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What Makes a Dog Smart?

What Makes a Dog Smart?

Story at-a-glance -

  • Humans judge the intelligence of dogs based primarily on how quickly they learn to obey our commands, how well they perform, and whether they are able to learn human-type stuff like identifying objects.
  • A list of the smartest dog breeds was developed nearly 20 years ago and is still recognized today as a relatively accurate tool to identify the breeds most likely to possess obedience and working intelligence.
  • Extra smart canines generally require a significant investment of time and energy by their owners to keep them mentally stimulated and physically active.
  • When it comes to cats, the Sphynx is often recognized as among the most intelligent breeds in existence.

By Dr. Becker

Many if not most dog owners believe their pet is one smart canine.

This is because 'smart' means different things to different people.

Some people feel an obedient dog is smart, while others believe a dog with a mind of her own is more intelligent. Very agreeable dogs are considered smart by most human standards.

Dogs bred to be more independent and less eager to please are not dumb, but they do often require more patience when it comes to learning and following commands.

Generally speaking, humans assign canine smarts to dogs that:

  • Quickly learn and consistently obey commands
  • Perform their sport, task or job consistently well
  • Are willing and able to learn human-type stuff

Based on these criteria, the Border Collie is a very smart breed. In fact, Chaser, a Border Collie who is able to identify over 1,000 objects and distinguish between nouns and verbs1, is considered to be one of the brightest dogs in the world.

10 Smartest Breeds for Obedience and Working Intelligence

According to rankings by experts who study the subject (specifically, Stanley Coren author of The Intelligence of Dogs), the 10 most intelligent dog breeds are:

Border Collie Shetland Sheepdog
Poodle Labrador Retriever
German Shepherd Papillon
Golden Retriever Rottweiler
Doberman Pinscher Australian Cattle Dog


This list is probably no surprise to most dog lovers – even those of you with breeds not on the list who happen to think your dog is Einstein. The list has been around for years and the dogs that made the list are very well-known, popular breeds with much greater exposure in general than many other breeds.

Small-to-Medium Size Smart Dogs

Several of the dogs on the above list are a pretty good size. Smaller breeds known for their obedience and working intelligence include:

Pembroke Welsh Corgi Cardigan Welsh Corgi
Miniature Schnauzer Yorkshire Terrier
Schipperke Border Terrier
Cocker Spaniel Australian Terrier
Pomeranian Cairn Terrier


If you're considering acquiring an extra-smart canine companion but don't have the space for a large breed, one of these smaller guys might fit the bill.

However, if you assume breeds known for their intelligence are easier to care for than other dogs, you might want to consider the following.

Smart Dogs Are Often Demanding

The thing to understand about smart dogs is they don't do well without plenty of physical and mental stimulation – 'plenty' meaning an absolute minimum of one hour of intense activity every single day.

Having canine smarts doesn't mean these dogs understand when they're left home all day alone with nothing to do. Or when you're too tired to take them out for some exercise.

If your smart, healthy, active dog is under-exercised, lonely and bored by 10:00 a.m. and you won't be home until evening, don't expect him to reason the whole thing out and decide to wait quietly by the door for your return. Chances are there will be things out of place by the time you get home. Hopefully that won't include the stuffing in your upholstered furniture – but it might.

Just as parents must keep active, inquisitive kids challenged and busy to avoid problems stemming from boredom and too much unsupervised time on their hands, owners of bright dogs must do the same.

And For Cat Lovers …

Animal Planet2 ranked the better-known cat breeds in order of intelligence on a scale of 1 to 10.

Apparently their selection criteria are top-secret, so I have no clue how they arrived at their conclusions about which cat breeds are smartest. To my knowledge there's no recognized test to assess feline intelligence.

That said, here's the list:

Sphynx (a perfect 10) Havana Brown (9)
Balinese (9) Javanese (9)
Bengal (9) Oriental (9)
Colourpoint Shorthair (9) Siamese (9)


I think it's worth noting that kitties – unlike most of their canine counterparts -- are not wired with a natural desire to please humans. So obedience is not a good yardstick with which to measure the intelligence of our feline friends.