Scottish border region, the Border Collie has risen to become a star at dog sports, staking its claim to being the smartest dog. So much so that an ABC “Anything But Collies” class now exists in England for higher jump competitions to keep the Collie out and give other dogs a chance.

What makes the Border Collie so special? Interact with the dog and it soon becomes obvious. Pick a tennis ball and the Border Collie responds immediately with an intense stare - what the shepherds call “the eye.” You know the dog means business, and this intensity and no-nonsense attitude come from the Border Collie’s background in herding.

And it’s not just dog tricks that the Border Collie excels at. This smartest of dog breeds also exhibits skills not normally associated with dogs, such as an ability to recall dozens of names and learn as many as 1,022 words.

Despite such prodigious talent, most Border Collies continue to live the quiet life on farms. Here they herd sheep and other animals for their owners much like their ancestors did.

2. Poodle

poodle

Look at a poodle and what you first notice is how glamorous the dog looks. The thick, hypoallergenic fur clipped into a sophisticated coat - the slender, graceful body, the long, poised legs. Demeanor like a dog bred to be prized for its appearance, not intelligence.

Yet the Germans who bred the poodle saw in it a water dog for hunting: intelligent, trainable, nimble in water. And that elaborate coat? The breeders designed it to be resistant to moisture, allowing the dog to swim with ease.

The earliest poodles accompanied hunters and excelled as water retrievers. Their attractive appearance and energetic temperament soon made them popular across Europe as pets. Despite this new pampered role, their intelligence and agility continued to amaze as they worked as retrievers for hunters and as working dogs for soldiers. These days, the poodle’s intelligence is most often utilized in dog sports, where they perform exceptionally well.

3. German Shepherd

German Shepherd

The German Shepherd was the first canine to make it to the big screen. During the early 1920s, Strongheart and Rin Tin Tin, two gifted German Shepherds, starred in prominent movie roles for which each dog won a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Watch their on-screen performances and the two dogs look like born stars built for acting. Yet their trainability for these roles comes from a more modest background.

Much like the Border Collie, trainability and intelligence were bred into German sheepdogs to assist the dogs in herding. It was one such sheepdog bred especially for intelligence that Max von Stephanitz purchased during a dog show in 1899 to start a new breed, the German Shepherd.

Von Stephanitz saw in the German Shepherd a working dog. He bred the dog further to introduce more traits for that role. The intelligence and strength of this new breed soon attracted the attention of the German Army who aggressively deployed the dogs alongside soldiers during the World Wars.

These days the popular image of German Shepherds is that of a police dog, although they still accompany soldiers in military operations. Their high intelligence and strong sense of smell also make them suitable for other specialty jobs that employ working dogs.

4. Golden Retriever

Golden Retriever

The Golden Retriever is a big dog with a thick, water-resistant coat. Much like the poodle, the Golden Retriever was bred to be a retriever with an affinity for water. The dog’s background in hunting makes it easily trainable although its gentle temperament keeps it from being a good guard dog.

The Golden Retriever’s intelligence, large size and gentle temperament set the dog apart from other intelligent breeds that are too aggressive or intimidating for certain "people" jobs.

For instance, Golden Retrievers are often employed as guide dogs for the blind, a role first set aside for the German Shepherd. What makes the Golden Retriever more suitable for the job is its friendly, cooperative temperament. Although the two dogs don’t differ much in intelligence, the aggressively protective temperament of the German Shepherd makes it more suitable for police work instead.

5. Doberman Pinscher

dobermann

The Doberman Pinscher was bred by Karl Friedrich Louis Dobermann, a German tax collector who also happened to be in charge of the local dog pound. For his own protection, Dobermann sought a strong, intimidating dog that could accompany him on his job. Underneath that powerful demeanor, though, he wanted an intelligent dog that he could easily train and control.

The Doberman Pinscher was thus born and the dog has since gained more of a reputation for its external ferocity than its hidden intelligence. The dog’s aggressive behavior, coupled with a strong, intimidating build, has made it infamous as one the most dangerous and feared dogs around.

More recently the Doberman’s image has been on the rise due to efforts by breeders to make the dog less aggressive. This PR shift comes as the dog increases in popularity as a family dog, with declining use as a guard or police dog. The breed still retains its high intelligence, though, and training it to be less aggressive towards strangers can make it an even safer dog to keep.

Should you choose a dog from this list?

The answer depends on the time, space and effort you can provide. Smart dogs don’t necessarily make good companions. If you don’t keep them occupied, they will soon turn against items in your house to satisfy their curiosity.

Also, these dogs aren’t just good at learning the skills you teach them. They can be just as good at learning skills on their own. Some of these skills you might not want exercised around your house.

(Meanwhile, I'm not the least bit disappointed that my little Dachshund Tucker didn't make the list. I love him just the way he is, smart or not-so-much. I only hope that someday I can become the man he apparently thinks I am.)

So if you’re looking for a smart dog to actively engage with on a daily basis, you can’t go wrong choosing any one of these smartest dog breeds.

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5 Smartest Dog Breeds

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