Your dog is a clever cookie, but is it one of the smartest dog breeds? Check out our science-backed rating to find out.
Ranking of the smartest dog breeds
Dogs have been humankind’s faithful companion since as far back as the Stone Age, and it’s not just because they’re so dang cute. They’re intelligent in a way that’s ideal for humans, a state of affairs that was entirely intentional; over the millennia, humans bred dogs to be perfect canine companions. At any moment in history, the smartest dog breeds have served as more than man’s best friend: They’ve been navigators and field guides, wartime comrades, detectives, garbage collectors, movie stars, and security consultants, as renowned canine researchers and professors Stanley Coren, Ph.D., points out in his iconic book The Intelligence of Dogs. Dogs are among the few animals that have traveled to space, and they’ve saved countless lives, both literally and metaphorically.
“There are three kinds of dog intelligence,” says Coren, who defines canine intelligence based on how dogs interact with people. The first is “instinctive,” and it focuses on what humans have bred the dog to accomplish. The second factor is “adaptability,” or how well the dog learns from its surroundings to solve difficulties. The third factor is “working and obedience,” which refers to how hard the dog is willing to work to satisfy its owners and execute its job. The desire and capacity to communicate successfully with humans—both by comprehending its human signs, acts, and orders and by expressing itself through barks, body movements, and actions—underpins all three.
According to Coren, the typical dog understands 160 words, with some canines understanding as much as 250 or more. What may be more essential to efficient communication between dogs and people is that dogs, on the whole, care. “Dogs are incredibly sensitive and receptive to us,” Alexandra Horowitz, director of Columbia University’s Barnard College’s Dog Cognition Lab, told the American Kennel Club (AKC).
Although this is true for all dogs, the brightest dog breeds have unique characteristics that elevate their intellect. Some of our canine companions are recognized for being friendly dog breeds, tiny dog breeds, or non-shedding dogs, while others are known for being the most intellectual canines, at least according to Coren’s criteria. So, how intelligent are dogs? The puppies on our list may not be up for a game of cards, but they perform their duties well.
1. Border collie
The border collie is the brightest canine breed known to man, according to The Intellect of Dogs, which rates 131 dog breeds in terms of their relative intelligence. Do you require proof? Chaser, a South Carolina border collie with exceptional verbal abilities, recognized over 1,000 words. However, it is not only an issue of being “book smart.” The border collie, a descendent of European herding dogs who lived around the mountainous borders of England, Scotland, and Wales, was trained to be cunning and agile enough to survive the difficult terrain. It also possesses a strong work ethic. The border collie, which was approved by the AKC in 1995, is described as a “remarkably bright worker” as well as “clever, loving, and enthusiastic.”
According to the AKC, border collie owners should be prepared to offer their dog’s plenty of mental and physical stimulation. Because the breed is so bright and skilled at connecting with people, it’s not unrealistic to believe that many of them are highly excellent at getting what they want from their owners. That is why we have declared the border collie to be the brightest dog in the world.
The poodle, one of several attractive French dog breeds, is sometimes regarded as high maintenance. (After all, curly hair isn’t going to style itself.) But don’t let it mislead you into believing they’re any less intelligent. The breed scores well on emotional and cognitive intelligence. In fact, Coren rates the poodle second only to the border collie in terms of intelligence.
And, while the dogs may appear aristocratic, they have also been used during conflict to transport food to soldiers on the battlefield. The work demanded obedience, unwavering attention, and sound decision-making, and quick-learning poodles were the ideal choice. Poodles, according to veterinarian Wendy Hauser, DVM, are easily trainable and like activities that challenge them, including as hunting, tracking, agility sports, and obedience practice. On top of that, the breed has a joyful sense of humor and a proclivity for doing tricks and acting cute on purpose. Not that humans require any more reasons to like them. Poodles are a lot of fun and really adorable in all sizes, from teacup to standard.
3. Golden retriever
Canine intelligence isn’t just about brainpower. When it comes to golden retrievers, their willingness to “comply with commands or tasks asked of them by their owners,” as Cline put it, is what pushes them into the number four slot. Because of their impulse to please their humans, these pooches can be relied upon to act consistently in a variety of situations. Bred in Scotland to be hunting companions and game retrievers, they’re often employed in search-and-rescue operations, assisted by their relative agility and powerful gait.
As diligent of a worker as the golden retriever is, it’s also beloved around the world as a dependable, obedient companion. A sunny disposition and aptitude for learning commands (as many as 200 of them, most learned on the first try) make the golden retriever the preferred pet for people with disabilities. Fun fact: These pups are also some of the best dogs for seniors to own.
4. Doberman pinscher
Described by the AKC as fearless, loyal, and alert, the highly intelligent and readily trainable Doberman pinscher was bred by a German tax collector who had a bit of extra time on his hands during the off-season, as well as an abundance of motivation to breed the perfect canine bodyguard. (Because let’s face it: People can get awfully cranky when the tax collector comes to call.)
“Known for their fearless nature, speed, and deep stamina,” these tough but elegant-looking, robustly athletic creatures make ideal guard dogs, according to Coren. But as intimidating as this fierce-looking dog breed may appear, the breed is actually known for being quite gentle. That, and they’re among the dogs that take amazingly well to training.
5. Shetland sheepdog
The compact Shetland sheepdog does everything a larger herding dog can do but on considerably less food. That is why they were raised to be the “collie’s tiny cousin.” Farmers on the UK’s Shetland Islands used them for more than simply sheep herding. The sheltie, as it is affectionately nicknamed by some, also found work herding horses and chickens.
Shelties are exceptional at learning new instructions in only a few repetitions because they are eager to please and driven to keep trying until they get it properly. They are placed sixth on Coren’s list of the brightest dog breeds due to their relative intellect, obedience, and speed on their feet. Shetland sheepdogs, like golden retrievers, are appreciated for their canine intellect as well as their personality, and they’re also one of the greatest dog breeds for families with children. Despite their small size, these fluffballs make great security dogs due to their ability to detect danger. That is instinctual intellect in action.
The papillon is the smallest of the smartest dog breeds according to Coren’s list. According to Caitie Steffen, a pet specialist with animal activity tracker firm Whistle, and Angela Hughes, DVM, Ph.D., a veterinary geneticist with dog DNA test kit Wisdom Panel, the breed can trace its ancestors back approximately 700 years—and that plays a key influence in its intellect. The papillon has had more time than many other dog breeds to grow into one of the world’s brightest canines, and its breeders have utilized that time wisely.
The papillon, whose name is a combination of the French word for “butterfly” and a reference to its winglike ears, began as a companion for nobles. They are descended from European spaniels but were mated with toy dogs to become downsized, according to the AKC. Their upbeat, lively personality is combined with a desire to please and a great capacity for learning and obeying directions, making these little fellas ideal companions.
The rottweiler may be traced back to the Roman Empire when it was employed to herd animals. “Today, rottweilers are renowned as one of the brightest dogs for their quick perception, steadfast devotion, and acute awareness; this is why they’re frequently employed as search-and-rescue dogs, security dogs, and police dogs,” says holistic pet therapist and author Sally Morgan. The rottweiler is ranked ninth among intellectual dog breeds by Coren, making it one of the largest canines in terms of size and intelligence.
8. Australian cattle dog
These small but formidable dogs were bred in Australia (naturally) to herd cattle (naturally), and they’re often credited with having played an important role in the development of the country’s beef industry, Coren says. Highly motivated to do its job, the Australian cattle dog can be something of a challenge for a city dweller or anyone who doesn’t have the wherewithal to keep their little herder stimulated and busy.
To put it another way, if you don’t give these dogs something productive to do, they’ll find something to do with their time—something you probably won’t appreciate. On the plus side, Coren says this Australian dog breed is “so smart and organized” that the dogs “put their stuff back after using it.” Highly eager to learn, the Australian cattle dog makes a great partner for human pastimes such as catching.
9. English springer spaniel
The English springer spaniel is the 13th most intellectual dog breed on Coren’s list, having a great memory and gorgeous green eyes. It was bred years ago to flush out and collect game birds in the British uplands. It is friendly, lively, and obedient. The English springer spaniel was virtually indistinguishable from the varieties that subsequently came to be designated as the English cocker spaniel and the English field spaniel (both of which are among the 50 brightest dog breeds, according to Coren’s rating methodology).
The English springer spaniel, on the other hand, has defined itself as a breed apart—one that is unusually intelligent, attentive, and eager to please. If there’s a downside to the breed, it’s that it
10. Belgian Tervuren
According to Steffen and Dr. Hughes, the Belgian Tervuren has earned its spot among the brightest dog breeds due to its “intelligent character and enthusiasm for activities such as agility, tracking, herding, and sledding.” Coren ranks it 14th, just above the schipperke, with which it has a common ancestor.
The Belgian Tervuren not only has the intelligence and executive functioning abilities to have been a prized herder on many a Belgian farm, but it is also a very attentive companion with a strong protective instinct, immensely loyal, and wonderful at tricks. Despite being a very rare dog breed, the Belgian Tervuren is more common in the United States than some of its fellow Belgian sheepdogs, such as the Malinois and the Laekenois.