It is actually really difficult to rate a dog’s intelligence. Whilst there have been a number of studies, most of these concentrate on how trainable a dog is. So, this list has been pulled together to give us an idea of some of the breeds out there that are known for their learning ability but it is not a conclusive and finite one. There will be dogs of other breeds out there that are also extremely clever too. And don’t forget that mutts are also often known for super intelligence, they can have the combined abilities of a number of different breeds. The dog you adopt from a shelter may turn out to be way more trainable than any specific breed you have had before!
- What Do the Studies Tell Us?
- 1. Australian Cattle Dog
- 2. Border Collie
- 3. Doberman Pinscher
- 4. German Shepherd
- 5. Golden Retriever
- 6. Labrador Retriever
- 7. Papillon
- 8. Poodle
- 9. Rottweiler
- 10. Shetland Sheepdog
- Some of the Other Smartest Dog Breeds
- Why the Most Clever Dogs Don’t Always Make the Best Pets?
- How to Keep a Seriously Intelligent Dog Stimulated
- Some Breeds May Actually Be More Clever Than We Think They Are
What Do the Studies Tell Us?
Most of the studies focus on a dog’s instinctive intelligence (this relates to breed traits and an innate ability), their adaptive intelligence (this relates to problem-solving and ability to adjust) and their working intelligence (this looks at what a dog can learn through being trained by a human).
Stanley Coren, a renowned Psychologist and Canine Expert, conducted in-depth research for his book The Intelligence of Dogs in which he gained analysis from questionnaires completed by nearly 200 experienced AKC and CKC Judges. This is where this list of top ten breeds comes from. 190 of the 199 judges agreed that the Border Collie was in the top ten. I have put the dogs into alphabetical order here though.
1. Australian Cattle Dog
The Australian Cattle Dog (ACD) is also often known as a Heeler. They were originally bred to drive livestock over the vast expanses of Australian Outback, hence the name ‘Heeler’ when they were nipping at the cattle legs to drive them on. They are descended from the Dingo, and are usually very fit and agile, have impressive stamina, steadfast loyalty and a very strong desire to work.
As a pet dog, they will suit a very active home that will give them the exercise and mental stimulation that they need. They are often very successful agility dogs. They are known for being destructive when bored, so along with getting the right amount of physical and mental stimulation, it can be useful to have plenty of safe chewing toys and treats to hand to satisfy this urge.
They also have a reputation for longevity. The Guinness World Record for the oldest dog is held by an ACD. He was 29 when he passed away!
They usually develop a strong bond with their people so it is important to work on avoiding separation anxiety from the beginning.
Their herding instincts can mean that they have a high prey drive too, so a rock solid recall will need to be worked on from the start.
If you are working your dog in agility or another dog sport it is very important that you watch carefully for any injuries. Heelers are notoriously tough with a very high pain threshold and will often try to continue working through their pain. You don’t want them to injure themselves further so it is important to stay vigilant.
One example of a super clever ACD was Skidboot from Texas. Before his passing in 2007, he won the National Pet Star Competition on Animal Planet, met Oprah Winfrey and was an amazingly loyal companion to his owner David. His enthusiasm and talent for learning was huge and he knew so many tricks and commands and had a deep bond with his owner.
Australian Cattle Dog’s intelligence makes them a great breed to have working livestock
2. Border Collie
The Border Collie is probably the most universally accepted breed associated with their intelligence. Originating from Great Britain and bred for farm life and guarding and herding flocks of sheep.
Like the ACD, Border Collies are known for their innate herding instincts and their working drive. They are also one of the breeds you will see consistently winning at agility, flyball, obedience and other dog sports.
If you enjoy life in the great outdoors then a Collie could be a perfect companion as they have endless amounts of energy and stamina. They are a breed that benefits from having a job and generally are not suited to a standard pet home. You need to keep them very active and stimulated. They like to have a job and it is important to direct all that amazing energy and intelligence in a positive way.
Because of their extreme instincts, Border Collies can sometimes herd things that you would not want them to; running children, passing bicycles, cars, other animals. It is important to have a secure garden, keep them on a leash when needed and work hard on a good recall.
They are usually super quick learners, and in the right home, they can prove to be a loyal, adaptable, fun, up for anything dog that will no doubt teach you a lot on your journey together.
Chaser the Border Collie is often heralded as the ‘World’s Smartest Dog’. Her owner, John Pilley, was a Professor and Psychologist and she is able to identify and retrieve 1,022 toys by name! This is the largest tested memory of any animal apart from Humans.
Since Plley’s passing, Chaser lives with members of his family and continues to be considered a bit of a doggy superstar! If you are intrigued by her story read Pilley’s book Chaser: Unlocking the Genius of the Dog Who Knows a Thousand Words.
Border Collies are often regarded by people as the most intelligent dog breed
3. Doberman Pinscher
Some people will be surprised to see the Doberman in the top ten. Originating from Germany, this breed was developed for their guarding abilities but they are so much more than that.
Whilst their guarding traits can be intimidating they are also known for being extremely loyal, loving and gentle with their families.
They are a strong, big, agile and very bright dog and, whilst they are still actively used as guard dogs and for the police in some countries, they also make great sports dogs and excel in agility and obedience given the opportunity. They have excellent tracking abilities and do well in scent work competitions. They are used as guide and other service dogs in some countries and have proven to be extremely trainable.
The Doberman is traditionally regarded as a guard dog but they are so much more than that
4. German Shepherd
German Shepherds, also known as Alsatians in some parts of Europe, are very commonly associated with being great police dogs because of their intelligence, strength and guarding instincts.
They are also one of the most popular breeds of dogs. They are extremely devoted to their people, they are known for their courageous personalities and they are regarded as one of the most adaptable and versatile of all the breeds. This is likely why you will see German Shepherds working under a number of guises including as guide dogs, therapy dogs, drug detection dogs, guard dogs, military service dogs and in search and rescue. They are also a very popular pet dog and their bravery and exceptional service in the military and police has captured the hearts of many. The search and rescue dogs that helped at the World Trade Centre attack, which included a number of German Shepherds, were inducted into the Animal Hall of Fame . They are often featured in movies and tv (all the way back to Rin Tin Tin) and they have been involved in many life-saving rescues from saving people from drowning to following the trail of abducted children.
Whilst they can be aloof with strangers, unlike their reputation would suggest, they are not usually aggressive, although they do have a protective nature towards their family. Like the other breeds mentioned previously, they have a lot of energy and a drive to work so they need an active home that is able to offer them the right outlet for their abilities.
German Shepherds are often used as Police Dogs because of their trainability
5. Golden Retriever
Golden Retrievers are one of the most popular dog breeds. They are widely regarded as a great family dog. They are also another breed that is commonly used as a service dog, a therapy dog and for tracking.
This breed was originally used for retrieving game on hunts and they have a lot of energy and are very agile and eager to please.
They do need a lot of exercise and stimulation but their demands are generally not quite as rigorous of the Border Collie or Heelers, for example.
Not only are they known for their mental capacity but also for their, generally, gentle temperaments and often goofy personalities.
Perhaps you have seen the viral video of the Golden Retriever Riley who has learnt to throw his ball over his garden wall to passing pedestrians. It usually results in them throwing it back or giving him some attention. Clever or what!
Golden Retrievers are known for their biddability and intelligence
6. Labrador Retriever
Often coming out top on polls of most popular breeds around, like the Golden Retriever, Labradors are known for their steady temperaments, intellect and loyalty.
Whilst now they often work as guide dogs, search and rescue dogs, therapy dogs and for drug detection, originally they were bred to help fisherman on the Atlantic sea haul their nets and retrieve the fish.
If you have not watched the Netflix series ‘Dogs’ yet, I would highly recommend it. It features one episode following the adventures of Ice, a Labrador that is devoted to his fisherman owner on Lake Como in Italy. His loyalty to his family and his intelligence are wonderful to watch.
Labradors are often used as Guide Dogs due to their ability to pick up the training
This is perhaps one that you may be surprised to see in the top ten, but the little Papillon is usually a sparky little character with a sharp mental capacity.
This old breed, dating as far back as the 16th century, originated in Europe and, whilst they may have been popular then as a companion for the ladies of the court, they are anything but just a lapdog!
Although they are a small breed, it does not mean that they will require a lot less walking. Papillon’s still benefit greatly from plenty of exercise and lots of mental stimulation. If you have ever watched some of the Papillon’s doing agility at Crufts, you will see what eager, speedy and clever little dogs they are!
This little dog being on the list may surprise some people but the Papillon is extremely clever
Poodles may now be synonymous with glamour and style but underneath all that they are a breed that loves to work, are often extremely playful and very sharp.
The breed was originally used as a water retrieving dog for hunting. The standard size poodle is believed to be the one that would have done this but now there are also two other sizes of poodle; the Toy and the Miniature. All three have similar levels of wit and boundless energy. They also tend to be very loyal and get very attached to their families. Super fast learners, these dogs really benefit from being kept busy and having a job to do. If they are not kept stimulated enough their quick wit can turn them to mischief and problem behaviours.
In the UK a programme called ‘Rescue Dog to Super Dog’ featured a little toy poodle called Teddy that was rescued from a shelter and was trained to become an assistance dog to a 12-year-old girl. His fantastic ability to learn was amazing!
The first thing people often think of with poodles is unusual haircuts rather than that they are extremely smart
I love Rottweilers. They may have developed an unfair reputation as being a scary breed but actually, they are extremely clever, exceptionally loyal and often very fun loving and affectionate. Yes, they can be a guard dog too but, with the right home and training, they can make fantastic family pets.
They are a very strong and powerful breed though so it is important that their strength and intelligence is directed appropriately with plenty force-free training and suitable activities to burn off their energy and stop them from getting bored.
Originally bred in Germany to drive cattle and pull butchers carts, in more recent years they have worked in the police, the military, search and rescue and even as therapy dogs. In 2015 a Rottweiler named Wynd won the Award for Canine Excellence in Therapy. She passed away later that year but she will be remembered as a true ambassador for her breed.
Loyal and courageous, the Rottie is also extremely sharp
10. Shetland Sheepdog
As the name suggests, this working breed originated on the Shetland Isles of Scotland and was bred to guard farmers crops and herd their livestock. They are also often just referred to as Shelties.
They have a lot of similar traits to Border Collies in that they like to herd, are extremely clever and very active and they do have a voice and a propensity toward guarding. All that energy and eagerness to please needs to be directed appropriately and they really benefit from a home that will put them to work. They are masters at agility, obedience training, flyball and many other dog sports.
Also known as the Sheltie, this breed’s intelligence made them excellent herding dogs
Some of the Other Smartest Dog Breeds
There are lots of other breeds that are known for their intelligence. The Spaniels like the Cocker and the Britanny are up there (and I can personally attest to that), the Corgi, and the Border and Cairn Terrier are just a few more that have a reputation for being quick-witted.
There are lots of other breeds that are also known for their brain power, including the Corgi
Why the Most Clever Dogs Don’t Always Make the Best Pets?
Every dog needs plenty of exercise and mental stimulation. It is important to help them enjoy a good quality of life, help minimise behavioural issues and keep them in better health.
For the dogs that are known for their brains, they often require even more stimulation than your average pet dog. They often need more exercise and a ‘job’ to do and if they don’t get enough of this, serious behavioural issues can start to surface and the dog will start to utilise its intelligence in keeping itself entertained. Just as they will be quick to learn good behaviours, they can equally easily pick up the bad habits too.
How to Keep a Seriously Intelligent Dog Stimulated
It is really important to make sure that you are prepared to put in the time and effort to keep your dog happy. A quick half hour walk and then toilet breaks in the garden could lead to depression or destructive behaviour, amongst other things.
Consider taking part in some sort of dog sport. Find out what your dog enjoys the most. Do they have a desire to fetch and retrieve a ball? Perhaps flyball is for them.
If they are of a sensitive disposition, the frenetic activity in flyball may be too much but they may enjoy the one-to-one high energy activity of agility. If they enjoy the water, you could consider Dock Diving, or maybe you both like running and so Canicross could be a good sport to consider.
Dog sports like agility can be great for super clever, high energy breeds (photo credit: https://pixabay.com/photos/dogs-agility-border-colly-1426679/)
If your dog enjoys the company of people, is not wary of strangers and has a calm temperament, you could also consider having them assessed to be a therapy dog. This can be a hugely rewarding experience for you both and can benefit the lives of those you visit greatly. Whilst this is not a high energy activity, it can be great mental stimulation for your dog.
You should also make sure that you have lots of stimulating games and toys available for them in the home too. Lots of Kongs and other safe treat dispensing toys would be useful. Things that will keep their mind busy and that they have to work out, you can even make your own brain games for them. A couple of soft toys and a ball is not going to be enough for those extra smart dogs.
You can play games with your dog; tug-of-war, hide and seek; trick training sessions. Not only are these good for keeping your dog from getting too bored but they are also great for strengthening your bond too.
Your dog should not be left for long periods on their own, this is true for all dogs, but for certain extra busy and clever dogs, you may find that even an hour or two is too long. You should consider doggy daycare if they are social with other dogs or getting a dog walker or sitter if they have to be left for longer stretches.
Just giving your dog a ball and leaving them to it is not a good way to keep your dog stimulated. Toys that encourage them to use their brain more and interactive games are much more useful
Some Breeds May Actually Be More Clever Than We Think They Are
So, whilst there is no arguing that the dogs on this list are known for being extremely intelligent, it doesn’t mean that other dogs will not necessarily be super clever too. It is all about the individual dog and, even breeds that have a reputation for being less astute, like the Basset Hound, for example, may just be less keen to engage in training, more stubborn and single-minded.
It is important to also remember that this list has been compiled from the results of a questionnaire issued to Kennel Club judges. These dogs will have been assessed in a competitive environment. Some dogs may have a more nervous disposition and not perform so well in this sort of environment, some may have certain skills that are not generally assessed here, others may just not like the prescriptive environment of the show ring. It does not necessarily mean that they are not clever, just that it would need to be measured differently.
As mentioned before, don’t forget that often the Mutts can be super clever too. They may be a cross of some of the most clever breeds. So always consider heading down to your rescue centre to adopt. The mixed breed that you get may just turn out to be the most clever dog that you have ever owned.
Just because they are not as responsive to training as some of the breeds on this list, it doesn’t necessarily mean that dogs like Basset Hounds are not clever